Let me be clear. I love Basketball more than any other sport. It’s my favorite to watch. The happiest day of my life was when DirectTV allowed me to have NBA TV, so I could watch Hardwood Classics all the live-long day. Watching those long enough allows you to see what basketball looks like when it’s perfect. Ball movement so beautiful that it almost makes you cry, in-your-shirt defense, and the perfectly executed fast break. What’s the best example of this to my way of thinking? The 1989 Detroit Pistons, or the 1986 Boston Celtics.
What do you remember about those teams? That is something that you can leave for me in the comments. But for me it is adaptability. They could beat you in the fast break, or in the half-court. They rebounded and defended at every position, and if you didn’t defend, you couldn’t play. in essence, they played the right way every night.
But just as easy as perfect basketball is to find, also, it’s the easiest sport to tell when things aren’t going right. If you build a bad team, it’s quite easy to notice it. If your roster is made up of mismatched parts, you can tell. If the basketball IQ of your starting five is somewhere in the single digits, it’s noticeable easily.
And, if our national teams don’t have all of the infrastructure that they need to be successful, it’s blatantly clear. But this doesn’t have to be this way. It’s a process, a commitment, and it’s one we can easily make if we choose to.
Now before I go any further, there might be some of you correctly wondering why it is that we need to make any changes. We won the Gold in Athens, didn’t we? That should be good enough. Hell, we even won the FIBA Worlds with our national team. That’s got to be good enough right? No. Not even close. Look at the teams below the tenior team, which is the NBA pros.
The U-19 team finished in fifth place at the U-19 World Championships in Latvia. Fifth place. We were beat by Lithuania, kids. Lithuania. Serbia. Russia. We finished in fifth place at the World University Games. When the talent level is equal, we have trouble staying with the best.
In large part our struggles against the Russian National Team in 1988 led to the formation of the Dream Team (This could largely be laid at the feet of John Thompson and his poor construction of the 1988 National Team, but that’s another article for another day), and ever since the Dream Team happened, all anyone has cared about is what our Senior Team does. That’s it. If we want to build the same kind of consistent excellence, the kind where we again can become to basketball what the Soviets were to hockey once, here is the solution to the problem: Utilize what USA Hockey did, and create the infrastructure for a National Team Development Program.
When I called USA Hockey to find out why it was that they did this, it came back to one basic idea, one overriding principle above all others: they wanted to do something different. It was clear that the infrastructure that they had built to this point became no longer suitable. So they decided to build their own, from the ground up, with a focus on player development.
It’s an understandable point. Joe Basketball Player shows talent, and is immediately put in an assembly line of high school basketball, AAU basketball, major college program (for 1 year most of the time), and then the NBA if he is good enough. Notice a pattern? At every level of the line, every spot along the rail, player development takes a backseat to the dictated goal of winning as many games as you possibly can.
That is where the UNTDP stepped in. Sure, they want to win games. No national team doesn’t. But the anchor of the whole thing is in the idea of player development, on & off the ice.
Could this work? Of course it could. But the question is, how to do it? To be frank, there is going to be a lot of work to make this happen, and to make it happen like we want it to, like it deserves to be done. But should we do it? Yeah. What’s there left to lose?
Step 1: Have a central hub for the program, a place where all of the National Team coaches and staff are located.
It doesn’t fit our plan to have a whole bunch of satellite places around where we send our best and brightest prospects, allow them to develop bad habits or regress, and then get all ticked off when they come back to the National Team overweight, or unable to use their left hand, or whatever else.
So where do we put this program? Where is the best place for such a far-reaching and expansive program to go? The best way to answer this is to answer a few more questions.
If we’re going to do this right, and create a serious infrastructure that can become the absolute envy of every major basketball country in the world, what do we aspire to? What should be the basis that we build this program on? For this, I find there’s only one answer. The Wooden-Era UCLA Bruins.
