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Chasing Hoops Dreams: AAU and its Effect on Young Athletes

The recruiting trail can be a long process for coaches and players.  During the grueling fall and winter, Players must balance their high school games with other extracurriculars and most importantly their academics. Coaches have game film to splice, game plans to create, practices to run and games to play.  The fall is hectic to say the least but in the summer, it is a different ball game. The aforementioned activities of the fall are not as prevalent and that allows for the coaches and players to focus on three letters. AAU.

AAU stands for the Amateur Athletic Union; their mission statement   states that their purpose is to “offer amateur sports programs through a volunteer base for all people to have the physical, mental, and moral development of amateur athletes and to promote good sportsmanship and good citizenship.” AAU is more than just basketball; there is AAU across all sports including track, football, volleyball and softball. However, basketball is the biggest attraction for college coaches and young athletes hoping to get a chance to get a scholarship.  

AAU basketball can make a huge difference for young athlete. It can help elevate them from a relative unknown, to a division one prospect.  For instance take the story of Stephan Holm; Holm was one of the better players in Utah and was a match-up nightmare in high school.  However, Holm was not involved with AAU and hadn’t gained much steam recruiting wise. Holm then joined a local AAU team, where he was a not a star but a solid role player.  Through that AAU experience he was able to get noticed by schools and ultimately will attend Montana State this season.

For every opportunity AAU has given on the court, it has also been a blessing off the court for players.

 Riverview Hurricanes AAU Coach Fred Spencer  exemplifies the AAU’s off court presence. Coach Spencer “wanted to run a program that wasn’t all about basketball.”  His Hurricanes team has seen its fair share of success on the court; placing third at the (Year) USSSA Tournament in North Carolina.

However, off the court bigger strides have been made. When players join the team, they sign a contract which requires them to hold a 2.75 GPA and do at least 25 hours of community service. The service and GPA standards teach the young athletes that as important as it is to be diligent on the court they also need to strive for excellence in their community and within themselves.   Coach Spencer’s on and off the court presence has given the kids that play AAU chances to develop athletically while teaching them the right path as young men.

AAU has and will continue to do lots of great things for young athletes.  However, there are some disadvantages to what AAU has become.  AAU is more of a one on one expo where offense is really highlighted. The high octane offense and lack of defense in AAU can make a lot of players look like the next Kevin Durant.  Coaches have to discern between players with true talent and players who are product of the system.  In a conversation I had with LaSalle Coach John Giannini, he stated that the lack of defense “makes players look better offensively than what they truly are.”  

The overlap between athletes and the coach’s schedules gives AAU a limited amount of time to play games. Thus when the AAU circuit gets started, it becomes pedal to the metal; Teams will play 3 or more games in a single day.  Coach Giannini stated that “winning and losing becomes common place with so many games. At the Division 1 level there is much at stake in every college game and sometimes kids don't understand that because the meaning of winning and losing has been diminished  by playing so many AAU games.”

The last quote by Dr. Giannini really jumps off the page; most really think that a system as helpful and popular as AAU would not taint the competitive juices of the athletes but the system of AAU can do exactly that.

AAU has become more than just basketball; it has evolved into a business, where the stud ball players show case their talents in order to catch the eye of a college program.  The upcoming documentary At All Costs  showcases the life of an elite prospect. The trailer highlights the change that AAU has made to the game of basketball and how coaches recruit players. It also shows the business side of AAU, and how agents and shoe companies use AAU to get access to players and to drive their bottom line.  

The business side of AAU isn’t always the prettiest side of the game and it could bring up questions of amateurism but that’s a topic for another day.

The bottom line is AAU has done a lot of good for players on the court and off the court. It is a far from perfect program but it’s a program that has done so much and will continue to do so much for the college game and for young athletes across the nation.