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Is AAU culture ruining basketball? Suns coach Earl Watson would argue the opposite

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While many big-named coaches and players lament how the AAU mentality is impeding today’s athletes, Phoenix Suns coach Earl Watson offers a strong counter argument.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Most NBA fans know that Earl Watson played 13 years in the NBA and became the head coach of the Phoenix Suns less than two years after retiring.

What most fans don’t know about him is that he’s spent more than a decade giving back to the game of basketball through his AAU program, Earl Watson Elite.

AAU programs offer kids 12-17 years old around the country an opportunity to be a part of a team, play in weekend basketball tournaments, participate in fund raisers and get exposure to coaches and recruiters.

The Earl Watson Elite teams are successful, just last month winning the U-17 Invitational in Las Vegas’ “Fab 48” tournament, with the U-16 and U-15 teams each making the final four. The U-17 team finished the summer ranked 11th nationally, while their U-16 and U-15 teams are each ranked 13th nationally among almost 300 recognized programs throughout the U.S.

But Watson says that AAU basketball is about a lot more than winning basketball games.

“For me,” Watson said to Bright Side, “it’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve done, outside of myself, in my entire life, is being involved in grassroots basketball.”

Watson’s program, based in Los Angeles and co-founded with president and program director Ryan Silver, is wide-ranging, successful and backed by Under Armour. The machine is so big now that Watson could easily just leave his name on the title and walk away to take care of his own interests.

Per NBA rules, he can’t be around the program all the time anymore while he’s an NBA coach. He can’t even watch high school games in person, instead following along on his phone for updates.

“It’s sad I have to look on my phone and find out if there’s a live stream I can catch it online,” he says.

He misses the interaction with the kids. He talks about the relationships he’s had with some of them since they were in 6th grade. He misses talking to them about prom, about graduations, about tough ball games.

Early in his endeavor, he invested tens of thousands of his own dollars, sometimes up to six figures, in the program to get the kids into the all-important weekend tournaments and secure the right coaches to show them how to play the right way.

His program openly brags about kids who now attend Harvard just as much as they advertise their AAU championships.

Not everyone talks about AAU in glowing terms like Watson does.

Many outspoken NBA players and coaches, including Steve Kerr, have made disparaging remarks against the AAU basketball culture in recent years, lamenting the mercenary attitudes of players, coaches and parents using the summer tournament structure to further one’s own future at the expense of others. And at the expense of the purity of the competitive, team-oriented game.

“What troubled me was how much winning is devalued in the AAU structure,” Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr wrote back in 2012 for Grantland.com when he was a broadcaster for Turner Sports. “Teams play game after game after game, sometimes winning or losing four times in one day.”

Kerr coached AAU ball for three years in the Southern California area, so you’d think his comments could be applied across the board.

Watson would disagree. As mentioned above, his teams put a lot of value on wins.

Kerr talks about lack of loyalty as well.

“Certain players play for one team in the morning and another one in the afternoon. If mom and dad aren’t happy with their son’s playing time, they switch club teams and stick him on a different one the following week,” Kerr said.

Watson has a different take. He talks about his kids being committed to his program for years. He even mentions some kids coming back to coach the next generation.

“I know [AAU] gets a bad rep from a lot of people,” Watson said of Kerr’s comments. “But I think if you have the right program and the right people, positive things can happen. There’s just so many teams. Only the bad teams you hear a lot about.”

While Watson’s program tries to get kids exposed to college programs to further their playing careers, just like everyone else, he doesn’t just focus on athletics.

He boasts his AAU program has helped over 200 kids move on to college in just the last six years alone.

“What I do different with AAU basketball,” he explained. “I don’t think a lot of people understand is, we also have a program that sits side by side with Earl Watson Elite that is an All-Academic team.

“We have three guys at Harvard, five or six guys in the Ivy League. We have banquets for those players with over 4.0 GPAs, and sometimes those guys will play on the Elite team and sometimes we play against other academic players. We kind of mix and match.

