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Kobe and the state of youth basketball

By Benton Graham, 07/20/15, 10:15AM CDT


Kobe Bryant has expressed his frustration with the American youth basketball system

Kobe Bryant has never been one to shy away from debate, and back in January of the 2014-2015 NBA season the Black Mamba struck again. Kobe made the argument that European players are more skilled than American players.

The five-time NBA championship winner with the Los Angeles Lakers gave partial credit to the Europeans, but also pointed out flaws in the U.S. system. He feels that American players might be able to pull off some fancy moves (see “The Slip 'n Slide” video below), but lack the fundamental skills necessary to be good basketball players.

According to ESPN, Kobe pegged the blame on the grassroots basketball system in America, commonly referred to as AAU:

“Horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It's stupid. It doesn't teach our kids how to play the game at all, so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don't know how to post. They don't know the fundamentals of the game. It's stupid.”

It’s a tricky argument for Kobe to make, as the United States men’s basketball team has won 63 consecutive games predominantly using players who have participated in shoe company summer leagues. But Kobe may have a point.

According to, the league entered the 2014-2015 season with more than 100 international players for the first time in the league’s history. For some perspective, at the time of the Dream Team in 1992, the NBA had 21 foreign players.

How would Kobe fix the system?

In the ESPN article, Kobe said:

"Teach players the game at an early age and stop treating them like cash cows for everyone to profit off of. That's how you do that. You have to teach them the game. Give them instruction."

But some discredit Kobe’s opinion, as the AAU system has evolved since he participated almost 20 years ago. The current system is far more sophisticated than what Kobe experienced when he was preparing for basketball after high school, particularly at the highest levels. Leagues sponsored by the major shoe brands allow top-level talent an opportunity to compete with other athletes destined for college basketball.

It is also worth noting that Kobe was at an elite Nike basketball camp in June, indicating that maybe he has had a change of heart since making those comments in January.

Chris Korman of the USA TODAY suggests that AAU yields greater creativity in young athletes. He attributes this creativity to the looseness encouraged by AAU coaches.

Additionally, Gary Parrish of CBS Sports points out that, “the system does produce countless opportunities for kids who wouldn’t otherwise have them.”

The AAU system also offers something that high school basketball cannot. It provides college coaches a place to watch many talented players all in one event. In this sense, the high school basketball system with its general emphasis on team play and AAU basketball with its emphasis on concentrated talent nicely complement each other.

So what are your experiences with AAU basketball? Is there a better system? Or is Kobe out of range here?

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