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Does road to college or pro sports go through travel teams?

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Most likely, yes, but unrealistic expectations cloud youth sports

By John Herndon

Everyone knows about World Wide Wes.

At least everyone who is anyone in college basketball knows about William Wesley, maybe the most well-known powerbroker around AAU basketball.

Kentucky Wildcat fans learned about Wes during the courtship that culminated in John Calipari's hiring in Lexington. While at Memphis, Calipari and World Wide Wes had a controversial relationship that centered on players such as Dajuan Wagner, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Derrick Rose ending up in the Tiger program.

The biggest questions concerning Calipari were often tied with Wesley, although it should be noted that the NCAA has never charged Calipari with any wrongdoing at Memphis.

Whether there were recruiting irregularites or just a cushy relationship with someone who could deliver the goods, as in top-flight players, the questions about what did or did not happen at Memphis has prompted serious discussion about the role of AAU coaches in basketball and travel team leaders in general.

Anderson County boys' basketball coach Glen Drury says that, while many question some of the things that go on in recruiting and AAU in general, he has had good relationships with the AAU coaches with whom he has had dealings. He also feels that it is good for his players.

“The biggest thing about AAU is that kids see a lot of talent across the U.S.,” Drury said. “They get to play against the so-called best talent. So when they do that, and can see it, they can understand what a college recruiter wants.”

But even though Drury has had good luck when players like Will Carlton, Jon Beasley and C.J. Penny played AAU basketball, he has been around long enough to hear the countless bad stories and has seen kids exploited by the recruiting power plays in college basketball.

“A lot of the AAU guys, at least the ones I have dealt with, find some ways to get the kids better,” Drury says. “But a lot of them are in it for themselves and if the coach is in it for himself and not for the kids, the players won't benefit.”

Clay Birdwhistell, one of the coaches of the Anderson Elite AAU program for girls' basketball, agrees.

“You can get all the top talent on one team, but then it becomes an all-star team,” he said. “You can win a lot of tournaments that way but what is the motivation?”

Adds Nick Cann, also of the Elite, “The all-star team has its advantages in tournaments, but our advantage is that we develop Anderson County kids. We run some offense and play together.”

That travel teams – AAU basketball, select soccer and volleyball, along with summer baseball – have become entrenched in sports cannot be denied. “For sheer player development, as far as basketball goes, (AAU) has almost become a necessary evil,” says Anderson County resident Darrell Pittman.

Pittman's 10-year-old son, Dylan, showed some ability and a love for basketball as soon as he started playing. “When Dylan was 6, he developed a love for the game of basketball that surpassed any interest I had ever seen in him. It was one season of Upward that exposed him to the game. Funny thing was, when the season ended, he didn’t want to quit. I figured that parents don’t have any problems dropping a few dollars to teach their kids guitar or piano, so I found him a private basketball instructor,” Pittman said in an e-mail.

Dylan has played on several different AAU teams already.

“AAU can be frustrating, humbling and beneficial at the same time,” Darrell Pittman says. “Most AAU teams are made up of elite players. So if your child was once a dominant athlete, more than likely, he is now on an even playing field. Or maybe even a few steps behind. Many parents have a hard time making the adjustment from star to role player, or on the bench. It can become quite humbling to quickly learn that your kid might not be the phenom you thought he was. Every parent can dream, right?”

Pittman, who has set up a blog chronicling the ups and downs of his experiences in AAU basketball, knows the odds are stacked against his son ever making it big in the sport.

“Would I like to see him win a scholarship from it all? Absolutely,” he says. "Who doesn’t hope their child grows up to have that kind of potential, whether academically or athletically. But I don’t have any false hopes of him playing for a D1 school like many parents do. Sure, it would be great, but those are some lofty goals. It is just too hard to see that kind of potential in a 10-year-old. A lot can happen in seven years.”

Bart Lewis, the president of the Anderson County Little League baseball organization should know. A star athlete at West Carter High School in Olive Hill, he merited a baseball tryout with the Cincinnati Reds and played collegitately at Eastern Kentucky, a Division I school.

