The Kids Come Second
A cautionary tale of the AAU system.
by Heather Robinson / @Heather_Rose_
Basketball is no longer the treasured pastime it once was for African-American youth in this country.
Ten to 20 years ago, it was easy to travel from neighborhood to neighborhood and witness a pickup game between adolescents, on a court with no nets and faded lines. There was a passion for the game that exceeded the desire for monetary success.
Unfortunately, that passion has been lost as the game evolved into a business that now exploits children as young as 9 years old.
Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball leagues have replaced the pickup games at the neighborhood parks. Children no longer practice on worn courts until the sun goes down, with only an orange Spalding ball to keep them company. Instead, they train for hours in weight rooms, at basketball camps and tournaments; focused on impressing basketball recruiters for various high schools and colleges.
Coaches within these basketball leagues receive money, uniforms, shoes and equipment for committing their players to various programs.
“Too many of the coaches, not all of them, are focused on winning games,” said Anthony Langley, a 18-year coach of the DC Warriors, an AAU program in the Washingtonian area. “They try to find the youngsters that already have skill rather than developing them.”
Eric Price, a product of the Sursum Corda projects of Washington, DC, is the poster child of young players who grew up being exploited by tainted AAU coaches and outside influences.
Standing 6-feet tall by the age of 9, Price had the body of a man but the capacity of a child.
He grew up in a single-parent home with his older brother, Earl, as the only male influence in his life besides coaches, drug dealers and corporate sponsors, all looking to profit from his athletic abilities. His father was absent for the majority of his childhood, in and out of jail.
Price used basketball as a means to escape the pressures of his community. His first team was the 10 and under DC Blue Devils, coached by Rob Jackson. He played with the likes of Ty Lawson, Roy Hibbert, Dante Cunningham, Kevin Durant, Jarrett Jack and Roger Mason, all current pros in the NBA.
Considered the best player on his team, despite playing a year up, Price received benefits and exposure that his fellow teammates went without, despite the wealth of talented players. “As I got older, it became a business,” Price said. “It was kind of like modern day prostitution. They wanted all the best players on one team.”
By the age of 12, Price was playing in the 17-and-older league, and became a national sensation, gracing the covers of ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated for Kids, and appearing on prime time shows, such as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He developed relationships with Sonny Vacarro, who was a representative of adidas at the time, and Don Crenshaw, a representative of Nike, receiving money, clothes, shoes, and all expense paid trips across the country, for various camps and tournaments.
“Sonny Vacarro always seemed like a good guy. He invited me to his house with some of the other players from the [ABCD] camp,” said Price. “In the basement, there were 5,000 pairs of shoes and he told us we could take whatever we wanted. I ended up with 40 Kobe Bryant sweatsuits and everything else.”
He was ranked the No. 1 Point Guard in the country for four consecutive years: 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001.
The road became rough for Price following his admission into high school basketball. He played for five different teams, Gonzaga High School, Montrose High School, Dunbar High School, Blair Academy and Coast Christian Academy, all within the DC, Maryland, Virginia area.
“Eric was in high demand when he came to Montrose,” said Troy Hailey, team member of Price’s at Montrose High School. “He did whatever he wanted and the coach let that slide, because Eric was the top-ranked player in the country. He had it sweet because the entire country knew his name.”
Coaches tried to stall his dreams, threatening to cut his playing time if he did not play for the school’s respective summer teams or if he committed to college programs that did not benefit their high school programs.
With each school, Price watched as his stock fall. Letters continued to come in from Division I programs; however, in basketball circles, he quickly became deemed as uncoachable.
Upon his graduation from Coastal Christian Academy, Price had no university lined up and was forced to play basketball for Chipola Junior College, in Marianna, FL. He failed to impress the coaches of Chipola and eventually transferred to Blinn College in Texas. Six games into the season, Price suffered a nearly fatal injury, puncturing his lung following a collision on the court.
Price only knew of his dream of playing professional basketball, not the technicalities that are involved. He had no fatherly figure to guide him in his quest to play professionally, and as a result, he put money in the pockets of individuals he thought cared for him, and in actuality, they were riding his coattails to the top.
“At that time, I didn’t know what was going on,” Price said. “I knew that people wanted me but I didn’t know the reason behind it. I had no idea they were using me for my talent. Now they’re nowhere to be found.”
There are similar stories to Price’s all over the country. Players being exploited by AAU, high school and college coaches at an early age.
The NCAA has taken measures to abolish the freedom of college coaches to recruit players as young as 12 years old, by making seventh graders prospects for recruitment.
Sportswriter, Myron P. Medcalf wrote a piece for the Star Tribune newspaper of St. Paul, MN, outlining incidents in which big-name college coaches had received verbal commitments from eighth graders, who would not be eligible to sign a written commitment until their senior year of high school.
Medcalf went on to list University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and University of Southern California as schools who had also received verbal commitment from male basketball players as young as 15 years old. The concern for the NCAA revolved around the unfair advantage that coaches who opted to implement such recruiting, would receive.
There is an unwritten rule in college basketball recruiting that establishes a player as “off limits,” upon making a verbal commitment with a school. Although, a verbal commitment is non-binding, meaning the player can always choose to break that commitment and sign elsewhere, coaches typically use such tactics to adjust their recruiting around the committed player.
“It’s unfortunate that college coaches are involved in those types of activities,” said Langley. “It’s hard to determine whether or not a youngster, at a certain age, will be successful as they get older. Most are late bloomers. Steve Francis came through our program and he was a late bloomer.”
If the player doesn’t pan out in high school, the school can always retract their offer. This surely affects the psyche of young athletes, especially within the African American community, where the majority of the young male population are chasing the dream of becoming a professional athlete.
The NCAA’s decision to change this rule, in an effort to adapt to the quickly evolving world of recruiting, is a step into the right direction to protect the integrity of the game and its players.