I recall getting a phone call during my career from a Division I basketball coach on the east coast who was inquiring about a high school basketball player from this area. I got to know this coach at the Five Star Basketball Camp and he basically wanted to know if the young athlete he was asking about could play at the Division I level. I thought about it for a moment and then told him, “No.”
The player in question was having a spectacular year and was one of the leading scorers in the area. He was a terrific high school player and his team was state ranked. But after spending several summers coaching and observing legitimate Division I talent at the Five Star camp, it was immediately obvious to me this young phenom was not big, fast or athletic enough to compete at the highest level.
Howard Garfinkel, the founder and director of the Five Star Basketball Camp, had the best line I ever heard about talent evaluation. He would gather all the young basketball players together in the gym on the first night of the camp. Keep in mind all of these players were legitimate stars back home and most were already on the radar of college basketball programs. But Garfinkel brought them all down to earth when he told them, “You should all go one level below where you think you should play……and two levels below where your old man thinks you should play.” It was a sobering message, but one that still carries a lot of truth.
Part of the dilemma is we now start evaluating these basketball players when they are way too young. I’ve actually seen AAU lists ranking players as young as the fifth grade. Really? How many times have you seen the young superstars at the early levels of basketball who have physical advantages that are erased over time. Everyone who has played the game can name a childhood phenom who was not even playing the sport in high school a few years later because everyone caught up with and surpassed the youthful hotshot.
The other aspect of trying to evaluate athletes at younger ages is the impulse by some athletes and their families to choose one sport and focus their efforts in that one area of competition. This decision is often made while the young athlete is still in junior high. The reasoning behind the decision is often driven by the belief that by focusing on one sport it will increase their scholarship opportunities down the road. That is rarely the case. One of the recurring themes I often hear when talking with former athletes is the regret many of them feel because they did not play more than one sport.
Judging talent in the area of athletics is really not hard for a coach. But I think it can be difficult for parents and fans. And the conflict between the two can occasionally cause real problems. I’ve seen basketball programs that were undermined by the unrealistic expectations of parents who assumed the reason their son or daughter was not being recruited at scholarship levels was the fault of their high school coach. A very good college recruiter once told me if an athlete can really play the game, they could be hiding under a rock in Pocatello, Idaho and they will still find him. Recruiting is a billion dollar industry today. College recruiters know what they’re doing.
I also believe many people simply do not understand how many great basketball players are out there. There is no shame if you end up playing college athletics below scholarship levels. I encourage basketball fans to take in a game at Ohio Northern University, Bluffton University or Defiance College, three local NCAA Division III institutions where athletes do not receive athletic scholarships. The level of play is tremendous. I have had the opportunity to watch The University of Northwestern Ohio boys and girls basketball teams play numerous times over the last two seasons. They are an NAIA Division II school that does offer athletic scholarships. The athleticism on display in those games is impressive.
The motivation for young athletes to play sports should never be about earning a scholarship or pleasing a parent. Young men and women should be drawn to and remain active in sports for the benefits that remain constant from generation to generation. Those rewards include the shear joy of competing and the chance to learn the values of friendship, confidence, resiliency and how to be part of a team effort.
(Bob Seggerson can be contacted by email to firstname.lastname@example.org)