Playing AAU basketball is a unique experience, different from anything else in youth sports. The travel, competition, facilities and culture make it unforgettable. Here is what it's like from a player's perspective:
The shot misses and the buzzer sounds. Only a handful of high school basketball teams end their seasons with a win, the rest end with a loss. Whether that loss comes in the first playoff or the state championship game, it signals the end of the high school basketball season. It also heralds the start of AAU.
Typically, the only AAU activities that take place during the high school season are tryouts. After that, players do not practice until their high school season is over and tournaments do not start until after the state championship. However, once playoffs start, many programs will begin holding practices for those not playing. A player could lose Saturday afternoon and then travel hours that evening to make AAU practice the next morning.
The AAU season is typically split into two parts - spring and summer. While there may not seem like much of a difference between the two parts, players say playing AAU while in school as opposed to playing when out of school makes a huge difference.
"During the school year it's tough because there is so much going on," said Sawyer Levos, a 6-foot-4 forward from Hastings. "I go straight from track practice that ends at 5, right to basketball practice that is at 6 or 6:30. I'll swing by my house, grab all my stuff and a quick sandwich to eat on the way there. We usually practice two or three times a week and then we have a skills session that's optional which I try to get to. On the weekends we have anywhere from four to six games depending on the tournament."
The craziness includes missing some school.
"I usually try and get all my school work for the days I'm missing, so when I come back I'm not missing a lot," said Courtney Brown, Jr., who will play a key role for East Ridge this upcoming season. "But I do miss a lot of school for these tournaments, so I just try and get it all done so when I come back I'm not far behind."
However, once school lets out, players are able to fully immerse themselves into AAU.
"The mental focus that I have from spring to summer is different," said Mallory Brake, who plays three sports for Hastings plus AAU basketball. "In the spring I play softball and we're scrambling to get to practices. In the summer it's more relaxed and I only have to worry about basketball, not about super early or late practices."
The tournaments themselves are nothing short of grand spectacles. The largest of them have multiple locations, each with numerous courts being played on at the same time in front of hundreds of fans and, for the upper age levels, dozens of college coaches.
"It's really cool and a great experience," said Parker Nielsen, who played 25 games on varsity last season for Prescott. "There's college coaches there and it's fun to play in those bigger games. There's a little pressure, but it's always fun to play in front of big crowds and get hyped, you just have to live in the moment and enjoy it."
Even the actual playing of basketball is a different world at those tournaments, especially if they are on a shoe-circuit sponsored by Nike, Adidas or Under Armour.
"The first or second day (of a tournament) we were walking over to our bench and we saw Geno Auriemma (head coach of the record-setting University of Connecticut women's basketball team)," said Emma Swanson, who was one of the Ellsworth Panthers girls basketball team's top scorers last season. "Seeing those kind of coaches there, you're not just playing a ball game anymore; you have to be on your A-game. That was a giant tournament with over 600 teams and he was watching our game. You just have to go play ball even though he's sitting there."
"One of the first tournaments, Coach Krzyzewski from Duke and Tom Izzo from Michigan State were there," Brown, Jr. said. "I was like 'wow, this is really serious for us.' It's good to get exposed to it early on so as you get older you're more used to it."
Having the eyes of the best coaches and players in the country on them as they play only further fuels their competitiveness.
"Knowing eyes are on our court gives us a little adrenaline and we want to perform for everyone," Brake said.
While teams may play only three or four games a weekend in smaller tournaments, the larger ones are stretched over four or five days and could have as many as six or seven games. Such a gruelling schedule, repeated weekend after weekend, is stressful and each player has their own way of recovering and coping.
"It does take a toll on your body, all the running that you do and playing like seven games a weekend,"Nielsen said. "You have to really enjoy basketball otherwise AAU isn't for you. I would say stretching, eating well and having good workouts during the week helps prepare your body and can fix your body back up again after the tournament."
Last but not least, they are all still kids and student-athletes, which results in a balancing act.
"I'm not going to lie, it's pretty tough to stay under control with everything that's going on, but Coach Feikema (Hastings head basketball coach) is super helpful when it comes to that, because he works our summer basketball schedule around my tournaments and others," Levos explained. "With my friends, if we're in Minnesota we're usually done by 5 or 7 (p.m.) so I'll have a little bit of time to hang out with my friends on the weekend. It does get kind of tough because it seems like it's all basketball and all track. Just trying to go from place to place, it's tough but it's definitely worth it to get better and get some basketball in."