Inside one of the conference rooms of a posh hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, the mood is anything but festive. It’s October, 2009, and 40 of the USA’s top grassroots basketball team directors were just given some unexpected news at the annual Nike travel team meeting: Among other changes, there’s a major overhaul on the horizon in regards to the spring/summer tournaments. The announcement, delivered by Nike marketing executives Jeff Rogers and Mike Hackman, filled the room with apprehension. From now on, it was announced to the group, Nike will own and operate some former independently ran tournaments under the Elite Youth Basketball League umbrella.
The EYBL was an idea that George Raveling, the legendary coach and Nike’s Director of International Basketball, and Lynn Merritt, current VP of Nike Global Basketball Sports Marketing, began discussing a handful of years before the Vegas meeting. While the two bounced around the idea of a more cohesive summer youth league years prior, Nike did not officially start conceptualizing the format until 2008.
“Change is hard in any realm,” says Carlton Debose, Manager of Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball “When it was brought forth, it was so revolutionary—even in our guys’ minds—that it was hard to get a hold of initially.” Debose was co-founder of Chicago’s Meanstreets Swoosh-sponsored travel team at the time of the Vegas meeting and was among the program directors in the room when the new system was presented. “Some of the guys who had events were obviously worried about their events. I think there was some hesitation—definitely a buzz coming out of that room. Everybody was all over the place initially, but by the time we left Vegas 24 hours later, everybody was on the same page.”
Almost five years after that landmark meeting in Vegas, the Boo Williams Sportsplex in Hampton, VA, is the place to be for any basketball-recruiting aficionado on this mid-May weekend. Malik Newman, Ben Simmons and Ivan Rabb, the top-three ranked players in the rising senior class of 2015, are all in the building and playing in this weekend’s EYBL event.
In this past year’s graduating class, 78 of the top-100 ranked prospects were part of the EYBL circuit. The 2013 McDonald’s All-American Game featured 15 EYBL players and in the 2013 NBA Draft, four of the first seven picks were EYBL alumni.
Yet, the stakes haven’t always been this high.
Before the EYBL’s inaugural season in the spring of 2010, summer youth basketball consisted of a collection of individual weekend tournaments that each crowned their own respective champions by Sunday. In many cases, the selection process for participating teams was as simple as paying the tournament’s entry fee. The result was 300-plus teams partaking in a single tourney. It all ultimately contributed to the negative connotations that summer youth basketball garnered over the years—the lack of uniformity one of the most common knocks.
And with so many teams in one showcase, the number of games needed to win the championship for a particular tournament varied from weekend to weekend, and so did the competition. In pool play, the good teams would easily cruise to blowout victories during the first few games and normally wouldn’t have a challenging match until the quarterfinals or semifinals on Sunday. And by then, it’s safe to say that many were already tired. This inconsistency in the competition level and in the number of games played, which took a toll on players’ bodies over time, was at the forefront of Nike’s decision to form its own exclusive travel team league, where the number of participating teams could be condensed to a more adequate level, and reserved only for the top Nike-sponsored programs—only 40 of the 50 Nike travel teams were selected to play in the EYBL in 2014.
“Health was always a concern of ours,” says Merl Code, Director of Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball, who joined the Swoosh’s grassroots basketball division just a couple of months after the 2009 Vegas convention. “You’d see kids break down by the end of summer because they were playing so many games at different tournaments throughout the summer—twisted ankles, twisted knees and shoulder injuries. We wanted to make sure we changed the landscape overall.”
Not only were possible injuries hindering players’ development, so was the lackluster competition they were constantly going up against in tournaments with so many teams. “Now we went to a model where it was the best against the best,” says Debose. “Now you’re playing against top competition all the way through,” adds Code. “Everything just goes into assisting a kid prepare for the next level.”
And so with tourney entry fees no longer dictating the participating teams of any given event, Nike’s EYBL easily became the premier youth basketball league in the world.
In 2014, the EYBL schedule consisted of 40 17U teams playing in 16 regular-season games during April and May, spread across four weekends/cities and with each team only playing four times at each site. The league is split into four divisions of 10 teams. At the end of the regular season, only 24 teams advance to Nike’s playoffs tournament, the Peach Jam in North Augusta (SC) in mid-July—the top-five teams from each division and four wild card selections. Instead of having a different champion every weekend, wins and losses now simply accumulate and carry over until a champion is crowned at Peach Jam, summer youth basketball’s Super Bowl.
