Want to elicit some strong reactions from Maine’s basketball community? Mention these three letters: A.A.U. In some circles the response will be akin to a skunk showing up at a lawn party, a fellow parishioner ripping a loud, juicy fart in church, or someone breaking out in uproarious laughter at a funeral. You get the idea. Legendary college basketball coach Bob Knight once referred to A.A.U. as a boil on the ass of high school basketball.
A.A.U., which stands for Amateur Athletic Union, has been active in Maine for the better part of twenty-five years. In that time the organization has received its share of criticism. It seems as though every perceived blight on today’s game gets blamed on A.A.U. Is this backlash justified?
For full disclosure, I have never attended an A.A.U. event. Now, it make seem strange to you I would write an opinion piece about something I’ve never attended. Truth be told, I’m more of a man of the seasons. After being present at more than a hundred high school varsity basketball games each year, I’ve had my fill of the gym when March rolls around. My attention turns to the college game then on to baseball and other outdoor pursuits. I will, however, use some basic logic in addressing some of the major criticisms of A.A.U. basketball.
Some who disparage A.A.U. point to the lack of accountability of its leaders within the organization. On the surface this may appear to be a legitimate gripe. Whereas high school coaches are governed my many administrative layers, i.e. athletic directors, principals, superintendents, school boards, and such, A.A.U. has a much looser organizational structure.
To say A.A.U. coaches are without accountability is inaccurate. Those who play A.A.U. as well as their families have much invested in the sport. The players who engage in these club teams, especially at the highest levels, face a significant financial investment when you factor in tournament fees and travel expenses. Many of the players live a notable distance from each other. Factor in hotel and meal costs for many of these tournaments and families are shelling out hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to compete. That being said, players and families are not going to invest their time and resources with an inept, inexperienced coach. If players are not having a positive experience or are not getting value they will move on. Therefore, going forward those coaches who don’t produce a quality experience or have not proven they can coach will struggle to obtain talent in order to field a team.
Secondly, many who criticize A.A.U. believe the purpose is merely to showcase elite players for college coaches. While this may be true, collegiate coaches worth anything at all will watch more than just the individual talent and athleticism of a potential recruit. They will see how they interact with and play within the team concept. Our state’s top A.A.U. coaches know this and emphasize the team structure within their programs.
Now, there are probably many playing A.A.U. who would be better off spending their time and resources working on their skills either by themselves or with their classmates. A.A.U. is not for and shouldn’t be for everybody. For the state’s truly elite players, A.A.U. has its benefits. In a rural state such as Maine most who will compete at the next level play on high school teams where they are the first or second scoring option. Playing with other great players gives these kids an opportunity to experience the game where they may not be that first or second option. This will often be the case when they head off to college. Practicing with and playing against other top players can only make one better.
Furthermore, the top A.A.U. talent will typically come back to their high school team as a better player. Better players make for better teams in the winter. A.A.U., if done correctly, is not in competition with but in addition to the overall player’s development. The truly great players are not substituting their individual work to play in A.A.U. tournaments. They are already working on and are proficient in their skills long before thinking about playing A.A.U.
Many may view A.A.U. as being in competition with high school basketball. The people I’ve spoken with who are involved in A.A.U. indicate this is not their desire at all. No matter how strong the A.A.U. program, it still does not take the place of a player wearing the school’s colors, playing in front of large crowds during the winter. To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a push to have year round A.A.U. basketball in Maine. Logistically there are not enough elite players within a small enough radius to make this feasible.
With that being said, I am concerned about what I see as an overall lack of skill development at the youth levels. To place all of the game’s warts at the feet of A.A.U. is misguided. The best playing with and against the best is the least of our problems concerning the state of our game.