By Randy Whetstone Jr.
The evolution of basketball in the United States has been quite remarkable to say the least. There was once a time when true bragging rights took place on the neighborhood playgrounds, in church leagues and other community programs.
But now through the advancement of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and personal training, there are now elementary kids embracing the social media limelight as the next LeBron James or Diana Taurasi.
I had the chance to speak with Ballard’s boys basketball coach Chris Renner, as he explained to me the changes in the game, the evolution of AAU and what he envisions for the future of high school basketball.
What has changed the most about basketball since you started coaching?
When I was growing up, I was at St. Matthews Baptist Church, and we had Crescent Hill, Walnut Street and Cabbage Patch. The church league was really big along with Metro Parks, but now the AAU is taking over. You have your fifth and sixth grade league, even down to second grade. There are more places to go and more leagues to play in. It is a money maker, and people are making good money off that. Now, is it helping kids? It is giving them an opportunity to play games, but I sense they are not working on fundamentals quite as much.
The other change is not only do you have more AAU coaches and programs, but now you have individual instruction. Rick Pitino kind of brought that about with individual instruction with his players, and now you’re starting to see former high school and college guys doing workouts. Those are things that are drawing the kids in at an early age.
How has AAU made players better for when they return to play for their high school?
AAU gives kids a chance to play basketball more. Once their season is over in high school, they are able to play for a team. AAU is really good for the higher-level players because it does get them exposure. I would say it is good from the perspective that most of the coaches do a good job and they are preaching the same message to the kids. The biggest negative I see from it is kids are wasting too much time traveling rather than working on fundamentals.
The AAU circuit was originally designed for the better players. Then it became “daddy ball.” He puts a team together with his friends and good buddies and then all of a sudden you have kids saying, “I am playing AAU and traveling to Vegas.” But they are not college-level basketball players. So they are wasting hours, time and money, and they are not getting recruited and those places are benefiting.
Has the decline in mastering the fundamentals watered down the game of basketball?
Guys back in the day like Darrell Griffith, Derek Anderson and Allan Houston, they were not on the AAU circuit, but they were pretty darn good players. I can take guys that are that size and say these guys got better at playing pickup ball, getting in the gyms and parks and just working and playing. But now these kids are playing starting in first grade, doing individual instruction, they are traveling across the country, but I don’t see them being better players.
What are some of the similarities between high school and AAU coaches?
Dealing with kids who have talent and who can play at the next level, part of the responsibility we have as high school and AAU coaches is to try to help prepare them. We’re never going to see them complete as we envision seeing it, but we are slowly putting pieces of that masterpiece and puzzle together so when they get to the next level, they are better off and they’re closer to becoming the best type of player they can be.
Something that we (high school coaches) do that you may not see as much on the AAU level is we hold our players more accountable. With AAU, they (a player) can be on one team, may not like how they are playing or don’t like the coach, so they end up leaving and bouncing from team to team. So what happens is the (AAU) coaches are afraid to get on the players and hold them accountable because they might lose them. But the good coaches and programs are not worried about that because what they do and how they travel speaks for itself.
What do you think high school basketball will look like in the next five to 10 years?
What I have seen happen, and I think we are seeing an even a bigger shift in this direction, is the rise of prep schools. It is the thing that is becoming more prevalent in the game of basketball. So there is a big shift and there are more of those prep schools coming up around the country. There have been some good prep programs who have allowed elite players to go places and focus a lot on basketball and a lot on their craft. VT