The State of Grassroots Basketball
Is there regulation on the horizon? GBOA President Gary Charles thinks so.
by Franklyn Calle
By now you all have heard about the OJ Mayo incident while he was at USC involving an agent and money being given under the table. Or even about the NCAA’s investigation on whether Derrick Rose took his SAT exam or not. On both occasions, the players are the ones who were portrayed as the bad guys. How dare they do the things they are accused of…right?
The blame doesn’t stop there though. Some media outlets and others involved in the sport also have gone on to blame grassroots basketball.
But are we just looking at the small picture here? Are we sure the players are the ones to be blamed for all of this? Maybe the players involved aren’t bad guys after all. Maybe the bad guys happen to be the ones walking around in thousand-dollar suits, calling the shots on matters that they think they know about but in reality have no idea. Maybe the bad guys are those who are inadequately advising the youth. Maybe our student-athletes are part of a system where everyone seems to be benefiting but themselves. Maybe we need to add some regulations to the summer circuit, so that we have the appropriate personnel advising them. Just maybe.
On March of 2007, some of the most influential people in the basketball circuit announced the start of Grassroots Basketball of America at a high school gymnasium in Chicago. The organization, which technically started in November of ’06 when talks among coaches began, was formed to bring structure and rules at the grassroots level. In recent years, more and more people have continued to point at grassroots as the reason for the diminishing level of basketball fundamentals being displayed in America. Although we can all agree that the talent pool is way stronger now than it was in the past, the same can’t be said about the overall skills set and basketball IQ. As you may remember, through Team USA’s struggles in international basketball competition, many seemed to blame it on the lack of organization and structure involved in grassroots.
At the ’07 conference, there was one common goal: cleaning up the game. If you were to go from person to person asking them what’s the main issue in grassroots basketball right now, they will all give you a different response. The truth is that it is a medley of wrong doings that have piled up and put the game where it is today, affecting no one else but today’s student-athletes.
GBOA President Gary Charles took some time to explain to SLAM what are some of the main issues in grassroots today and how his organization plans to attack it. Charles is probably the perfect man for the job. For those of you that don’t know him, he is one of the most powerful and successful grassroots coaches/directors in the country. Based in New York City, his New York Panthers program has played at the most prestigious summer events and has produced numerous NBA players. Speedy Claxton, Wally Szczerzbiak, Charlie Villanueva, Lamar Odom and Rafer Alston are some of the guys that have come through his program on their way to the pros. West Virginia’s Devin Ebanks and Cincinnati’s Lance Stephenson might soon be joining the list.
A few days back, Casey Jacobsen wrote a terrific piece on his first-hand experience of the AAU circuit, mentioning the corruption and greed that also is involved.
But before we can get into what’s wrong and how to fix it, lets clear up the difference between AAU basketball and grassroots basketball. It’s a big misconception out there that all these summer events are AAU events; in fact, almost all of the top ones aren’t.
“AAU basketball primarily is major tournaments that you have to qualify for and things of that nature, such as the ones played down in Florida,” says Charles, a long time Wall Street employee. “Grassroots basketball is where you basically go from events to events in the weekends. And in the summer you will go down to L.A., Las Vegas, and even Phoenix has created something now. A lot of teams do not play AAU. But AAU teams end up playing in grassroots tournaments. Bob Gibbons is not an AAU event but people will end up going to it. Rumble in the Bronx and The Real Deal, just to name a few, are also grassroots basketball.”
Now that we got that off the way, lets break down some of the flaws at the grassroots level. Through out my conversation with Charles, he continuously mentioned, “basketball has become a big business.” That’s something we can all agree on. From the NBA, to the NCAA, to overseas, to high school tournaments and showcases, to the summer circuit, money is being made at every level. And obviously it has shifted some of the focus from helping kids use basketball as a tool in life to finding out new ways of making a profit off of them.
On every recruiting class, we have players who we thought were going to be major prospects but by the time they hit senior year in high school, they’ve fallen into obscurity. At times the blame can fall on the player, other times is those who they call ‘coach.’ The lack of regulation has allowed for unqualified individuals to be part of the grassroots basketball community. As a result, kids are given the wrong advice on many occasions. It has also resulted in coaches luring kids on going to a certain school or signing with a certain agent, while the coach gets paid behind the player’s back for helping out in the recruitment. It is transparent that these types of coaches are in it for the wrong reasons.
But it’s not everyone, as Charles explains.
“The objective of GBOA is to bring awareness of grassroots basketball and to help bring structure to the game. That’s what we are all about. I will say to you that 98 percent of the people are doing this thing right. But the 2 percent that are doing it wrong obviously cast a large shadow over the rest of us. Similar to teachers, cops and college coaches, you have your bad apples in there.”
