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Has Sonny Vaccaro Destroyed American Basketball?

by Brian McCormick, CSCS
Director, High Five Hoop School, Sacramento, CA

Sonny Vaccaro destroyed American basketball. In the United States' hyper-driven society, what's now is no longer as important as what's next, and Vaccaro, a brilliant businessman, capitalized on this cultural attitude to build his sports empire at the expense of American basketball development. The founder of the "shoe camps" and the one who in 2005 bragged about being the first to pay AAU coaches in 1991, Vaccaro's fortunes rest on exploiting and exposing the basketball youth. His business acumen led directly to ranking services which rank players at younger and younger ages (Have you seen the list of the top players in the high school class of 2013? Seriously.), the proliferation of shoe camps, the shoe-sponsored AAU programs which pilfer precocious players from ordinary youth teams and leagues and an entire generation of players who grow up with an Entitlement Affliction because they are treated like stars and mini-celebrities from the time they are ten years old. A seventeen year old like OJ Mayo has been in the public eye at least since he was in 7th grade and walks the streets with an entourage, while being part of a bidding war which Vaccaro promised to win in an October article with ESPN's Pat Forde. A college coach recently complained about not being able to reach a local girl player-Vicky Baugh-because of her "people."

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"The opinions shown in this article are those of the author and not necessarilly the opinion of PowerBasketball."

Vaccaro's empire relegated coaches to a secondary or even tertiary role, as exposure, not development gained prominence. From the youth ranks through professional basketball, recruiting replaced teaching as a coach's primary responsibility. While youth coaches loot other programs to bolster their own roster, college coaches recruit prospects in middle school and message boards are awash with recruiting information and gossip, as what's next supercedes the current season in importance. No longer do high school players spend their summers working on their individual games; instead, they travel the country exposing themselves for college coaches at shoe-sponsored AAU tournaments and camps. The Vaccaros' recruiting and exposure empire dominates American basketball at every level and its slowly draining the life from the game.

Youth Basketball

Once upon a time, young athletes played basketball for fun, to be with friends and to learn the game's basic fundamentals. Now, the shoe money reaches to the youngest levels, as grassroots coaches scour their areas to procure the up-and-coming talents and bathe them in clothes from their sponsor. Teams battle for the U-9 AAU National Championship, on and off the floor. Teams locate and lure talented players, recruiting players and parents with promises of free gear, travel and exposure to college scholarships.

In many instances, coaching ceases to be important, as the top teams simply find ways to secure the best talents, even if it means forming a team with players spread over a hundred-mile area. Grassroots coaches (and I use the term in the loosest sense possible) like Joe Keller in the Los Angeles area bask in their glory of finding the top talents through an entire region of ten million people and clothing them in adidas gear. These player agents do little to develop and nurture the talents of the young players and do not hesitate to replace an underperforming player with another recently discovered top talent.

These players and parents naturally develop the Entitlement Affliction, as they wear free gear and travel out of state to tournaments. Other children, parents and coaches see the free clothes and travel and want their piece of the exposure pie and form their own super all-star teams to travel the country. Other coaches-those who actually want to teach and develop-are frustrated by a basketball culture enamored with immediate gratification, and parents more excited by free shoes than actual teaching and coaching. Playing in a local recreation league is no longer good enough for the superstars of the future, and every mom and dad envisions his son as a Division I prospect. Through it all, parents, players and coaches ignore one basic fact: the players who make it-the ones who get the scholarships and play professionally-possess the basketball skills and athleticism to play at that level; it is not a matter of exposure or specialization, but development and natural gifts, but these facts get lost in the great basketball bamboozlement.

High School Basketball

The innocence and purity once associated with high school athletics has been stripped away, as high school coaches recruit players for their programs; battle AAU programs for players' allegiances; and deal with the college recruitment of their stars.

The best programs lure prodigious talents to their campus with promises of fancy shoe-sponsored uniforms, out of state travel, national tournaments, national rankings and college exposure. Other programs build feeder programs to tap into local youth programs, while other top national programs simply use the shoe company connections and player agents to steer players their way. Again, recruiting replaces actual teaching and coaching in importance.

Once the season ends, players join the AAU circuit; once upon a time, players played multiple sports and used the summer to hone their individual skills. Now, players specialize in adolescence and spend their of-season immersed in a hundred-plus game system of tournaments and camps aimed at exposure, rankings, scholarships and draft readiness, not development.

