When I stepped off the plane from California after returning home from the Elite 24 high school basketball showcase last August, “it” was building. The feeling percolated and simmered to the point of sadness. The level of concern for this generation of players was weighing on my mind.
OK, that’s not exactly truthful. It actually took only five minutes into the event’s first scrimmage for “it” to begin. It was a feeling that crystallized as I watched two dozen of the best high school basketball players in the country gather for what should have been a chance to improve, push themselves and measure themselves against other great players.
Instead, what we saw was a microcosm of some of the ills of the game manifesting in one final end-of-summer setting. Don’t get me wrong. Some players were buttoned up, had their shirts tucked in and were working hard. But those players were in the minority. Most of the guys loafed around the bench, feigned injury and couldn’t have been more disinterested. I can’t say there was anyone pushing them or holding them accountable, but that’s merely part of the bigger problem.
The effort on the court was bad enough. Seven minutes in, the scrimmage disintegrated into a cherry-picking contest of uncontested dunks and missed layups. Having been in all-star settings before, expectations are low. But this was unreal. The best way to sum it up would be to say if college coaches had been allowed in the building, scholarships would have been pulled. Yes, it was that bad.
But the behavior off the court may have been even worse. One player said of the buffet at the Ritz Carlton, “They should have just gotten us pizza.” Another player asked Jalen Rose about the, well, women in the NBA. And we’re only scratching the surface here.
Why am I writing about this now? Because as the travel team season heats up, the entitled, diva culture of high school basketball steps once again to the forefront. And because, frankly, this hits home for me. It saddens me.
Having covered recruiting since 1997, I’ve witnessed a gradual decline in the attitudes of the players, the priorities of their parents and the overall state of the game. If saying so makes me a “hater,” then so be it. It’s the truth -- and any college coach not worried about his standing with recruits will echo the same sentiment.
Now, granted, there are still plenty of good guys. Players like Marcus Smart and Jabari Parker care about winning, play a team game and respect those around them. There’s no stress in watching them perform because you know they are driven by the right motivations and respect the game’s principles on and off the court.
Their attitudes make them all the more valuable, but they stand in stark contrast to a member of the Class of 2013 who earlier this month declined insertion into a competition because he felt disrespected about his minutes. Guys like Smart and Parker used to be the rule, now they’re the exception.
I asked the staffers at Elite 24 who’d been part of the game for the past seven years and they said last year’s crop was the most entitled bunch of players they’ve seen. Then a few months ago, I ran into a guy who worked the NBA draft combine and he said this year’s crop of NBA rookies that came through the combine was the most entitled group he’d seen. Getting a clearer picture now?
There’s plenty of talent in the high school ranks -- that’s not the problem. The issue is that the talent isn’t being developed on or off the court to standards that benefit the health of the game.
College coaches have to teach freshmen basic concepts -- concepts so basic that the average fan would be mortified to know how little his coveted recruit actually understands about the game. I once watched a current top 100 senior run to the baseline when told to start a play at the elbow.
Some college programs take the initiative from day one to help their guys. I’ve heard of teams going through courses on dress, manners and how to respectfully treat women. But other programs are content to allow their players to pass through the turnstiles and let the chips fall where they may. Sadly, there are college coaches with so little interest in developing the person as well as the player that they'd sooner have him transfer than invest time in teaching him the right way to conduct himself.
There is plenty of blame to go around. I'll even point the finger at myself. Though cognizant of overhyping a player, it's irresponsible not to view myself as a cog in the process.
Those of us who cover basketball from the grassroots level share many similar opinions on the state of the game, and the college guys bend our ears daily with tales from their end. Something has to change, but change isn’t easy.
Recently, three things came to mind that, if we could instill these values in future generations of players, might actually make some progress.
Let’s face it: College basketball is a business, and high school basketball isn’t far behind. But it’s not the NBA. These players aren’t professionals, and despite a lot of people and entities making money, playing this game is not a right. College basketball is a privilege. High school and AAU basketball should be considered privileges, as well.
When someone gives you food, fills the stands with thousands of people to watch you or offers a simple “congrats on your success,” there’s a standard of appreciation that should reciprocate that courtesy. “Thank you” is an easy phrase to say.
It’s a privilege to play college basketball. You have to be good enough. Wearing the uniform itself should be a source of pride. The name on the front of the jersey should trump the letters stitched on the back.
No one is bigger than the game. Every year there are two dozen McDonald’s All Americans, but there has never been a year when they’ve all become NBA players or even elite college players. You haven’t made it just by being an elite recruit. High school success isn’t the destination, it’s just part of the journey.
Players who think they are special are making a mistake. Being an elite recruit means you have a chance to be good. Respect the chance, make the most of it, but stay humble.
3. Being part of something bigger than yourself
It’s not just the one-and-done guys who don’t “unpack their bags” in college. Players who are in their fourth years might still have never bought into the team or allowed themselves to be coached. In today’s game, high school kids are constantly transferring. So when they get to college and hit a wall, they do what they’ve been conditioned to do: they transfer.
It would be nice to see players take up the challenge of unpacking their bags, getting to know their teammates and respecting the journey they are about to go on. Take pride in being a part of your school’s community and weave yourself into the fabric of campus life. You might actually like what you see.
The role of parents plays into this, too. Look around the gym at basketball events. Too often, instead of the parents sitting together and cheering the team, they’re isolated, choosing instead to only cheer for their sons. Parents are more likely to wonder why a player didn’t pass to their son than be happy for the kid who scored. Parents also need to allow their kids to be coached, corrected and even -- hold your breath now -- criticized. Life’s a journey. Experiencing some trials and tribulations now can prepare a young man for the future.
In today’s grassroots basketball culture, there’s always another game, another camp, another event. Forget that. Winning matters. A return to that simple maxim could go a long way toward reclaiming our values and culture -- and game -- on and off the court.