A chance to change basketball

Commentary

April 13, 2008

At the front of a meeting room in a downtown San Antonio hotel on the morning of the NCAA championship game sat 13 of the most powerful figures in American basketball -- together looking like the stage on Deal or No Deal, except they were wearing suits, not mini-dresses. (Thank goodness.)

NBA commissioner David Stern, NCAA president Myles Brand and Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, president of the Black Coaches and Administrators, sat in front of the rest. That trio did most of the talking, trying to explain why they were there: to attempt to collectively improve the state of youth basketball in this country to produce a trickle-up effect on the quality of the game and its players in college, the pros, and on the international stage.

What they didn't -- couldn't -- explain is how they were going to pull this off, or even what the first step would be.

What they didn't have to explain was how wide-ranging this ambition was, and how much they were biting off and trying to chew. They didn't have to explain that. The crowd on that stage illustrated it perfectly.

Represented on that stage were high school basketball, the Amateur Athletic Union, men's and women's college ball, USA Basketball, the NBA and all the major shoe companies.

They all, at one time or another, have been blamed for the widespread -- and, in many ways, accurate -- perception that American basketball is on the decline. Some have been fingered as being downright corrupt. Others have been called out as being unnecessary, obstructionist, authoritarian, callous, greedy and detrimental to the education, development and general well-being of the youngsters under their various jurisdictions.

They all can plead guilty to at least one of these charges. In fact, by coming together to form this collective, and to sit before a cynical audience as they did last week, they're acknowledging that much of the process that routes young basketball players up the pipeline has gone rotten.

That is a great start. It's better than what was in place before -- numerous and never-ending skirmishes between this group and that over who is right, who is wrong, who should be running things and who should dry up and blow away.

Not even remotely surprising is that the players themselves, while being fawned over in search of their services, are used, abused and manipulated far more to someone else's benefit than to their own -- and at the most vulnerable periods of their lives, yet.

Too bad no one on that stage suggested blowing up the entire system and starting over from scratch. Practically speaking, that's impossible, and it actually wouldn't be fair to those entities within the system who try to do the right thing from within.

For example, there are few bigger targets in this scenario than the AAU, which generally gets blamed for everything that goes wrong in the sport, up to and including the United States losing in the Olympics. But if not for the coaches and volunteers on Baltimore's top AAU team, there would have been nowhere for a player such as Memphis' Joey Dorsey, whose story was told and re-told throughout the Final Four, to land once he fell through all the other societal cracks.

Conflicts like this are spread throughout America's basketball landscape like a rash, and no one stands aside uninfected. No segment is wholly good or wholly bad, nor is any idea or any concept. That goes for the NCAA and its one-sided system, the shoe companies and their virtual bankrolling of kids as early as middle school, and the NBA and its ever-changing attempts to gauge public approval.

It's all an unwieldy mess, and something had to be done to bring some structure to it all.

Yet that's not even a sure-fire solution. Look at youth baseball in this country. You could make a very strong case that what it needs most is less structure. The same could be said for soccer. Youth basketball might be the Wild, Wild West, but it has been the most popular participation sport in this country for years now.

Somehow, all those people on that stage in San Antonio realized all those participants deserved better from the sport they were taking on. Even if no one knows yet what the best for them would be, good for them to admit that they'd never find an answer unless they came together.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Listen to David Steele Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

David Steele -- Points after

There's talk about what a shame it is that the Olympic torch relay is being disrupted, that boycotts of the opening ceremonies are being discussed, that the Games might be moved from Beijing, because the Olympic spirit must be honored. I'm no expert on international relations, but I'm guessing that the people in Darfur and Tibet aren't feeling much of that Olympic spirit right now.

On far less serious subjects ... John Calipari and Memphis begin next season with two extra timeouts, left over from Monday night.

Had she been born with a different set of chromosomes, Candace Parker would be hearing a lot more comparisons to Willis Reed right now. All she can hope for instead is that the long-sleeve-shirt look becomes a hoops fashion trend, like Patrick Ewing's T-shirts back in the day.

Jay Bilas can reply to all the bloggers he wants and hang up on talk-show hosts all day and night, and it won't erase the fact that he said repeatedly, on live television and in interviews, that Tyler Hansbrough's work ethic is greater than Michael Jordan's.

Gene Upshaw vs. Matt Stover vs. Kevin Mawae vs. Bruce Laird vs. ... everybody except Roger Goodell and the NFL owners, who are sitting back, smoking cigars rolled in $500 bills and laughing at the whole spectacle.

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