Referendum for the Game

By Leigh Alan Klein

It’s been nearly five years since it hit me, it’s was a revelation – I was sitting in Georgetown, Texas running basketball camp and the sport I knew and loved, I could no longer recognize.

I had a love affair for as long as I could remember. In school, kids would tease me because my entire wardrobe was filled with t-shirts from different college basketball teams. I was seven years old, running after former Pitt-great Larry Harris, with a whistle in my mouth, pretending to officiate on the courts of Wheeling College. It was a few years later, that I was playing two-on-two on what was called the Rice Court basket up in Honesdale, PA with Pearl Washington and Patrick Ewing.

My preteen highlight was the one night a summer, Crazy George Schauer would unpack his van and perform his show.

Photo courtesy of Generous George Schauer via Facebook

George was an incredible showman. Not only was he a great ball handler but he knew how to engage an audience. His bag of tricks included a giant basketball, a hula-hoop, sparklers and unbelievable swag. I don’t think swag existed before him. He would break out headbands, wristbands, shirts and later jerseys that you never saw before.

On the nights, Crazy George was going to perform, I would negotiate a late bedtime. George liked me and would often call me out in one of his acts. He would spin the basketball on the spoon as I got to eat the ice cream. He had a segment were you had to talk about your basketball dream or your basketball idol. My favorite player at that time was Phil Ford. If I was lucky, I came away with wristbands with stars or some NBA team on them.

George would come back every summer of my youth and knock it out of the park with an incredible show. Amazingly enough, George was somewhere doing a show every night of the summer. He would travel cross-country doing shows at camps, schools or hospital kids and make their summer just as he did mine. Later, it would get complicated, George got a little older, I was a little older and basketball got older too.

George would bring jerseys and sneakers for his show and now the teenagers were more interested in the swag than the show. One time, they rushed George to steal his items. George’s show would never be the same. This is exactly what happened to basketball. Once it became about jerseys and shoes, the wholesomeness of why people played was kicked to the side. Basketball influenced my life in a dramatic positive way.

Yet, here I was a man in my 40’s, who could no longer watch another game, train another child, officiate another game and just stay silent. I picked up the phone and called USA Basketball to describe what I was seeing. The game had deteriorated on so many levels and the stakeholders were prostituting it for self-gain. I followed up with this letter in hopes to change the trajectory the sport was on.

— — — — — Forwarded message — — — — —
From: leigh klein <[email protected]>
Date: Tue, Aug 6, 2013 at 4:10 PM
Subject: Summer stuff

The game can no longer afford for the individual stake holders to continue to take and legislate for their individual benefit without looking out for what is best for the player. Currently NFHS, NCAA, NBA, USA Basketball — all worked towards their individual goals without a “what’s best for the player” mindset.

This has caused tremendous damage to the game, one with it’s development and two, with the spread of a taking from the system mentality throughout the levels.

What are the players learning through the sport? What are we teaching about life?

Through basketball we have the opportunity to surround young people with mentors and leadership examples who deliver life lessons and character traits that remain with the participants throughout their lives. When the day comes that the individual leaves the sport have we left them in a better position to succeed in society?

Have we, the basketball community, lost sight of this? Has this been pushed aside for pursuit of growth in all areas…money, people…relevance? Have we compromised our value system? When we within the sport are starting to question this there is a problem and a dire need for change. We can no longer have basketball without a system.

A true initiative that is designed for the growth of the sport and it’s participants is necessary. The basis for such a system would start with a layered or tiered approach.

Here is an example of a curriculum outline that USA Basketball could model and expand upon in providing a National Curriculum to marry with coaching education.

Identification of key age or grade levels — Tiers and within each tier, a curriculum to what should be taught and learned. With the basketball specific skills, there should be adjoining health, safety, academic and life skills. Education can be instilled 1) to the coaches 2) the players and 3) the parents.

Now as players go through the system their progression is insured through climbing up the tiers and they have the educational blocks to build a healthy foundation for life.

There must be coaching certification and player registration. This is the only way to 1) fund a system 2) ensure compliance 3) keep consistency with data and 4) have something people can’t afford to lose. Similar to FIBA.

A coaching certification should be a combination of online education with CPE style credits for attending coaching clinics and working camp. With certification there can be mandated continuing coaching education.

