the REAL words of the AAU in Mass
By John Kottori
The Mass AAU State Tournaments are less than 24 hours away from tipping off and I still get that excited feeling of chasing that goal my team prepared to capture. For someone, who decided to take a sabbatical from coaching for the first five years of my daughter's life, I still am a coach. Even though I am currently not on the sidelines barking out "GO", "DO THE FOOTWORK", "SPACING" (and so much more), I get that feeling here we go.
The Mass AAU State Tournament is a big thing to me. It is where I became a better AAU coach and a better High School coach. It is where I learned how to teach my players the value of "perfect practice." It is where I fostered so many good relationships with coaches who were on the sidelines for the right reason, the players they were teaching. It is where my teams would chase those TEAM goals of qualifying for the AAU Nationals and hopefully snag a State Championship. Success can come in different forms and by no means do I, solely, attribute wins and losses to that word. Did you leave everything on the floor or at home? Did you play within yourself or for yourself? Did I coach for a greater purpose or just for the moment? For me, it's all about the experiences and lessons the AAU, especially the State Tournament and National Championship, has allowed me and EVERY player I coached to gain from in this thing we call life.
One of the things, I always come back to when speaking of the AAU State Championships is my first Final Four game in the 17u Division against BABC in 2000. I know what you're thinking. No surprise someone has a story about BABC in a Final Four State Tournament. As they strive for their 100th title over the next couple of weeks that number means more than a century mark it's only fitting they are within this entry.
Before I reflect on that specific story, I want to tell you about a game which took place a couple of years earlier. The AAU was still new to me back in 1998. I had a team comprised of players from 3 high schools and we were doing our circuit laid out by my club director. We headed down to Griswold Ct to play in a tournament run by Charlie Wilcox of the Ct. Force. We were doing well, 2-0 going into Sunday. It didn't matter to me who we had scheduled as an opponent, in my youthful inexperience, we were really good. When I was told BABC, I didn't think too much of it. I didn't think of calling my club director to find out the 411 on the BABC. This was my youthful ego getting the better of me.
As soon as we walked into this Hoosier-like gym, we saw the BABC. I mean THE BABC. Every one of them was warming up above the rim. Knocking down warm-up shots 5 in a row, 6 in a row from well beyond and arc. The size of this team, which I didn't care to at least place a call about, was enormous. They were as lengthy as they were vertical. But I was a coach. I was a 2-0 coach. My team was 2-0 team. Size means nothing. David verses Goliath. The ego of mine was so immature but, my competiveness reflected in my players as they had no fear.
As quick as the game started, I realized my ego needs to grow up. I could have two reactions to the dunks, fast break points, blocked shots, and every other highly skilled basketball move that had us down by twenty before, what it seem to be, one of the refs made it to the other side of the floor. Would my reaction be hot headed, ticked off this team was playing us, or maybe even the "let's just get out of here." My competiveness took over. I coached the sweat out of me. I instructed every moment of the game. I kept things in perspective. I hadn't looked at the scoreboard since it was 34-5. But neither did my players. So, when the final buzzer went off and I finally saw the 126-48 whacking, I said to myself- lesson learned.
Now here comes my real lesson on that day. Going through the handshaking line, I finally get to the coach. Leo Papile grabs my hand and says these exact words, "hey, you guys did pretty good." Immediately, I thought what an "A**." Respectfully, I didn't say a word (good thing my ego grew up) but the next words out of his mouth helped me have longevity in coaching basketball. Leo say, "we're really good and we've been averaging 150 points a game and we didn't stop playing in this one." THANKS and thank you. The little left of my ego was thinking, "THANKS for not stopping to play as you demolished us." My maturing nature said, "He didn't have to try to put it in perspective for me nor try to have me see a positive to bring back to my players, so thank you." From that game on, I knew of the BABC and Leo.
Fast forward to the 2000 season. We were AAU good. Most of my players went on to play college ball including a Division II scholarship (Bryant) player. This season we could make a serious run for the 17u AAU State Title and no matter who stepped on the floor (even BABC), I thought we could compete against. We made our way through pool play with ease and made it to the Final Four.
Back in those days, there were no online schedules or emails or team websites. The Final Four (didn't have it on a separate weekend) was set with BABC verses CMAC Hawks and Mass Hysteria verses YABC. Only three teams would get a trip to the Nationals (there was no DII or DII). By the way, Mass Hysteria had won 5 consecutive AAU State titles (12u-16u) and they were the first group to refer themselves as "The Family." Anyways, I digress too much sometimes.
We step on the floor at Northeastern against the Jermaine Watson era BABC team with full confidence we could play with and beat them. I wasn't stupid either. We'd have to play nearly perfect basketball to get it done but we could. Throughout the contest the BABC kept an 8-12 point lead. As the second half was getting into crunch time, I knew we had to make some sort of run. We tried, but Leo was thinking the same. In what seemed like an instant an 8 point lead became 20.
