The NBA has taken notice.
The league will soon announce the creation of the Jr. NBA World Championship — an event that it hopes, in time, will become its version of what the Little League World Series has become for baseball.
“I think what we were really focused on was developing a new model for this kind of basketball event,” Kathy Behrens, the NBA’s president of social responsibility and player programs, said in a phone interview last week. “As you know, we worked together with USA Basketball over the course of the last 18 months to develop a set of standards and guidelines for youth basketball, and so this tournament, I think, represents in a way that nothing else that we’ve done before does.”
The event will take place Aug. 7-12, 2018, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex inside Disney World and will feature top boys and girls teams ages 14 and under from around the United States and the world.
“Obviously, we know that what happens on the court is incredibly important, but we think this is going to be an event that will help kids really understand and embrace the values that we talk about around our game: teamwork, respect, determination,” Behrens said. “We are going to have a community service element. There will be life skills programming available that the kids will be participating in.
“We think there are a lot of special elements to what we are going to be doing, and it really does make it the first-of-its-kind basketball competition around the world.”
Following the model of the Little League World Series, teams will qualify for the championship rounds via a variety of regional tournaments. Half will come from American qualifying tournaments from eight created regions (Central, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Northeast, Northwest, South, Southeast and West), and half will come from eight international regions (Africa and Middle East, Asia Pacific, Canada, China, Europe, India, Mexico and South America), with those 16 teams then competing in the championship event at Disney World.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for some time now has emphasized youth basketball as a priority moving forward. And along those lines, it is notable that all coaches participating in the event will be required to be trained and licensed by USA Basketball or basketball’s international governing body, FIBA, depending on whether the teams are representing a region from the United States or an international location.
It’s clear the NBA sees this as an opportunity to get involved in the framework of youth basketball and to potentially loosen some of the grip that AAU has come to have over the sport. And while the tournament is only for 14-and-under teams at the moment, the league could add other age ranges in the future.
“The schedule will be different than most of these elite tournaments,” Behrens said. “We think that this is a model for youth basketball. Our commitment, as Adam has said, is to get more involved in youth basketball, not less, so this is one big way to do that.”
The league also looks to benefit from this venture financially. Just as the Little League World Series has become a fixture on ESPN’s calendar each summer, the NBA is expecting its tournament to be televised as well, though where and how still is being determined.
It also isn’t coincidental that the tournament will take place in one of the few dormant times on the NBA calendar: early August, when currently only the WNBA and some international charity ventures are taking place. This is another opportunity for the league to continue its quest to make the sport a 365-days-a-year enterprise.
“That is definitely our goal, that August will be a high point on the calendar for youth basketball,” Behrens said. “Certainly, we have enormous respect and affection for the Little League World Series and what they have built, and we’d be lucky to have the same kind of event after, I think, some 35 years that that tournament has been around.”
Whether the Jr. NBA World Championship can become as wide-ranging as the Little League World Series remains to be seen. But by starting the event, it’s clearly what the NBA is hoping it will turn into.
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