A guide of what should be taught to what age/level must be accessible. A better understanding of the well being of the age group that coach is dealing with all areas of development. Physical, mental and physiological ramifications.

A code of ethics is necessary.To commit to the betterment of the player and not the betterment of the coach. This is how to gain back control. If a coach does not act in accordance with the ideals of USA Basketball, he loses his license to coach. Defining what is a coach.

X Number of practices for Y games (2 to 3 practices for every 1 game) With definition of what a practice should consist of how many practices are required before a game can be played, based on tier. Rules of play, for example, no full court press for kids under a certain age.

Player registration. My son is a 13-year-old playing lacrosse. He needs a USA Lacrosse number to play. Same should be true to basketball or any youth sport. You need to be part of the big organization. Now that’s powerful to have everyone under the USA Basketball umbrella. Think of the platform to promote wellness and life skills. Now stepping out of the system, taking improper benefits, can mean suspension or loss of your number.

Research and policies can be implemented for the health and well-being of the player, for example studies should be immediately constructed to look at the number of games an athlete plays … the number of days of school missed…. The miles an athlete travels… making sure that policy is in place to support the best interest of the student-athlete.

Through registration, every time a player takes the court, his time can be tracked so now if a player is playing in multiple events, traveling multiple of miles were it starts to jeopardize his health, his academics… there is control….and a higher purpose of what is in the best interest of the player and the sport as a whole.

The perks for the entitled needs to be looked at. Chartered flights, gear, sneakers, cash, paid utility bills…etc. Once again someone has to fight for the best long-term interest of the student-athlete.

The next question will be -Does USA Basketball conduct events? Coaching clinics, Camps…..Do you change the landscape where college coaches can only attend a USA Basketball event? Through USA Basketball, you can now connect NFHS and AAU, so if it’s an event during the season, spring, it must be cleared/registered maybe even conducted by USA Basketball . Now there’s assurance that everything is working towards the overall goals of basketball here and not robbing the system or the players.

Throughout this summer I have seen kids know less about how to play the game than ever before. I have also experienced talented kids who are set up to fail somewhere in life, that have not learned the value of the work, the process and have become entitled. While they currently receive from the system, the perks that the system has to offer, in the end, they have been shortchanged and used by the system for their talent.

There is a lost generation of teenagers who have been misled through us and our sport in regards to the realities of what it takes to be successful in life. We can no longer allow this to continue. Change must start now.



— — — — — End of message — — — — —

As we enter the 2017–2018 season, not much has changed.

Basketball participation numbers continue to descend. As Forbes’ Blake Williams reported in June: “according to the SFIA’s estimation, “Overall, 22.3 million played basketball-down more than 2.5 million over the past five years. Core participation in basketball is down 3.7 percent from 2013 numbers.”

The FBI has uncovered a vertical relationship between prospects-sneaker companies-agents and colleges. The public is aghast to high school players being paid to play at top institutions and the NCAA’s model of amateurism.

Since my letter, USA Basketball has expanded its reach in the space to include coach certification, summer certification, and events. Summer certification alone brings in up to $4 million in revenue to USA Basketball.

Is USA Basketball representing it’s own capitalistic interest in the sport or is it working towards the protection and betterment of the game and its stakeholders? Time will tell if USA Basketball is willing to remove itself from Nike’s sponsorship and influence.

I have a proposal. A new structure-Basketball USA.

An organization that’s sole purpose is to protect the sport. This organization would find new creative ways to encourage participation and ensure that children that participated were better on and off the court through their participation.

Every player and every coach would have a Basketball USA number. You could not play or coach on any level without one. If someone acted outside of the best interest of the game, they would lose their number and be suspended from the sport. Players would have to register their number at any time they took the court to make sure their long-term health was protected.

Basketball USA would not take sponsorship from any company invested in the vertical, which means no sneaker money. It would force an alignment on rules between the NFHS, the NCAA, and the NBA.

Most importantly, Basketball USA would be the moral compass of the sport. It would be accountable to make sure the stakeholders are benefiting from their participation in the sport and not just a few corporations stealing the cream out of the coffee.

Crazy George is still doing his thing, bringing smiles to people. He is in Dallas and re-branded as Generous George. I doubt he twirls on the ground dribbling figure eights like he used to- but he has evolved.

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