My ego said, "Did ya miss me?" Luckily, my maturity said to my ego, "Get back in the crib." I called a timeout, instructed, made adjustments, and every other thing a mature coach would do. It didn't matter if it was BABC or the Celtics. We bounced back. We cut that 20 point lead to 4 and Leo had to call a timeout. Now, all of us in AAU know if you get Leo to call a timeout, your team is playing well. Like any great coach, Leo rectified his situation and we couldn't sustain. We lost by eight and I had to regroup for the bronze game in an hour against YABC.
The YABC game was a classic game of styles. We had methodical way of playing and YABC was an intense group with no giving up. Billy Washington was a great coach that day- and any other day as well. Back and forth the game went. Both teams were making shots and very little mistakes. Both teams made adjustments and the benches contributed in timely fashion.
Late in the game, YABC was making a run at our slim lead. They were gaining momentum and it seemed like I would have to wait year for my first National Bid. Suddenly, I hear this baby crying in my head. That ego sometimes didn't listen. I thought of one thing and then another and then questioning my ability to be a coach at this level. Then the mature coach finally rid me of the ego. The mature coach said to the ego, "This isn't about you. It's about these players who deserve a National Bid. Now coach them the way you know."
We won the game and a National Bid to Orlando. From that point on my ego never dared to come back in my head on the sidelines and more importantly in life.
So, as you all chase that State Title and National Bid (whether it be your first or #100), remember to keep that ego in the crib and coach for the players you have. No matter what the outcome brings, if you keep things in perspective so will your players and they will get the experience they deserve.
Twenty years ago when I got first involved with grassroots basketball the landscape was very different than it is today. In the early 90-s off season basketball consisted more of kids playing on their own as opposed to adults organizing leagues, teams and opportunities. AAU or grassroots basketball programs were few and geared to a certain level of basketball. As time has gone on we have seen an explosion of grassroot programs, exposure events, basketball training, and everyone who has an interest to play basketball can find an opportunity if they so choose to. I am a strong believer in change so in most cases I have accepted and supported the changes we have seen in grassroots basketball and I believe that everyone should have the right to start a program as long as their #1 agenda is doing it for the kids. In the same breath I would like to see ALL OF US take a hard look at our craft and find ways to make improvements for the sake of the kids. When I first started I looked to people like Leo Papile, Mike Crotty Sr and others for guidance and direction and now many years later I enjoy assisting both new programs as well as more seasoned programs become successful and impactful. Secure individuals love the feedback and direction and it is quite exciting seeing the growth in these programs. So our business is not broken but it needs tweaking and everyone needs to be able to look in the mirror and say can I do this better. The following are some talking points that all programs should think about
1. Have a clear mission and philosophy- It is imperative that when you start a program you should have a clear vision for your program that both your players/ parents understand and buy into. You can always tweak your vision as time goes on but changing your vision year to year, your name, your product spells doom and everyone else can see that
2. Communication is the key- A mistake many programs make is when they fall short in communicating with their parents and players. Programs who do it right have newsletters, email communication, state of the program address etc. Those that do not value the importance of communication are usually left wondering why they lost families and why they have frustrated parents who call and email you everyday
3. Skill Development is a core to your success. Everyone can play a million games and yes the games are where players measure where they are at but the best programs incorporate REAL Skill Development. Real skill development is done by trained /skilled clinicians. It is important for everyone to have the right people doing the development. Do not be afraid to bring qualified people in as different voices sharing the same message. Do not be insecure, do not try to do it all yourself
4. Qualified coaches are a must: As your program grows it is imperative to get qualified coaches. These folks need to know the game and know how to teach the game and they should only have agenda of making every kid on their team better. Programs that have coaches coaching 5-10 teams are missing the boat and it shows. Train your coaches or give them the means to go to coaching clinics
5. Do what you say you are going to do: The most frustrating thing for parents and players is to be sold a bill of goods that you do not deliver on. Only promise what you can deliver and then go out and deliver an excellent product. If you deliver a great product you sleep like a baby at night
6. Do not blow kids up: The players game will do the talking. Whether it is at grassroot tourneys, credible exposure events, or at practice the cream will always rise to the top! It’s always very sad especially at the young ages when people blow kids up unrealistically and when it is exposed who worries about the kid? I am in favor of rankings, etc at the high school age as a lot more is accurate after 9th grade year of high school
7. Do not Cheat: Why Cheat is the bigger question. Abide by the rules. Anyone who lies about age, grade etc. has some serious character flaws and gives our business a bad name. Most people don’t but those that do should be called out and there should be a consequence. Hate to break it to you but nobody remembers who won a 6th grade tourney
8. Mentor the new programs: A call out to all those doing it the right way, help out the new programs and help pave the way for a bright future of our game
9. Make sure your parents and players keep it in perspective: Doing this for 20 years I could write a book about the craziness that takes place around the court. As a program Director it is your duty to address sportsmanship etc. with your parents and players. If you don’t do it your just lazy