Not only is the competition better, the intensity and meaning of each game has been elevated to a whole new degree. Before the EYBL, if a team had a bad tournament on any particular weekend, it would simply shake it off and start fresh the following tourney with a 0-0 record. But under this new format, every win or loss can be the difference between a highly touted program—and its top-ranked prospects—being at Peach Jam or home. Teams are no longer “randomly” selected into Peach Jam as pre-EYBL. There will be top-ranked recruits that won’t be playing at this year’s Peach Jam, despite their extraordinary talents and skill sets, simply because their teams didn’t perform well as a whole. And by design, this too was one of Nike’s goals when launching the league.
“It switched the summer basketball model to where it’s team-driven instead of individual. Coaches are now actually coaching,” says Debose, laughing.
Cutting down the number of teams not only intensified the competition, it allowed role players and under-the-radar prospects to get noticed more by college coaches and scouts. Take the EYBL’s first session of 2014 in Sacramento as an example. By Tuesday, two days after the sesh, 75 new scholarship offers had been handed out to EYBL players. Considering that most of the top 17U players already have every school lined up, these offers predominantly went to players that may not have been noticed under the previous 300-plus team format. Furthermore, in the toughest and most star-studded youth league in the world, one good performance is all it takes. Just ask Anthony Davis. In the spring of 2010, in the first session of the EYBL’s inaugural season, Davis, an unranked rising senior from Chicago, played an incredible first-half before suffering an ankle injury that would sideline him for the rest of the weekend. Yet that’s all it took for word to get out, and a couple of months later he was touted as the top prospect in the nation.
Aside from providing a competitive balance, minimizing games and decreasing risk of injuries, and encouraging teams to play team basketball, the league has implemented other minor-but-impactful changes. Sticking to its mission to prepare players for the next level, Nike imposed a 30-second shot clock, beating the 35-second-using NCAA to it—the ACC recently announced it plans to experiment with the 30-second shot clock during the upcoming season’s exhibition games. Prior to the EYBL, shot clocks were a rare occurrence in grassroots basketball.
“Part of creating this platform was making sure we’re preparing those kids for the next level,” says Code, of the 30-second shot clock integration. “They need to be accustomed to playing the game at a faster pace. They need to make decisions quicker. We wanted to make sure they were put in a place where they could start adjusting their games and thought process for the college game.”
Looking to not only emulate the college level but the NBA as well, the EYBL enacted dress codes for all coaches and began doing background checks on those running each organization.
“Before you had guys wearing hats backwards with the cell phone and the shades on—or other guys wearing zoot suits,” says Debose, shaking his head. “I think we’ve done a good job changing the general public perception of summer grassroots basketball,” adds Code. “We’ve tried to change that perception by how we conduct ourselves and how our teams and coaches conduct themselves.”
The emphasis on conduct isn’t just all talk. If teams show up late to a game, they get fined. If coaches misbehave, they get fined.
Additionally, college refs are now part of the officiating crew in every single game. “You’d go to some events and the refs would be guys who work the event or someone they threw a shirt to,” recalls Debose. “These are actual college refs now at every event. We upped every level, from the product, to standards for our coaches, to the competition level. Everything has been taken up a step.”
The upgrades have transcended the product and culture on the hardwood into an array of technologically advanced resources available to every team off the court. Every program now has access to advanced scouting reports and archived game footage that are not too far away from what NBA teams have at their disposal. Statistical categories include plus-minus ratings and efficiency stats. GameChanger provides shot chart analysis, while Krossover Intelligence breaks down the film for every team.
Nike’s competitors have recognized the success of the EYBL, directly or indirectly, whether they’d like to admit it or not. In 2013, Under Armour launched “The Association,” a summer league for its sponsored travel teams that mirrored the EYBL, consisting of a series of tournaments where wins and losses accumulate and ultimately lead to a culminating championship weekend in July. Similarly, adidas introduced a four-tournament series in 2014 as part of its Gauntlet circuit.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” says Debose. “It makes us feel good about ourselves because we were five years ahead of the curve. But we’re so focused on what we’re doing and continuing to push the envelope, that’s our main focus.”
“The hurdles that other folks will face, we’ve already faced,” says Code. “They’re still figuring it out and we’re moving onto the next thing.”
Photos by Jon Lopez