Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories about the AAU experience for basketball players
Look at your local high school basketball roster. Do a little Googling and you will find a player, or several, that play basketball for an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team.
As soon as the high school season ends, they are starting practices and tournaments. Whether they play for a local organization that participates in a handful of regional tournaments, or compete with the best players in the country on a shoe-sponsored circuit, AAU basketball is a growing phenomenon that can be found in your backyard.
Grassroots basketball, also known as AAU, is organized basketball outside of high school and community-run travelling programs. There are numerous organizations and programs that provide grassroots basketball, some which belong to AAU, while some of the most popular do not. Grassroots basketball has simply become known as AAU, much like how Kleenex stands for facial tissues or in some regions Coke stands for all kinds of soda.
The AAU circuits become especially important in July when coaches spend the most time recruiting players across the nation. Without playing AAU or in a similar circuit, the opportunity to be seen shrinks.
Regardless of its potential value, AAU is criticized for its role in changing the game of basketball. The argument against AAU is that as the number of teams increases, the quality of the play goes down. NBA legend Kobe Bryant is one of the most significant players to criticize it. In a 2015 post-game interview, Bryant said AAU impedes the skill development of players and does not teach the game the right way, as well as treating the players as "cash cows."
Ask a room full of basketball fans about AAU basketball and you will likely get a split opinion. But how often are the players asked their opinion? Do they believe they are benefiting from the experience, that it is worthwhile?
The reasons why players choose to play AAU basketball span a wide spectrum. Sawyer Levos, who will be a senior this year at Hastings High School (Minn.) and just finished his final AAU season with the Minnesota Fury, simply wanted to play more basketball.
"I love basketball and I do it whenever I can," Levos said. "Honestly I didn't think I was getting enough basketball, even though we have tournaments in the summer for school ball and everything. I just wanted to keep playing more and more."
Levos first started playing AAU in seventh grade and over time his motivations for playing have evolved.
"At the start, it was more to grow as a player and play with different people," he explained. "It's kind of a different experience to play with guys you've never played with before. You have to show them what you can do because it's a whole different team and no one knows what you're capable of. As I kept playing over the years, it kind of became more about the college part. My ultimate goal is to play Division II or Division III basketball. Last year wasn't as much about the college part but this year my eyes opened to that piece more because I had coaches contacting me. This year has become more about the college exposure."
Courtney Brown, Jr., an upcoming junior at East Ridge High School (Minn.), first started playing in fourth grade.
"I wanted to play in the summer and not just for the travelling program, I wanted to get more exposure to the competition, because AAU is very different from travelling," Brown explained. "As I got older it (AAU) started to get a lot faster, a lot tougher, and that's when I moved over to Howard Pulley. They play on the Nike EYBL circuit, and in my opinion that's the best circuit, the best competition, and I wanted to be exposed to the best kids in the country."
Like Levos, as he grew older Brown realized that he wanted to play basketball past the high school level.
"It started as I just wanted to play," he said. "But as I got older I realized that's what I wanted to do and compete for a scholarship."
Once they started playing AAU, each player has noticed immediate improvements in their skills, despite Bryant's criticisms.
"I think my basketball IQ has gone up a tremendous amount," said Emma Swanson, who will be a junior at Ellsworth High School (Wis.) and plays AAU for Team Wisconsin. "You're playing with girls that have won state tournaments, against Division I recruits that are going to Big Ten and SEC schools. Playing against those teams is a whole different ball game. It's a lot faster pace and you have to keep up."
Mallory Brake, who will be a sophomore at Hastings High School as well, plays for the North Tartan Nike EYBL program, has not only improved in AAU but also actively works on new skills to bring into her high school season.
"The last two years I've become a stronger outside player and have more confidence playing out on the wing," she said. "This summer I'm working hard on my post game and hopefully will bring back some post moves."
While both high school and AAU basketball can benefit each other, the two are very different in styles and approach.
"AAU has helped me make a bigger impact on my high school team," said Parker Nielsen, who will be a sophomore next season for Prescott High School (Wis.) and plays for the Southeast Minnesota Lightning. "I can already see it this summer playing summer league, it's already helped. I would say AAU is a lot more running, it's up and down the floor. High school is slower and more plays are ran. I like that in AAU you have a lot more freedom and can try new things more."
There are also benefits to getting away from a very familiar high school basketball environment and into something new.
"It's fun to step away from high school basketball and play with new guys," Levos said. "You have to show them what you can do because it's a whole different team and no one knows what you're capable of. It's just fun to play with different people and play against different players or the top kids from different states to see how you match up."