Russia: The Club System
Teaching Their Children Well
Sunday, December 17, 2006
MOSCOW Fifteen-year-old Lavrentiy Klimov packed his luggage last July with everything he thought he would need: two pairs of his favorite sneakers, which he called "keecks"; more T-shirts than he could count; a few warm jackets; some of the admitted bookworm's best reading material; a Russian-to-English dictionary; his CD player; and his favorite music.
"I listen to rap music," he said. "Most of all, I like Tupac Shakur."
Klimov likes basketball more. So he and his mother, a doctor, signed a five-year contract with CSKA Moscow, one of the premier teams in Europe, making Klimov a professional basketball player at an age when most of his U.S. counterparts are still worrying about their place on the varsity team.
"I was ready," he said. "I thought it would be important for me to continue playing basketball in professional way."
If U.S. basketball officials want to understand the challenge they face in restoring the nation's dominance in international play, they need look no further than one blond, shaggy-haired teenager from Yekaterinburg in the mountainous Ural region of central Russia. Klimov left home on a 1,000-mile journey to enter a player development program that is vastly different from what American children experience.
The U.S. approach has numerous fissures, as documented in a year-long series of stories by The Washington Post. Shoe company-sponsored AAU teams, which play with little regard for fundamentals under coaches who work with little or no oversight, dominate youth basketball. The series also found that academic integrity, the foundation of the NCAA system, has been damaged by prep schools that grant eligibility through questionable academic programs.
In foreign countries, completely different approaches are used. And while there still are concerns about aspects of player development systems that resemble trade schools more than colleges or high schools, there is little doubt that players for the most part are drilled in fundamentals by coaches who are well trained and, in some countries, accredited.
In Europe, professional teams oversee most of the best young players, who sign contracts at an early age. Italian power Benetton Treviso has about 600 players, some non-pros as young as 8, in its junior program. The French system that produced Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs puts its young players in the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education, a government-run training center in Paris that teaches basketball and also offers a school curriculum.
A tour of facilities last month in Russia, Serbia and Lithuania, whose teams have defeated the United States in international play, found a mixture of approaches. In Russia, players can either sign with pro teams and join their junior programs or go to basketball schools. Serbian youngsters are most likely to be signed and trained by pro teams, and young Lithuanians have a choice of basketball schools, including two run by former NBA stars.
Regardless of the system, the results are undeniable: After the embarrassment of finishing sixth in the 2002 world championships, a recommitted U.S. team could finish no better than third in the Olympics in 2004 and third in the world championships in September. And NBA teams have taken notice: There are a record 83 international players, almost 20 percent of the league, this season.
High-ranking officials from U.S. high schools, the AAU, the NCAA, the NBA and shoe companies are studying ways to improve the American development system because, as NBA Commissioner David Stern put it, "the rest of the world is trying to eat our lunch."
Klimov had a chance to come to the United States. He had been selected for a foreign-exchange program that would have allowed him to spend a year living with a family and attending high school in Greensboro, N.C. But he had played so well at a CSKA basketball camp that team officials had offered him the contract and a place in their junior program. Klimov decided that no matter how strong the lure of the United States, he didn't want to lose an invaluable year of Russian basketball training. So the night Klimov and his mother signed the contract, he hurriedly packed his luggage. A day later, he was in Moscow.