As players receive their first college letters, and assume this means they are "being recruited," their head swells. Suddenly, the Entitlement Affliction attacks otherwise normal teenagers. Some stop doing schoolwork, while others focus all their attention on getting more exposure and increasing their recruitment. The obsession with the DI ride grows and overwhelms the player and his parents.

Despite this year-round basketball specialization, the scholarship quest requires more and more exposure, which means more travel and more games, leaving less time for individual practice, skill instruction and athletic development. Many players peak around sixteen years old because their skills and their athleticism never improve; they have played so much, they have mastered the skills, but many times they master the skills-like shooting mechanics-incorrectly. And, despite all the exposure to great coaches, few coaches teach basic fundamentals at camps or with AAU teams and players lack the time to change and re-train skills, so development basically stalls.

College Basketball

Talent wins games, so coaches recruit talent. Therefore, head coaches hire assistants who can recruit talent, not develop it. Plenty of Division I coaches cannot teach the game, but they can recruit. Because the NCAA limits off-season practice time and players jump to the NBA after one or two seasons, recruiting is the single greatest element of college basketball.

The best players suffer the same Entitlement Affliction, as they have been The Man at every level. While they may be great with the ball in their hands, they lack the wherewithal to play a team game within a coach's system. Players stand and watch without the ball and lack the feel for the game; they need set plays to tell them how to move and where to go. They reach, lunge for steals and do not understand help defense and defensive rotations, as they always excelled due to natural ability, size, speed or strength, which evens out at the college level.

College recruiting spawns the year-round AAU play, as it's more convenient for college coaches to attend 2-3 tournaments each with 40-50 teams filled with legitimate college prospects than to attend high school basketball games and tournaments during their season. These tournaments masquerade as competitive games, though they merely showcase players for college coaches and scouts. Borderline players travel to as many showcase events and tournaments as logistics allow, ignoring practice time and individual workouts that could actually improve the player's skills or physical attributes, which would increase their value to college programs.

NBA Basketball

The chosen few playing in the NBA are, with some exceptions, products of the Entitlement Affliction, players coddled by coaches and player agents since the first glimpse of their precocious ability. They have been stars for so long, teammates and coaches always adjusted to their game, and many lack a true sense of how to play real basketball.

Agents and shoe companies recruit college players to the League before they are ready. Teams have players on the end of the bench who do not have the basic skills needed to play in the league, but who possess some physical attribute (height, long arms, quickness) which warrants their contract as the team hopes they develop. Instead of added playing time on the college level, these players get the best seat in the house 82 games a year.

Dorrell Wright skipped college and is rewarded with front row seats to every Miami Heat game. Luol Deng decided one year with Coach K was sufficient preparation. Eddie Griffin stayed one year at Seton Hall before bouncing around the NBA, while Gerald Wallace attended one year at Alabama before being mired on the Sacramento Kings bench for three seasons. Someone convinces these players that the guaranteed first round millions are worth the jump, regardless of their preparedness or lack thereof. Consequently, players learn to play while already in the league, as opposed to developing their games at lower levels and entering the league needing only to add experience and seasoning to an already developed repertoire of skills and basketball knowledge.

Vaccaro's empire and influence disrupts development at every level, and the game deteriorates from an aesthetic view, as fewer players understand the game's nuances or possess fundamental skills. Few players are great shooters, yet each game consists of dozens of errant three-point attempts as players fall in love with shooting beyond the arc. Few coaches are motivated to develop players, as the players illustrate no commitment to anything other than the best deal, whether it is an 11 year old getting a better chance to qualify for nationals or a college player seeking more playing time to enhance his professional potential.

Vaccaro's empire turned basketball up-side down. Players want millions and shoe deals before they produce as professionals. College coaches hire the best recruiters, not coaches. High school players enhance their recruitment not by improving their skills, but by being more exposed. And, even youth coaches ignore skill development, focusing on attracting new players with better skills or athleticism. None of it makes sense, but it is consistent. From the top down and the bottom up, recruiting rules American basketball, ruining the game year by year.

Contact Information:

Brian McCormick, CSCS, Director
High Five Hoop School, Sacramento, CA
Phone 503.975.2980
Contact Coach McCormick by email.
General Information.

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