Why you should care
Because the money’s there to make it happen.
India. China. Senegal. These are countries where the NBA has introduced global academies that offer scholarships to educate and train the world’s best young talent. Several more African countries, like Uganda and Kenya, are home to Jr. NBA programs. The NBA sees the world shrinking and isn’t wasting time or resources to better its talent pool. But there’s one place where the NBA has not invested much: the United States. The prospect of an American academy was first raised in 2006 by David Stern, the NBA commissioner at the time. Stern wanted a system mirroring European soccer that would provide traditional education and still allow room for developing fundamental skills. But nothing happened. And with a grassroots system that still isn’t developing talent well, it’s time that the NBA created its own U.S. academy.
If the NBA has reservations about creating an academy, it need look no farther than just north of the border. Canada is sitting on a golden pipeline of generational talent, perhaps the greatest in its history. Part of its secret to success? A junior academy. The NBA sees that potential abroad, evident by the money and resources it has poured into countries like China. The NBA can see it in Canada too. So why no change at home?
AAU develops a star mentality, but not stars with skill.
The primary form of competitive basketball in America is the Athletic Amateur Union. AAU has replaced high schools as the upper echelon of amateur basketball. It is dominated by three sneaker giants: Under Armour, Nike and Adidas. The players are pampered with shoes, hotels and plane rides, which breeds entitlement. That entitlement has brought criticism from NBA legends. Kevin Garnett described AAU as something that “has killed our league.” In an interview with NBA TV, he argued that AAU, home to thousands of athletes, isn’t teaching them anything. And Garnett is right. AAU is a showcase; it develops a star mentality, but not stars with skill.
Now, AAU isn’t all bad. It provides an opportunity for kids to travel the country, compete and get exposure they wouldn’t get in high school, which can lead to a life-changing scholarship. However, an alternative is needed and that’s where the NBA comes in. The NBA needs to go back to what Stern wanted in 2006: an academy. Sonny Vaccaro, the legendary former Nike marketing executive, agreed with Stern. “A lot of kids need a little more advancement than AAU,” Vaccaro told The New York Times in 2006. “I think it would be great if it could happen.” Eleven years later, USC Annenberg professor Jeff Fellenzer thinks there’s still great potential. “It probably makes a lot of sense,” Fellenzer tells OZY. “When you bring these under your own roof, you can tailor it to any way you want. You’re always going to be on the same page with what you teach.” Fellenzer notes that the NBA could use its academy facilities and invest in merchandise to help build revenue.
With growing popularity and a monstrous television deal, there’s money to make this happen. Get the top of the NBA think tank and start building. Send scouts all over the country and offer scholarships to the best players. Bring them in not only to hone their skills, but also, more important, to grow into mature, confident and motivated young adults. If kids are chasing basketball year-round between high school and AAU tournaments, how much internal development are they really getting? American basketball needs an NBA academy.