“Most people don't comprehend how hard it is to get a major college scholarship or make it in the pros,” he said. “What happens is that you have a kid who is the best on a team of 10 or 12 kids and then people start thinking 'Little Johnny is the best.' But when you have a Division I team, you have 10 or 12 spots for players from all over the world.

“Also, when a kid is 8 or 9, who is to say he will still be the best four or five years down the road. A lot can happen.”

It happens across the sport spectrum. Players and parents dream of the big time, with some even hooking up with “player agents,” another outgrowth of the current climate in youth sports. The “agents” promise to deliver a college scholarship, for a fee of course. Websites also promise maximum exposure for colleges and several rank the top prospects as early as sixth grade.

It is all part of the game of getting the name out and hoping for the big time, no matter what the sport.

A junior on the girls' soccer team at Anderson County High School, Katie Gustafson has been playing select soccer for the past year. She says the experience has unquestionably improved her game.

But is there a chance of false hope?

“Yes,” she said emphatically. “You can get injured.”

“Studies have shown that only 10 percent of soccer players will play beyond high school,” says Katie's mother, Julia Gustafson, the president of the local Anderson Independent Youth Soccer Association.

That figure might actually be generous. An article that appeared in the New York Times on March 10, 2008, noted that the NCAA statistics from the 2003-04 school year showed that about two percent of the 6.4 million athletes playing high school sports four years earlier received any form of athletic aid from NCAA institutions.

Figures for NAIA schools and those competing in other jurisdictions are reported differently, according to the same article. It noted that NAIA schools do not differentiate athletic aid from other institutional aid.

NCAA athletic scholarships are not four-year grants, as many mistakenly believe. They are one year grants that are renewed yearly. How often they are not renewed is unclear but the practice gained some local attention recently when Calipari cut loose some players recruited by former coach Billy Gillispie.

It should also be noted that most athletic scholarships, even at major colleges are not full rides and amount to coaches dividing available grants among a much larger pool of players. Last year, the University of Kentucky had 157 student-athletes on full scholarship, but 223 on partial scholarship, according to Tony Neely, a sports information director for the school.

The bulk of the full scholarships are awarded in the glamour sports of football, men's basketball and women's basketball. Women's tennis, volleyball and gymnastics are also sports that offer full scholarships at UK. All other sports are currently partial scholarship only.

At the NAIA level, the hope for a full scholarship might be even more dire.

“It wasn't even close,” Anderson County High School football coach Mark Peach said of the gap between athletic aid and the cost of college at Campbellsville University. Peach was head coach at Campbellsville for two years, leading the program into the NAIA Top 25, before returning to Anderson as coach.

“You put together packages,” Peach said, referring to academic, athletic and other grants. “But all football scholarships were partial.”

The same is true for all other sports. Athletic grants can be as little as $2,000 per year, far short of tuition and expenses at even the most inexpensive schools.

Yet, it has been accepted that travel teams are also a part of the equation.

“If the ultimate goal is to develop and improve at the highest level possible, you have to do what the most competitive kids are doing. Right now, that is AAU,” Pittman says. “There is a truckload of drawbacks to playing AAU basketball, but if your goals are to develop your kid into the best ball player he can be he has to go through AAU.

“I also am an advocate of the mindset that you have to believe to achieve. And although the odds aren’t in his favor, I am never going to be the one to tell him not to follow his dream, but instead to work as hard as he can to reach it.”

Pittman's is a voice of dreams tempered by reason.

As Myles Brand, the president of the NCAA, noted in the New York Times article, “The youth sports culture is overly aggressive, and while the opportunity for an athletic scholarship is not trivial, it’s easy for the opportunity to be overexaggerated by parents and advisers. That can skew behavior and, based on the numbers, lead to unrealistic expectations.”

Drury, who has been coaching high school basketball for over 25 years, agrees. “Everyone wants to play in college, but if you want to play ball in college, the best thing you can do is have a high grade point average and high ACT score.”

E-mail John Herndon at jpherndon@theandersonnews.com.