10. Big is not always better: Those that have an interest in making this a full-time career need to know bigger is not always better. A number of large programs (more than 25 teams) start to lose touch with their families and then the complaints start and product fails. If you are going to be a large program make sure you have the capabilities to do it right
11. Networking: I find it excellent on many levels when I can network with fellow program directors, tourney directors, college recruitment etc. Stay to yourself and your missing out
12. Do not offer a service that you cannot deliver. We are all robbers in this field, nobody invented the wheel here but I find it comical when programs steal an idea and use my exact words, at least do not plagiarize me and if you announce you’re a leader in getting kids recruited to play college basketball and you don’t have relationships with college coaches your just lying. The truth always is revealed
13. Follow the appropriate competition: In New England we have a number of sneaker sponsored programs that have some elite teams that play a national elite schedule. The best thing Nike and Adidas ever did was set this up. After the sneaker sponsored program is the next tier of truly talented programs and it trickles down to B, C and recreational level teams. Play the best competition you can and do not play down a level cause it gives you the best chance to win a t-shirt. If you say you have a national team it should not be playing in the Mass State Division 2 Tourney. Wins and losses at the end of the day does not matter, what does matter is did your team, your players and your program get better this weekend
14. If you are running a tourney pay attention to detail. I do not personally run tourneys so I rely on others to run tourneys and all I ask is put out a good product, good facilities, good competition, refs that actually want to be there, no errors in scheduling, awards to champions, games on time, legit concession stands and outstanding site directors
15. For programs who provide exposure opportunities: Not all programs are geared towards this but those that are the key is putting your teams in the best situations to be seen. Nowadays there are many options, some are outstanding some are not. Do your homework and help your players choose appropriate options
16. Value your customer: At the end of the day a program must never forget its constituents and it is important to value more than just the financial commitment.
I could probably go on and on and for those that read this you may agree on some things and disagree on others- that is your right but maybe there is a nugget here for you to at least think about. In the end we will all do what we feel is right for our programs. Please at the very least be PASSIONATE about youth travel basketball and DO IT FOR THE KIDS
Again it is not broken but it could sure use some tweaking!!!!, Yours In Hoop!
Rick Gorman- Founder/ Director of New England Storm & BST Training
The more things change...
Every spring it happens. The high school, middle school, travel and rec leagues finish their respective seasons and players follow the path AAU basketball. I've seen so many seasons and often hear "things have changed." It has caused me to look at my journey through this sport in reflection, in hopes to any the question- Has it changed?
When I first started, coaching and, ummm, coaching were the only things on my mind- the only thing which concerned me. I had teams made up of "local" kids who just wanted to play basketball, get better at skill, and have fun. These were high school kids from from rival schools, in other words they really didn't care for each other. We began by practicing in whatever gym we could get. Our first AAU tournament was in Rhode Island with the Breakers It was my first time coaching outside the state of Massachusetts. We were good at home but learned quickly "the big fish in a little pond" saying was true. What happened? We got better. I got better. I started to meet new coaches and directors. Most, like me, were in this for the right reasons. Guys like Dave Vitale from the Rhode Island Breakers, Steve Nazzaro from Merrimack Valley, Bob Pelzik for the Mass Hoops Jaguars, Jack Collins from Shaq Attack, and then.....
Yeah, Coach Crotty from the Middlesex Magic. Walked into a gym on the North Shore as we had a game soon. Not 1 second after telling the admissions person (admission was $2 back then) I was a coach, I heard "SHOOT IT!!!". "JUST SHOOT IT!!!!" As I got closer and closer to the court, the sounds of this coach echoed even more. I asked myself, "who is this nut?" Like a good coach I instructed the 4 kids I gave rides to sit in the bleachers. "WOULD YOU PLEASE SHOOT THE BALL!!!!!"
As I sit join my players in the bleachers behind this, to me, unknown yelling machine, realize the players are playing hard... real hard... as hard as this machine is yelling. So, I ask an older gentleman next to me, "who is this coach?" He responds "that's Coach Crotty." The game was back and forth... intense... REAL AAU basketball. All of the sudden, this yelling machine Coach Crotty took it to another level as he started cranking up his voice and instruction. I start to think to myself, "if he keeps this up, his kids are going to bolt."
Then something happened which said to me this is what AAU should be. A blond haired kid walks toward Coach Crotty during play. At first, I'm thinking if this poor kid walks in front of the yelling machine, he's going to get knocked out. The Magic missed a three "TAKE IT AGAIN!" The blond haired kid gives Coach Crotty a set of keys and turns around and starts to walk away. "HEY!!!" Coach Crotty stops (the games still going on with the Magic taking 3's) and "COME HERE" calling this blond haired kid back over with one finger. Now, I'm thinking did he give him the wrong keys? Did this kid take his car for a joy ride? The kid walks back and this yelling machine who's kids were playing as hard as he coached and taking 3's no matter what, exchanges a kiss on the cheek with this kid. Yeah, this yelling machine who I was about to say "isn't going to last the day" to me went from Coach Crotty to Mike Crotty Sr. A proud father who no matter what the situation knew the most important thing, at ANY time, is to let his son know his priorities.
Much has changed in AAU in Massachusetts but the values of every coach instructing should have the same priorities.