I don’t pay much attention to college basketball. So it makes sense that I also don’t pay much attention to AAU basketball, the amateur youth organization that’s become a feeder system for the major college programs. And that’s why I didn’t notice the recent publication of Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine, which apparently exposes a lot of the corruption and other unsavory business that goes on under the purview of the AAU. (You can get a better sense of what the book’s about by reading this well-written review.)
Reader Jack Nicolaus has read this book. A few weeks ago he sent me the following note:
[T]he most interesting thing about the book is how the shoe companies (Nike, Adidas, and to an extent Reebok) are the ones who are driving the market. They sponsor traveling teams in the hopes of landing the next Lebron, who will be loyal to them. Coaches scramble to get players so they can get the shoe company paydays. The coaches lie, cheat, and steal to convince players they can make it to the NBA. There are some interesting fly-on-the-wall bits where the writer gets to be in the room for conversations between shoe company execs as they decide how to dole out the cash.
That sounded interesting, so I asked Jack if he’d be willing to transcribe some of the more relevant bits. He agreed. The resulting post is a bit long-ish, but I found it fascinating. Hope you do too. Without further ado, here’s Jack.
Play Their Hearts Out: Excerpts and Analysis
By Jack Nicolaus
The book chronicles eight years in the life of a youth basketball coach and his star player, from fifth grade through high school graduation. Joe Keller, the coach, becomes a foster parent to Demetrius Walker, the player. The book uses their journey as an entry point into the manipulative landscape of youth basketball.
One of the book’s major focuses is on how “grass roots” AAU basketball has become intensely monetized, particularly in terms of how the big shoe companies are involved. The sponsorships they dole out to youth basketball teams lend prestige, which helps attract the best players in the area. The shoe companies hope that one of the young phenoms becomes the next Derrick Rose or Lebron James. If that happens, the youngster will already be loosely affiliated with the shoe company when it comes time for endorsement deals. Meanwhile, the other, less talented kids grow up idolizing the kids who have the shoe company sponsorships and their apparent legitimacy.
Joe Keller, the coach who serves as the book’s case study, is haunted by the payday he missed when he discovered a young player named Tyson Chandler, who eventually went on to fame and fortune in the NBA. Keller admits that he’s a coach because he wants to make money off of the kids’ futures. Where does the money come from? Here’s a good outline of the Catch-22 Keller was facing, as written by the author:
In most urban centers, the shoe companies sponsored one or two coaches. In Southern California, the number was higher because of the concentration of talent, with around a dozen or so coaches paid as “consultants” by Nike or Adidas. The ratio of unsponsored coaches to sponsored coaches might be 20:1 in a hotbed like Los Angeles, which produces more Division I talent than any other metropolitan area…
[T]he difference between the haves and the have-nots is stark. On a map highlighting the percentage of market controlled by the coaches in Southern California, Barret [a Nike-sponsored coach] and the Pumps [Adidas] would be identified by huge black dots blanketing all but a small portion of the region. So many of the elite kids are on their teams that the market share for the unsponsored coaches … would barely register. On the map, the unaffiliated coaches would be tiny red dots on the periphery.
Keller was the quintessential red dot, and like all red dots he dreamed of landing a shoe deal. But the landscape of the grassroots basketball market worked against him. The power and the money were concentrated with the sponsored coaches, who, while they didn’t collude, watched each another closely and employed the same tactics to dismantle the competition. It was a market dominated by a few competitors, an oligopoly, and Keller was out on what economists call the “competitive fringe.”
[The sponsored coaches] all had different styles, but the model for how they enticed players was largely the same. After identifying a special prospect, they offered free shoes, free travel to tournaments all over the country, and a chance to team up with the most heralded players. With parents, they talked of the “exposure” their son would need to land a college scholarship and how that exposure could come only from playing for a sponsored coach. They put a question to parents: Do you want to risk your son’s future by letting him play for someone else? They rattled off the names of former players who had received college scholarships and sometimes had one of them call to support the coach’s candidacy…
This was maddening to Keller. He could recruit harder and coach better, but, in the end, his paradox remained the same: Without a shoe deal, it would be difficult to recruit and keep top players. And without great players, he would never get a shoe deal.
