Kirk Wessler: Plan to clean up basketball a good first step

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

The best thing about this Final Four weekend was not Derrick Rose's crossover or any other one shining moment on the Alamodome basketball court.

It was the sight Monday afternoon of Miles Brand and David Stern, respectively the CEOs of the NCAA and the NBA, side by side and on the same page. They were joined on the dais, and allegedly in purpose, by representatives of USA Basketball, the National Federation of High School Associations, the AAU and even giant shoe rivals Nike and adidas.

"This is the most profound thing that's happened since I've been in the game," Georgia Tech men's coach Paul Hewitt said.

Their goal: Fix basketball.

Not the game, which is fine, for the most part.

But the sport, which is a cesspool. It's infested, from the pros to the Olympics to the colleges to the high schools to the youth programs, with greed and corruption. And that illness is affecting the game.

The temptation here is to be cynical.

The 13 people on the dais wouldn't be doing this if money weren't involved. Either they see money to be made by creating a better environment for the sport, or they fear money will be lost if the status quo remains.

Certainly, agendas are at work here that mock the noble title of this endeavor, called the "NCAA-NBA Youth Basketball Initiative." The American basketball establishment is tired of getting embarrassed by foreign teams on the international stage; medals, especially gold ones, are coveted. College and high school coaches would like to regain control of their players' lives from the street agents, but not always because of what's best for the kids. Shoe companies want to sell their wares.

Even if some of the motives are suspect, though, a group effort to clean up the mess is a good thing. And there is no better place to focus the effort than on our kids.

This group first came together nearly two years ago. You can laugh at the notion of meetings to determine the problem: "Youth basketball in America is in crisis." You can make fun of the corporate mumbo jumbo - such as "Five Pillars of the Business" the group identified and Brand invoking the concept of the "marketplace" throughout the news conference and followup interviews. You can say, "This is all pretty vague," and you'd be right.

Let's get real for a minute, though. These people might be motivated by various self-interests, but they're trying to reach solutions together. And here's the biggie: They acknowledge their own role in creating the sewer they're trying to clean up.

"Maybe we didn't take enough responsibility" in the past, Stern said.

Brand was more specific, addressing legislative attempts by the NCAA over the decades to regulate recruiting by coaches. There must be rules, of course, and many of the rules in the voluminous NCAA Manual are well-intended. But they don't heed the realites of human nature.

"We thought we could control the (summer basketball recruiting) environment by controlling access coaches had to the athletes," Brand said. "That was a mistake."

Likewise, the various state high school associations erred when they became overly restrictive of the contact coaches could have with the kids during the off-season.

"That's what opened the floodgates," George Raveling said. Raveling is a former coach who now works for Nike as director of global basketball sports marketing.

"When they took high school coaches out of the picture in the summer, it created a huge problem. It devalued the importance of the high school coach in a kid's life and sent a bad message about the value of education."

What happened next was water and rock.

Over time, water wears down rock. Water goes around, over and under rock, but it never stops beating and eventually breaks through. You can build dams and levees to stop or divert the water's flow. But the bigger the dam, the longer the levee, the stronger the surge to get around, over, under and through.

"This is a deregulation move," Brand said of the initiative, which will seek to provide development programs for young players, their parents, coaches, officials and league and event administrators. He does not envision this group or the NCAA sanctioning events and restricting participation; too often the moves of first resort in the past.

"We won't try to solve this problem by regulation," he continued. "Those who want to walk the shady side of the street won't go away. We can't drive them all away. But we will provide a better alternative."

It is a huge task, maybe even an ill-fated one. The NBA and NCAA will fund this initiative at the start, and a search will begin immediately to hire a CEO to run this new organization. One can easily see a new bureaucracy arise that creates as many problems as it strives to fix.

But the effort is worthwhile.

To do nothing is simply not acceptable.

Kirk Wessler is the Peoria Journal Star's executive sports editor/columnist. Contact him at (309) 686-3216 or