Summer Ball: Skills vs. Showcases

My phone rang a few weeks back and I was surprised to pick up and hear her voice.  She’s the mom of a terrific couple of ball players, including an 8-year-old girl who may well prove to be the best of a boy-dominated bunch.  The caller, Christine, wanted to explore my level of interest in helping her pull together a spring/summer team for 15-year-old boys who, like one of her sons, was not playing provincial-level ball this summer and “needs to stay off the streets”.  

Curious but cautious, I replied with a few pointed questions around ‘AAU style ball’, travel, and cost.  Simply stated, I wanted nothing to do with any of the above; if it wasn’t grassroots, local and cheap, then count me out.  And my 15-year-old son, too. 

Christine assured me that she simply wanted a good place for her son and a handful of other boys she knew to hoop, and that it wouldn’t involve trips (or the dream of being showcased anywhere, let alone in some costly, far-flung destination).  As for the cost to play, she hadn’t really thought it through, but was thinking to charge parents an initial fee of “maybe $50?”  Sold!  Now this was starting to sound like the sort of ball team I could get behind. 

I added a few more cents-worth of ideas, including that the team have a pair of “anchor coaches” who keep the balls in play and the scrimmages orderly, but that she invite in 4 to 6 “guest coaches” to run various skills sessions, in lieu of practices, that scrimmages be a big part of the agenda, and that games be exhibition-only and played against local teams.  Oh, and that practices move between gyms and neighbourhoods and include a handful to be held outdoors.  

(I didn’t mean to steam-roll Christine with ideas, but she knew who she was calling - and besides, she has a toughness that will not allow her to be pushed of her plans let alone pushed around.) 

It was a great call and led to another few more like it, and a meeting or two. Best of all, her team came together quickly and shows great promise.  Not ‘promise’ in the way that AAU coaches “selling the dream” mean it.  ‘Promise' in the sense that the kids who participate will be exposed to practice sessions that are devoted to skill development and games that are designed to showcase what’s been learned in those practices — rather than what a particular kid can do for a high school team or university program.  

Christine’s call and her philosophy for the team took me back to an interview I did a few years back with the legendary coach Bob Hurley, Sr.  We were seated in his condo in Jersey City overlooking the New York skyline when he told me how upset he was that kids nowadays play on teams year-round.  “They should be playing on teams between October and May, and on playgrounds and for fun — developing their skills and not playing in tournaments and trying to impress coaches — from June to September,” he said in his gruff Jersey accent.  

Bob Hurley knows of what he speaks.  After all, this dude is one a very few high school coaches in the Basketball Hall of Fame(!) in Springfield.  And, oh yeah, his sons Bobby Jr. and Dan had passable playing careers.  These included Bobby Jr’s national championship runs with Duke before heading to the NBA, and Dan’s play at point guard for Seton Hall.  Both Hurley boys have, since they hung up their sneakers, made even bigger names for themselves as coaches: Bobby is the head coach at Arizona State, and Dan is bench boss at Connecticut.   

Not bad results for two players-turned-coaches whose old man was one of the most intense coaches of all time.  And yet the elder Hurley knew enough to let his own sons develop their basketball games during the summer months on lonely playgrounds and in crowded, elbows-up pick-up games.