“But I think most importantly we reward everyone and I think that’s key. We have All-Academic camps, we invite the top academic schools to come and recruit and I think it’s a great platform that our guys have created for the program pushing forward.”

Again, not everyone has the same experience with AAU.

“The process of growing as a team basketball player — learning how to become part of a whole, how to fit into something bigger than oneself — becomes completely lost within the AAU fabric,” said Kerr.

Kerr’s comments on teamwork have a lot of merit.

Basketball is much more of a team sport than baseball, for example. The under-18 baseball showcasing and recruiting culture is much the same as AAU ball. High school baseball prospects spend every weekend going to this tournament and that tournament, changing teams all the time. It’s not about winning and losing, even for the coaches involved. It’s about getting themselves in front of the right scout or college recruiter on the right day.

But in baseball, you’re really playing for yourself, doing your thing, and going home afterward. There’s very little teamwork required to do well in baseball. So switching from team to team is not a big deal for a baseball player.

In contrast, basketball requires passing and spacing and integrated five-man plays to be successful. The more the players know each other, the better. So when kids are switching teams constantly there’s no chance to build that kind of teamwork. And when the coaches lack the requisite coaching skills, the kids have no reason to change.

Watson values a strong coaching staff.

“We don’t let someone’s father coach the team or someone’s friend, or the guy who runs his recruitment. We don’t allow that,” Watson said. “The coaches in our program really want to be college or NBA coaches. So what better way than to get in front of 300 coaches every weekend and show your skill and make it there because you’re skillful, not because you have a relationship with a player. That’s more longevity.”

Still, AAU isn’t helping develop the players’ fundamentals and preparation for the NBA much more than giving them a chance to showcase their skills. Lots of players and coaches lament the lack of fundamentals in today’s young NBA stars, and often point to AAU basketball as the culprit.

But AAU is not replacing high school basketball. And it doesn’t replace college basketball. It’s just a supplement. While players might find it easier to play AAU ball because of the free-form atmosphere, they still get their coaching from the same high school and college coaches they always have.

No, the big problem with lack of fundamentals is the early-entrant rules the NBA has adopted. Back in the ‘80s, players almost always stayed all four years in college. These days, the best players often get only one year in college.

In fact, the oft-cited Kerr comments about AAU culture were a small part of a larger article he penned lamenting the NBA’s minimum age limit. Kerr’s argument was to require kids to stay two years in college so they could regain some of those lost fundamentals.

AAU isn’t the problem. Entering the NBA at 19 years old, with only overworked, underpaid science teachers as your high school coaches plus maybe one year of instruction with a good college coach, that’s the problem. And even the great college coaches have had to adjust (simplify) their programs to make it easier for a freshman to succeed.

On its extreme, AAU basketball is a means to an end for the most talented kids in the country. It gives them a platform on which show their skills to dozens or hundreds of recruiters.

Sure, there’s some corruption involved with those players, and they don’t get the best advice all the time. And there’s the issues Steve Kerr brings up about lack of coaching and continuity.

But under that canopy, a lot of good comes from AAU too. Watson has benefitted personally from AAU ball. While growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, AAU helped get him noticed enough to get a scholarship offer from UCLA. He swears he’d had never gotten to UCLA without playing AAU ball.

Now Watson tries to provide that same opportunity to kids today.

“I’m forever indebted to these kids,” he says about paying it forward.

On a local level, former EWE athlete Tra Holder plays for ASU, and Chance Comanche plays for U of A. The EWE website lists dozens of scholarships earned by its alumni in recent seasons, and as mentioned above Watson says 200 of his kids have moved into college for either academics or basketball in the past six years.

Watson’s teams win and the kids move on to bigger and better, but that’s not the end all to beat all for Watson.

“For me it’s the relationships,” he says. “They allow us to be in their life. And with the kids you talk about prom coming up, or graduation or a tough basketball game. It’s a great opportunity to give back.

“For me its the most fulfilling thing I’ve done outside of myself in my entire life is being involved in grassroots basketball.”