Who says you can’t get an education while school’s out of session? This summer, we in Georgia are seeing both the power and the peril of AAU basketball.
The power: UCLA, the school of Wooden and Abdul-Jabbar and Walton and 11 NCAA titles, hired Korey McCray away from the Atlanta Celtics to become an assistant coach. Why? Because UCLA believes McCray can be an effective recruiter.
The peril: The collegiate eligibility of two Georgia players — Jarvis Jones, projected as a starting linebacker, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the biggest Bulldog hoops recruit in nearly two decades — has been jeopardized by their ties to the Georgia Blazers, an AAU team based in Columbus.
Speaking in April, Korey McCray said: “AAU guys get such a bad rap.” And it’s true that AAU ball has come to be seen as too powerful. AAU teams can and do hammer out their own shoe deals: The Atlanta Celtics are sponsored by adidas, the Georgia Blazers by Nike. AAU teams operate outside the bounds of high school associations, existing in the shadowy (but lucrative) realm of summer basketball.
Nearly every prospect of any worth plays AAU ball. (When he was a high schooler in Little Rock, Ark., Joe Johnson commuted to Atlanta to play for the Celtics.) College coaches often bemoan, usually off the record, the sway AAU teams have come to hold over recruits, but no big-time program can afford to ignore the AAU. If a school wants to land top-shelf talent, it must take a dip in the pool of summer ball. Ergo, McCray to UCLA.
McCray saw the UCLA job not just as a victory for himself but for the AAU Way. “I would embrace it [the label of being the guy from an AAU club],” he said. “I’ve been in basketball my whole life. I have my Masters in adult education. I love summer basketball … If that’s how they’re going to label me, I hope to represent AAU basketball very well.”
But now, through the reporting of Andy Bitter of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, we see the flip side. Writes Bitter:
Police records show that an unauthorized bank account controlled by [former Columbus Parks and Recreation director Tony] Adams and [assistant Herman] Porter was used to pay for flights to and from Los Angeles for Jarvis Jones, a two-sport star at Carver High School who played football for one season at the University of Southern California, and for the cell phone bill of the mother of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a five-star shooting guard from Greenville High School.
Georgia has referred the matter to the NCAA. The usual penalty for a player found to have received an improper benefit is to make monetary restitution and to a serve a suspension. Georgia fans know the drill all too well: Last season receiver A.J. Green had to sit out the first four games after it was found he sold his Independence Bowl jersey.
Possible football ramification: The Bulldogs, as you’ve heard, face a put-up-or-shut-up season that commences with games against Boise State and South Carolina. If Jones couldn’t play, he’d be missed.
Possible basketball ramification: Georgia lost its two best players, Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, a year early to the NBA draft. The belief around the team is that the freshman Caldwell-Pope might have to lead the 2011-2012 team in scoring. If he has to sit out, he’ll be hugely missed.
Yes, it’s unfair to use one case as a smear against all AAU programs: The Atlanta Celtics are not the Georgia Blazers. But the image of AAU basketball has taken on a fairly negative connotation, and any bit of bad news becomes just another brick in the wall.
In Westwood, Korey McCray has a chance to strike a blow for himself and for AAU coaches everywhere. The reports from Columbus, alas, give us some indication of the perception he’ll be fighting.
By Mark Bradley