Phillips and I spent Sunday morning watching high school basketball. Of course, calling it “basketball” is probably a stretch since we were at an AAU tournament, but there were two hoops and an orange ball, so at least it was a basketball-like substance. I recently shared my feelings on AAU basketball, and especially Sonny Vaccaro, so a follow-up is probably unavoidable since I’ve already started typing.
Phillips and I went to two games of the 2009 Adidas May Classic in and around Bloomington, IN. First of all, the fact that this was an Adidas tournament at an Adidas-sponsored school (Indiana University) tells you this is most definitely a corporate event. Maybe the first truly corporate event of some of these players’ lives. The jerseys were Adidas, as were the backpacks and many of the shoes on the players’ feet. Wear Nike at your own peril.
Everyone also knows the quality of basketball decreases in proportion to the size of the tournament, and this one had like 180 teams in it, so there you go. But that doesn’t mean this tournament wasn’t loaded with some of the most talented high school players from all over the country. It’s just that everyone knew the drill before they got there. No one is going to be like, “fuck yeah! Adidas May Classic champs!” in 10 years.
We started at 10:45am ET in an extremely empty Assembly Hall watching one of the Indiana Elite squads against a team from Cincinnati, and the difference says everything you need to know about AAU basketball. The Cincy team was composed entirely of white kids and their tallest player was about 6’6″ (at most). They had one fearless guard and absolutely no chance of breaking 60 on the scoreboard. The Indiana Elite (U-16) team was mixed-race and had two kids pushing seven feet and another around 6’8″. Even so, they weren’t able to clearly dominate the post area because the bigs were just there to be tall and athletic, and had few definable skills other than being tall and athletic. But since these were U-16 kids, that’s all anyone’s looking for. If I replaced “U-16 kids” with “aspiring 16-year-old models,” I don’t think AAU basketball would be treated as warmly. But morality is relative when it comes to sports.
They were dunking repeatedly during warm-ups, even throwing alley-oops to themselves off the ground and the backboard. All of this was an impressive display, but felt very strange in such a silent place. There was no cheering, hushed talking in the sparsely populated stands. The players were extremely quiet, even during the game, only pausing to call out a play once in a while. Everyone seemed to have a sense that the game itself wasn’t nearly as important. That the real action of the tournament was happening somewhere else. Even the dunking felt compulsory.
In truth, it was. We left with a few minutes left in the second half with Indiana Elite up quite a bit. The Cincy team was gutty and talented, but they were shut out in the blue-chip prospect count. Everyone pretty much got what they wanted. The Cincy parents sitting behind us knew what was happening, and they weren’t all that upset. It’s basketball without the meaning. Free from the emotion and poetry. And it’s pretty damn plain.
The second game featured Team Detroit (who boasted uber-prospect Ray McCallum Jr.) against one of the two “rising senior” Indiana Elite teams. There were only three kinds of people in the stands: parents, players from other teams, and men. Men who were often there alone or with one other person, and were just there to observe the games and the prospects playing in them. That was meant to sound creepy.
This time, the game was at the Bloomington Sports Plex, which had three rows of metal bleachers set up on the several courts in the building. There were fewer people than the 100 or so in Assembly Hall, but the noise was tripled, and it smelled like Subway (the sandwich place not the form of mass transit). I spent most of the game thinking about sandwiches instead of basketball. And maybe so did some of the players, since most of the outside shooting was atrocious.
There were several real Division I-level prospects playing in the game, including one from Bloomington South, Indiana’s 2009 state champions. But Ray McCallum was the star, and everyone was there to see him. Overall, he didn’t disappoint, and was clearly the best player on the court, which is, after all, what matters in an AAU game. But he lacked the highlight-reel play, and everyone was a little disappointed at the half, including McCallum, it seemed.
The best part of the game, however, was the banner above the court, bragging about the Indiana Elite team that finished third in the nation in the U-14 division back in 2005. One of the players is headed to Louisville and another, Jordan Hulls, is an incoming freshman for IU basketball this fall. But yes, you read that right, a banner about a U-14 AAU team finishing third in the nation four years ago.
We left at halftime, mostly to get food, but also because the basketball wasn’t really all that entertaining. The fans weren’t really enjoying the game any, probably because there weren’t any crazy dunks or great plays. The players didn’t seem to enjoy the game at all. They were trying to make the great plays one expects with AAU ball, but it was decidedly joyless. Like there was no real point to winning or losing the games. Or maybe everyone was just scared of looking bad in front of family, girls, and especially the proxies who were watching the games for division I head coaches and reporting back later.
Maybe AAU basketball is a good thing. Kids who play for their high schools show passion and love for the game, but AAU gives them the experience of sports as a business. Of an environment in which their production is what matters, not what their grades are like or who they are as people. They get to be stars and play with other stars. But once the summer comes, they certainly aren’t just kids who play basketball anymore.