Under the GBOA rules, all teams must have a GBOA membership in order to participate in GBOA events. Having a GBOA membership means that all the coaches in the program must have a GBOA certification. The certification requires for all coaches to be NCAA certified as well as to be subjected to periodic background checks.
Other rules under GBOA requires for teams to carry no more than three bordering state players during the grassroots basketball year. This will control the ever-growing trend of kids playing high school ball in one state and playing grassroots ball in another, sometimes causing kids to miss school days traveling back and forth.
When student-athletes leave out of town during the weekends to participate in national tournaments, missing school also is a regular occurrence. To limit students from not attending class, GBOA teams are only permitted to participate in 2 tournaments per month during the academic year.
Nowadays, you have players who like to shuffle teams every weekend, making his own schedule as to what city he wants to travel to and event to play in. To prevent that, GBOA rules state that a “player cannot leave a team, once the grassroots basketball season has started, unless the coach has left the program or that player has receive a written release from that program. If a player leaves without a written release from a GBOA team during the season, that player must sit out four weekends, beginning from the time they last played on the team they left. Additionally, no player may play for more than one GBOA team during a calendar year.”
Academic eligibility, community service and age limits are also placed for players that play on GBOA teams.
Although all the rules mentioned won’t automatically eliminate all the corruption that occurs on the regular basis, it’s a starting point for a possible much better system on the horizon.
“I felt I had to reach out to some of the top programs around the country. The top usually makes up the rules and everyone else just tries to follow. The same way the Dukes, the North Carolinas, the Kansases, Kentuckys and UConns make up the rules,” says Charles. “What I did was reach out to the people I’ve known for years and of course the shoe companies. I went out and talked to guys from Nike, Reebok and adidas.”
And he most certainly did. Charles reached out to Jimmy Salmon of the Playaz Basketball Club who is affiliated with adidas. He then reached out to Larry Butler of the Illinois Warriors, a Nike affiliate. And just like that some of the top grassroots coaches started coming on board, regardless of sneaker affiliation. An election was conducted and Charles was elected president. Jim Hart (Nike) of Albany City Rocks was chosen as Vice-President. Atlanta Celtics (adidas) President Karl McCray, who coached Josh Smith and Dwight Howard, was named Treasurer. Salmon is responsible for rules and regulations. Dinos Trigonis of Belmont Shore Basketball Club, who worked with Brandon Jennings and DeMar DeRozan, is also an operating advisor.
But Charles didn’t stop there, he also knew it was important that he have some top college coaches on board to help make the foundation strong. DePaul’s Jerry Wainwright, Kansas’ Bill Self, Georgia Tech’s Paul Hewitt and Villanova’s Jay Wright are just some of the coaches on the GBOA Advisory Board. Recruiting guru Tom Konchalski, Bob Gibbons and Tom Kennedy of Hoop Group are also part of the board, along with NBA greats Scottie Pippen and Dominique Wilkins.
Charles will admit to you that there are snakes out there. But he feels the blame goes beyond those involved in grassroots basketball. Ever heard of the NCAA?
“You have certain people who try to take advantage of these kids. And they know who they are. Some people just rather not talk about it. We know which teams are out there doing things the right way,” explains Charles. “But I’ll tell you what; the NCAA stepped on their on foot. I’ve said this for years and I haven’t changed my opinion at all. This year they shut down the month of April but guys are still playing. Games are still going on. Kids who were trying to land a scholarship in the spring now don’t have that opportunity.”
The absence of the April live recruiting period was felt in New York City this Spring when some of the top seniors in the area still didn’t know where they would end up in the fall, with only weeks left before graduation. Had the live period been there, theses kids would have had a final opportunity to be seen by college coaches and on many occasions even receive scholarship offers. But reality set in for many of them. Some ended up keeping their dreams of playing Division I basketball alive by choosing to attend prep school, with hopes of being seen by college coaches. The New York Daily News wrote a nice piece explaining how many kids were left in limbo because of the new NCAA rule.
“You are now going to start to see kids stay home and get in trouble in the streets,” Charles predicts. “I find it amazing that the NCAA is always making these types of rules without talking to us. If you really want to clean this thing up and make things right, why don’t you sit down with the people that know about what’s going on?”
But the restrictions in the live recruiting period isn’t the only thing Charles believes the NCAA has gotten wrong. The fact that the NCAA is getting paid $6 BILLION from CBS for TV rights to the Men’s NCAA Tournament while the players don’t get one dime angers Charles. He suggests that many of the things you hear in the news about college players receiving money and gifts wouldn’t happen if they were given some money, at minimum.