A bit later in this chapter, the book gives a brief account of how the shoe companies broke into the youth basketball market. It all started with Sonny Vaccaro getting Michael Jordan to agree to sponsor Nike.
In 1991, Nike fired Vaccaro, and a year later he landed at Adidas. He had a smaller budget but the same objective: to establish Adidas as a basketball brand. The best college programs, thanks to his earlier work, were with Nike, so “I had to go younger,” Vaccaro said. “The only place I could do battle with Nike was at the youth level.” He brokered sponsorship deals with top high schools and signed five of the most influential AAU coaches in America…
It hardly made a ripple at the time, but Adidas’s move into the AAU game changed basketball. Nike quickly followed Vaccaro’s lead, aligning with high schools and forming its own stable of grass roots coaches.
Vaccaro’s decision to move younger was followed by the drafting of high schooler Kevin Garnett by the Minnesota Timberwolves with fifth pick in the 1995 NBA draft. Garnett’s early success, coupled with Vaccaro’s infusion of capital, fueled the rise of the AAU game. The search for players who might one day become NBA stars moved from college down to the prep level. The AAU season from April to August became the most important time of the year for players to showcase their skills.
This all comes to a head with Joe Keller’s “breakthrough” insight into the AAU market: He decides to go even younger, recruiting middle-school kids:
Keller’s dilemma when he returned to coaching was not unlike Vaccaro’s when he arrived at Adidas. He couldn’t compete for the older kids, so he decided to go after the younger ones. In an oligopolistic market, a new operator must find a way to circumvent the barriers to entry… Independent coaches like Keller often tried to build teams around recycled players, kids that sponsored coaches had passed on or cast aside. But that was hard work. You had to do more coaching and hope for a late growth spurt or a sudden jump in ability that would push your players into the upper echelon of prospects. Keller chose instead to find a new entry point into the market. He theorized that if he cultivated a strong relationship with kids and their parents long before the more prominent coaches came after them, their loyalty to him would percent them from jumping to another team. Then, if the shoe companies wanted access to his great players, they would have no choice but to give him a contract like Barrett’s, with the fat salary and all the free gear his players wanted.
There’s a great deal more to the book (it’s over 400 pages), focusing on the relationship between Keller and Demetrius Walker, and Keller’s machinations and schemes. Throughout, the shoe companies are the half-hidden overlords. There are people representing Adidas/Nike, but the corporations themselves remain hidden behind curtains of plausible deniability.
Spoiler alert: In the end, the Big Bad Greedy Guy makes a fortune on the Poor Oppressed Kid. Demetrius Walker is currently on scholarship at University of New Mexico, so he’s not exactly a failure, but Keller’s fortune makes it obvious that it hasn’t been a fair deal. The book illuminates the world of those that the system casts aside once they’re no longer useful. Players who have thrown their entire young lives into athletic success are left penniless and (probably more importantly) deemed irrelevant by their adult role-models. Sounds a lot like college football.
Paul here. All very interesting, no? And very sad — or at least that’s how it seems to me. Granted, I’m (a) generally anti-corporate and (b) admittedly quite ignorant about the AAU scene, so hey, maybe there’s another side to this story. But to me it sounds like child exploitation, plain and simple.
Collector’s Corner, by Brinke Guthrie
In honor of pitchers and catchers reporting this week (thank goodness), we’re all baseball this week. Take a look at our lead-off item.
• Here’s one from reader Jon Solomonson: a Jerry Lewis baseball jersey.
• Ever hear of Brocca Pop soda? Lou Brock loved it, although I don’t know if “My favorite red pop” is the most ringing endorsement.
• Speaking of the Cards, will you look at this jersey. Perfection. [Man, sleeves were so short in the ’60s. For some reason I always liked that look for that era, even though I hate the disappearance of sleeves in the NFL. — PL]
• Mike Burke sent along this nice vintage flannel jersey.
