I spend a lot of time on Money Players exposing the supposedly bad business of sports. I also devote a lot of words to those who demonize summer basketball without really understanding this world. Here and and here (actually, this one is written by Chris Rivers, my brother-in-arms when it comes to the 1,214 things that can be done to improve youth basketball).
No doubt, there are problems. And there's a lot of blame to go around. But way too often people paint ugly pictures with broad strokes. My de Tocqueville-like journeys give me a unique look at the weird, crazy world of basketball.
Solutions? It starts with good people doing good things. More legislation, task forces and partnerships will not cure or even alleviate the ills plaguing so-called amateur hoops. What basketball needs is more good people with appropriate reward structures doing the right thing. We'll never get rid of all the bad characters, but the system can be improved.
A few weeks ago I was Washington DC for the Reebok All-American Weekend, which is a much-deserved reward for 40 top high school ballers in the country.
The Reebok All-American Weekend was created to "celebrate the outstanding basketball accomplishments of graduating seniors from around the country. Players were selected based on their basketball accomplishments and also their character." Yes, that comes from a press release. But after I spent three days with these players and many of their parents, I know firsthand that these are the best and the brightest basketball has to offer.
Chris Rivers, Reebok's director of grassroots basketball, and his staff brought this talented group to DC for a weekend of basketball, bonding and community. Yes, basketball is the players' ticket to these types of events. And there is nothing wrong with that. There's are special kids with special talents. That does not mean they are not accountable for their actions or we should enable them if they fail to perform off the court.
I have no doubt these young men would still excel without basketball, but their basketball abilities have significant value in the basketball economy. And that alone invites several questionable elements into the scene.
It's easy to get jaded when talking about grassroots basketball and the scandal de jour. Yet, when you're on the inside, you realize that most of what goes on is not at all sinister. In fact, I usually come away feeling really good about basketball and an increased respect for the players. Scandal mongers will be disappointed, but read on if you really want to know about the brighter side of grassroots basketball.
A few examples...
Rivers gathered the parents to go over purpose of the weekend and provide a rundown of the festivities. We also went around the room and introduced everyone.
Without any prompting, Glory Udem, mother of Georgia Tech recruit Mfon Udofia offered an unsolicited assessment of Reebok.
"I would like to thank every person at Reebok, especially Chris Rivers. As parents, we make a lot of sacrifices and we pay a lot of money to give our children whatever advantage we possibly can to help them become better students, better athletes and most of all better young men. But we could not do it without incredible support. You have done so much for my son, Mfon. He has grown as a basketball player and Reebok has helped him grow into a strong and smart young man. Chris Rivers, you have educated my family and helped us understand so many things. I appreciate opportunities like this to learn, to grow and to help my son. Some of these players here may go on the NBA, which would be so great. But whatever happens we should all be grateful that our sons can go college and get an education and go on to do something wonderful. For that I am forever indebted. Thank you."
Mfon, like just about every player invited to participate, happens to be exactly the opposite stereotype often portrayed of the elite players...these guys are courteous, hard working, intelligent, even grounded. I realize comments like this that do not sell papers -- or in the 24/7 information age, get people clicking, but it's the truth.
The next day the players visited Calvary Christian Academy in Northeast D.C., with over 200 students, grades K through 8th grade. There was a great vibe with the young students cheering for not just the players, but also the parents. Rivers brought six players up to the front, introduced them, and encouraged the students to ask questions. They were not shy.
John Jenkins, who will be attending Vanderbilt, averaged over 40 points per game his senior year in high school. A fourth grader, doing his best Jeff Van Gundy analysis wondered, "If you scored so many points, how many assists did you average?"
Jenkins's answer: "Actually a couple." He also pointed out that while he scored a bunch of points, he did so only because he had great teammates who put him in a position to score.
Brian Oliver, another Georgia Tech signee, was asked about coping with disappointment.
"Frustration is part of life. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride. There is no reason to hold grudges. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. The key is to always learn from your experiences, both good and bad."
I am under no illusion that there will ever be a day when the public desires good news over scintillating scandal. We also need a vigorous media examining the ills of society, especially basketball. But sometimes, it's good to hear the other side. Right?