“It always seems to me that everyone is making money of these players except the players themselves. If a college coach gets a star player, he’ll get a raise. What does the kid get? Nothing. If a college makes the NCAA Tournament, they get more money. What do the kids get? Nothing. I am tired of hearing over the years that the kid is getting a college education. Yeah, sure he is. But at the same time you are also taking a major piece from that kid because they have to go to practice and be in the weight room, and now these kids aren’t even allowed to work,” says Charles. “A lot just simply don’t have it. They don’t even have enough to get a slice of pizza. What are we doing for them? Every time I turn around, I see the benefits that colleges and their coaches get, but I’m still not seeing the benefits that kids get. Why don’t you at least give them a stipend for the month? At least give them $200 or $300 so they could survive. Then maybe these kids wouldn’t be taking anything under the table.”
Charles says one must put themselves in the shoes of some of these prospects and their families before making any judgments.
“Now you know where these kids come from. You see there a mother that has five kids, struggling day to day and trying to keep her sons off the streets, and someone comes along and says ‘listen, I can help you.‘ You think she is going to sit there and say no? The fact that I worked in Wall Street all my life, I learned to not be a hypocrite. Because if I was struggling, I don’t know what I would do in order to survive and keep my family going. Your surviving instinct takes in. As I got involved with basketball, I realized that the more better players I got, the more struggle I saw,” Charles implies (right). “If they take $5, that’s considered wrong. That’s why I think the NCAA needs to step in by giving these kids stipends because then certain deals wouldn’t have to be cut under table.”
Why is it that everyone can make money of these kids but themselves? It’s amazing! It’s just incredible how they can use and abuse these players, but if a player takes a dollar, he is wrong.”
For the most part, agents also have a rep for being snakes and trying to get things done under the table. Charles, who has had to deal with many of them as a result of all the high profile players he’s had come through his program, says people can’t just generalize all agents as being the same way. There are many of them who do things in the proper manner. But of course, just as with everything else, the general public is only told about those who don’t do things the right way. At the end of the day, they have a job to do. And some of them do it without ever having to cheat or buy their way into landing a client.
“I don’t want to portrait all these agents in the same light. They get the same rep. It’s not all the agents, it’s only certain guys. Everything has gotten competitive and now agents find themselves going younger and younger just to keep up with the competition,” he says. Survival just kicks in and you feel you have to do it. When Kobe signed the shoe deal out of high school, which by the way I was involved with, what it did was change the whole thing around. Now agents said ‘wait a minute, I gotta get involved much earlier.’”
Charles says it’s fair to compare agents to college coaches, in that both are out there trying to land players and find ways to stay competitive.
“Now do I think some of it is really wrong? Absolutely! But it’s the same thing as when you have college coaches sending kids letters in the sixth grade. They are doing the same thing because they want to have that competitive edge,” Charles adds. “Agents are doing the same thing. Until the last couple of years when the rules changed, I saw NBA scouts at grassroots events of 9th and 10th graders. Again, they were trying to get that competitive edge to make sure they knew everything they needed to know about the kid. What’s the difference with that? High school coaches are just as competitive. They are out their recruiting also. You may not hear about it. You see catholic school coaches come in to see kids in the 8th grade to try to recruit that player. Basketball has become a big business.”
The skill level has gone down over the years. That’s one statement in which we can all agree on. Most of the blame has gone toward grassroots coaches. But what ever happen to their school coaches?
“Every single one of these kids plays high school basketball. These kids play from September to March. So what are these high school coaches teaching them? Why aren’t they being taught the right skill level?,” Charles wonders. “Why are the grassroots coaches getting the blame for it? It wasn’t grassroots that did that! High school coaches practice with these kids five days a week, sometimes even seven days a week. If they are teaching these kids the right way to play basketball, these kids will not forget when they are playing grassroots basketball. So why are we getting the blame? High school coaches need to do a better job. That’s another reason for creating GBOA, so we could have a voice. You hear too many stories about the bad things that are going on but it seems you don’t hear enough good stories about how much grassroots has helped these kids.”
There are many things that need to be fixed, but Charles believes that he and his board are on the right track. There are currently about 10 tournaments that are sanctioned by GBOA, with all its participating teams abiding by the rules.
“It’s going to take money in order to accomplish these things. I think the fact that we met with iHoops, the fact they felt they needed to sit down and talk to us was a positive thing. The fact we are doing this interview, tells me we are getting there. So I do believe we are on the right road,” says Charles with optimism. “We’re on the right direction. I think certain people are starting to realize that GBOA wants to make a difference in a positive way, and that in itself is a major step.”
Hopefully NBA executives, the powers that be at the NCAA, and everyone involved in grassroots basketball reads this articles and understands where the state of our youth’s game stands at the moment. Hopefully we start to realize that behind all the billions of dollars that float around as a result of this great game, our youth continues to be the biggest victim. But then again, as it has been done in the past, there are those who will continue to turn their heads and look the other way paving the road for another day in grassroots basketball.