• Remember those children’s baseball jackets with patches for every single MLB team? Here’s the cap version, courtesy of Nicholas Bean
• Now that’s a Pirate!
• And one non-baseball item, because it’s something you don’t often see: a 1970s Bobby Unser race suit. Va-va-vrrrooom!
• And one from Paul: a really neat set of Wilson retail displays.
Seen something on eBay that you think would make good Collector’s Corner fodder? Send your submissions here.
Guess I won’t tell him that I like roast squab: As you may have heard, Animal planet is about to debut a new show about Mike Tyson and pigeons. ESPN is all over this, so I’ll be doing a phone interview with Tyson this afternoon. My question to you folks: What should I ask him? I mean, I already have a list of questions, but this is an unusual situation — I don’t know jack about pigeon racing, and I’m all too aware that Tyson’s been interviewed a few jillion times in his life, so I don’t want to ask all the obvious stuff (“How’d a rough, tough guy like you end up having such a soft spot for birds?”).
I’m serious, people: If you were interviewing Mike Tyson about his new TV show, what would you ask him? Send your suggestions here. I’ll print some of the best submissions later this week. As always, thanks for your help.
Infographics reminder: Remember, I’m giving away a free T-shirt or a free Uni Watch membership to the reader who whips up the best sports-related infographics submission. It can be about a big, official thing, like Super Bowl results, or a small, personal thing, like your cap collection. Details here.
Uni Watch News Ticker: Two spring training notes from Jonathon Binet: The Rockies are wearing team-logo socks, and Evan Meek was in no hurry to wear a Pirates cap the other day (and who can blame him?). … Cam Newton has signed with Under Armour. … New logo for the Great American Conference (with thanks to Sean Patton). … Here’s the best (read: worst) view so far of Texas A&M’s camo-trimmed hoops jerseys (with thanks to Chris Smith). … I think we’ve now reached a new low in logo creep: swoosh-emblazoned sanitaries. That’s the Florida softball team. Awesome stirrups, natch, but those sannies are a freakin’ disaster (big thanks to Nate Kurant). … On the other hand, some swoosh placements please me no end (as noted by Erik Johns). … Info on Red Sox uni number assignments can be found at the bottom of this page, and Yankees uni number news is at the bottom of this page (with thanks to Matt Harris). … Interesting to see that Michigan coach Kevin Borseth’s blazer has an “M” logo on the inner lining (good spot by Chris Drouin). … Cycling news from Sean Clancy: “Luxembourg officials aren’t too keen on the jersey design of national road race champ Frank Schleck. He may have to find a more distinctive design for his national champion’s top.” … Lots of rare sports footage, including highlights from the very first NBA game and from a 1966 Jets/Pats tilt, available here. … Get this: Tim Zelmanski was so unhappy with the Lightning’s new uniforms that he wrote a lengthy letter to the team. Not only did he get a response, but he got an invitation: CEO Tod Leiweke has invited him to come in next week to chat about his concerns over coffee. Impressive! Keep us posted on how it goes, Tim. … Arin Mitchell — who says he can’t start his day without Uni Watch and a Coke — reports that Serge Ibaka will be wearing this sneaker design for this weekend’s dunk contest. … Reprinted from last night’s comments: Virginia Tech wore VPI throwbacks on Sunday. … Fun DIY project from Andy Moeschberger, who writes: “In 2008, I started working at a new high school. As such, it had a logo featuring a snarling animal — in our case, a wolf). For our first homecoming week, I decided to create a faux-back letterman’s sweater. I bought a plain black cardigan and adhesive-backed felt, printed out my designs, cut out the felt, and made myself a ’50-year-old’ letter sweater. It’s not the greatest thing ever made, but I’m proud of the ‘Howling Wolf’ logo I created for the back of it, and people love it every time I wear it to school.” … Genius observation in last night’s comments by Drew Elrick, who notes that the nostrils on the Bulls logo have been missing in the recent ESPN power rankings. … Serious color-on-color game from last Saturday: Xavier vs. Duquesne. … Fun primer on logo design (with thanks to Kyle R.).