One unique aspect of soccer development as opposed to football and baseball is that we in the USA are all worried that other countries are doing it better. Little League and Pop Warner coaches surely don’t spend quite as much time absorbing the lessons of Barcelona, Ajax and Tahuichi as those of us in soccer.
In basketball, the USA is just starting to ease into that discussion, thanks in part to one U.S. star raised in Italy — Kobe Bryant, who shook up the basketball establishment a few days ago by saying European players are getting better skill development than the AAU-bred Americans.
This isn’t the first time Kobe has said something like this. Here’s what he told Jack McCallum nearly two years ago (“Chaos Theory,” SI, Feb. 25, 2013 — I couldn’t find it in the online vault):
I feel fortunate that I was over in Italy (from ages six to 13) when AAU basketball (got big) over here. They stopped teaching kids fundamentals in the United States, but that didn’t affect me. Over there, it wasn’t about competition and traveling around and being a big deal; it was about fundamentals, footwork, spacing, back cuts — all of those things. Look at Pau Gasol. Look at the skills he has compared to the guys who grew up playing AAU ball.
The irony is that this is the opposite of our concern in U.S. soccer — to an extent, anyway. We’re worried that U.S. soccer players don’t spend enough time playing on their own. Not enough “free play.” I haven’t heard anyone raise that concern about U.S. basketball players, who typically go to the gym or the playground for some pickup games if they’re not practicing.
Bob Cook thinks Kobe is tilting at windmills:
As long as college coaches use AAU and travel teams, rather than high school sports, as the basis of their recruiting, and parents continue to spend their money and time putting their kids in the youth sports machine to reach lottery-like dreams of a college athletic scholarship, the system will continue as we know it. Plus, in every profession, the road to developing talent and actually getting the job you want is not always the same.
Mike DeCourcy, a soccer guy in his own right, has a few related and sensible prescriptions for U.S. basketball, including more USA Basketball camps for younger players and hockey-style draft rules in which NBA teams can draft players and maintain their rights while they stay in college.
The latter would make sense; therefore, we shouldn’t expect the NCAA to do it.