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Camps Turn to Skills, Rather Than Thrills
Shoe Company-Sponsored Events for High School Basketball Players Have Begun to Put an Emphasis on Fundamentals

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2007

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Samardo Samuels was used to merely playing games at basketball camps. The high school senior was not accustomed to what occurred at a recent camp at the University of Virginia, where Samuels spent the morning listening to a sports psychologist and the afternoon performing rebounding drills with an agility coach that left large beads of sweat on his forehead.

"I've done a lot of things," said the 6-foot-8 Samuels, gasping for air after removing a resistance belt from his waist. "But I've never done anything like that."

The unique experiences at last month's NBA Players Association Top 100 Camp provided attendees with a preview of what they will encounter at the revamped shoe company-sponsored events over the next five days. In a potentially significant move, Nike, Adidas and Reebok have replaced their all-American camps, which often celebrated individual accomplishments, with events they say will promote teamwork, fundamentals and life skills.

The changes largely were made to improve the image of summer basketball, which has been criticized, both by sports commentators and the NCAA, for a lack of oversight and a perceived failure to teach fundamentals, which has been cited as one of the reasons for the United States' recent struggles in international competition.

What's more, Sonny Vaccaro, the influential and controversial figure who helped make the summer basketball scene a multimillion-dollar industry, has left the shoe company business, a move that further altered the landscape.

"It's up to us to reinvent ourselves," said Reebok's Chris Rivers, who took over the shoe company's grass-roots operations from Vaccaro. "We want to change the image of ourselves."

Vaccaro no longer will run his ABCD Camp, which was staged annually in Hackensack, N.J., for more than two decades and showcased future NBA stars such as Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James. In its place will be the RBK U camp at Philadelphia University, where a smaller number of high school players will engage in both on-court activities and off-court seminars.

Nike, meantime, has replaced its annual all-American camp in Indianapolis with a series of skills camps hosted by NBA stars such as Bryant, Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. Over the next four days, many of the nation's best high school players will gather in Akron, Ohio, for the LeBron James Skills Academy.

Adidas also has eliminated its early-July camp in favor of more team-oriented events, such as the Amateur Athletic Union tournament it will hold this weekend in Cincinnati. It also will spend the summer preparing two teams in different age groups for competition against other countries.

In addition, prominent AAU coaches from the three shoe companies have created Grassroots Basketball of America (GBOA), which will place an emphasis on education, fundamentals, sportsmanship and teamwork. Later this month, GBOA will stage a 24-team tournament in Las Vegas that will bring the best AAU teams from different shoe companies together in one gymnasium.

"I take a lot of pride in the fact the shoe companies are changing their model to mirror what we have been doing the last 14 years," said Tim McCormick, a former NBA player and director of the Top 100 Camp, which is annually held in June.

'Not a Healthy Place'

Many college coaches who annually attend the events in early July to scout players praised the changes. Saint Joseph's Coach Phil Martelli characterized some of the all-star games at the shoe company-sponsored camps, which often devolved into an imitation of AND1 highlight tapes, as "disgraceful."

"Where we were was not a healthy place for the game," Martelli said. "We were sitting through a lot of nonsense. If we were recruiting based on that, shame on us. Any attempt to make young players accountable for their individual development and for their respect for the game, I'm excited and looking forward to this summer."

Purvis Short, who played in the NBA from 1978 to 1990 and is director of player programs at the Top 100 Camp, said the shoe companies had no choice but to overhaul their model because the fundamentals of young players had been declining for years.

"What they are starting to recognize is that Michael Jordan was not Michael Jordan because he could do all those things up in the air," Short said. "Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan because, along with that talent, he had tremendous fundamentals."

In some ways, however, changing the structure of a camp is easier than changing the mind-set of players who have grown accustomed to earning accolades at events that reward individual accomplishment. Oak Hill Academy's Brandon Jennings, the nation's top-ranked guard, said if he could attend only one camp, he would choose a freewheeling camp such as ABCD over the Top 100 Camp, favoring showcase over structure.

"I like both, but I liked ABCD more," Jennings said. "Sonny Vaccaro was running it, and it was just off the hook."

McCormick, whose camp is not sponsored by a shoe company, understands that while some kids will value skill sessions and seminars, "the majority will go back to their teams next week and say, 'I'll be able to play the way I want.' "

Sean Singletary, the University of Virginia guard who attended both styles of camps while in high school, said he enjoyed the structured camp more because "college and the NBA are all about structure." Samuels, meantime, enjoyed the Top 100 Camp because he said it was one of the first he attended that offered specific areas to work on throughout the summer.

"Everywhere you go they are preaching it, talking about young guys coming into the league that are not skilled enough, not developed," said Samuels, who plays high school basketball in Newark and has committed to Louisville. "Things like this helps you get rid of the faults in your game. The NBA guys here, they will tell you how to get rid of those faults because they have been here and done it all."

'A Different Bottom Line'

The shoe companies have changed the nature of their events, but none is expected to focus on skill development and life seminars as much as the Top 100 Camp has for more than a decade.

During one session, members of a Bethesda-based sports performance company called Xtreme Acceleration worked with players on coordination and explosiveness. Other players worked with a shooting doctor, who videotaped their shots and then superimposed the image over earlier shooting pictures to study whether they remained consistent.

During the seminars, Bob Rotella, a renowned sports psychologist, told players about the importance of possessing an "inner arrogance." A former bodybuilder talked about choosing proper pregame meals. And NBA career development officials surprised players with the news that 80 percent of retired NBA players don't have a college degree and told them how to "network" with those they meet.

Some players took notes. Parents met in a separate room for seminars geared specifically toward them.

"I absolutely think they get more out of it" than the other camps, said Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, whose son competed in the camp. "The life seminars are certainly very valuable and are unique components that distinguish it from other camps. . . . Youth basketball would be much better if other camps were structured like this."

Camps such as ABCD became a haven not only for scouting services, but also for hangers-on and representatives of sports agencies looking to cultivate relationships with players they hoped to sign in the future. Other onlookers came in search of the individual matchups ABCD showcased.

The public and college coaches still will attend the final few days of the RBK U Camp, but Rivers said the atmosphere will be more like that of a high school game. The Top 100 Camp, however, is staged in late June, when college coaches are not allowed to attend. When asked why he also keeps AAU coaches and sports agents from watching, Billy Hunter, the NBA Players Association's executive director, said: "It perverts it. It pollutes it. We don't want all the distractions."

Rivers said providing exposure for players remains part of the mission of Reebok's camp. But he acknowledged that ABCD probably did not do as good a job emphasizing teamwork as it could have. He also added that if he were given the mandate of trying to better prepare players for international competition, he would "probably do it differently."

Some of those associated with youth basketball said the high school players might be best served if the shoe companies modeled their camps strictly after the Top 100 Camp. But that likely won't happen.

"In a perfect world, that would be something you'd want," Hunter said. "But they have a different bottom line than we do. I don't have to sell any shoes."

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