Firstly, it’s got to be a place where you can play hoops year-round. We want to create an immerse culture where excellence is not only sought after, but expected. And the only way to do that is to put it on the West Coast, the greater Los Angeles area to be specific. I’m thinking we can find a big enough space near the Staples Center, or Pauley Pavilion, to make it work. But that flows seamlessly into Step 2.
Step 2: Hire elite coaches for the U-18 and the U-17 team, and give them full roster autonomy & a league for the U-18’s to play in.
For this to work, you can’t have the dirty underbelly of the AAU system create a situation where the coach is handcuffed by agreements and deals made in backrooms to get guys on the team. Those are the guys you can’t coach, because you don’t have authority to bench them, or discipline them when they get out of pocket.
Instead, what this program needs is open tryouts. If you can’t play on a world-class level, it’s not going to work. But who can engender the kind of respect that you need to make sure that no one gets heated? Easy. Find people that these kids have no choice but to respect.
But I’m sure you’re saying right now: “Of course. But give me some names. Otherwise this is just a fantasy.”
Fine. For the U-18 squad I figure they need someone who can provide discipline, structure, and experience. My choice: Jerry Sloan.
Here’s the thing about Jerry Sloan. He runs a simple offense. No lie, it’s just a few plays. But simple and basic doesn’t mean boring. It always worked. And it worked in Utah, where dude wasn’t exactly running the 1986 Celtics out there. Now imagine what could happen if you gave him free reign to pick his perfect team.
Now, this was a harder decision than I imagined it being. I initially had Larry Brown here, but after more thought and debate, I decided Larry was a little too aggressive for this type of thing. You need someone who can teach, and won’t mind teaching. Also, quite frankly, Larry’s going to be slightly schizophrenic and I wanted a coach with a much more stable hand. (Also, Phil Jackson could have been a fit here but I don’t know how he does with young players, if he does well with them at all.)
But for the U-17 guys I wanted someone who could very easily coach young people. But with this you also want someone who is world-traveled and understands the nuances of international competition because this team is going to be competing in a lot of international tournaments. In essence, I want the best unemployed college coach because that’s the type of thing we are going for. And after quite a lot of evaluation, Kelvin Sampson was my guy. And if the Knicks have the good sense to fire Mike D’Antoni……
But what kind of league are we going to put the U-18 team into? The NPA.
Now I know what you’re saying. Wouldn’t that be the NBDL, just run by a different set of dudes? Here’s my theory. Not everyone wants to go to college. If you want to go to college and play ball, you can. Sign your letter of intent with a school (St. John’s just as an example), and as soon as your team needs you there, go. No one is going to stop you.
But if you don’t want to go, if you want to do a job and get paid for it, the NPA can help you with that. A salary on par with what a league-mininum NBA player would make, for starters, with the same idea of call-up that MLB has.
Step 3: A world-class basketball & life skills academy.
But it’s not enough, I’d argue, to just have the kids play games. Games don’t really provide as good of an opportunity to teach as you might think. And they allow players to get away with bad habits just because somehow they happen to be winning games with those very same bad habits. (LeBron James and the fact that it took him 7 years to realize he was in need of a post game and a reliable jumper is a perfect example.) It’s not even really the fault of the coaches. What you have to do is to put player development and winning on the same level, not player development on one level & winning games on a much higher level.
But how to teach? Easy. We have on our sprawling campus three-full sized international courts. And every couple of days, we’re going to have tutorials. But not just from anyone. From Hall of Famers during our season, and from NBA All-Stars during the off-season.
Just an example: Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, and Chris Paul have some 1-on-1 time with our point guards to teach them how to run an offense, perimeter defense with Scottie Pippen, Gary Payton, and Bruce Bowen, rebounding and low-post defense with Bill Russell, Moses Malone, and Dennis Rodman, and finally fast-break theory with Magic Johnson, Shawn Kemp, Charles Barkley, and Julius Erving. Think all of those guys together might be able to teach some young kid something?
But what I don’t want to have is basketball savants who can’t balance a checkbook, tie a tie, or generally be social citizens.
So we’re going to have some help with this as well. But in a variety of different areas.
Nutrition, balancing a checkbook, saving money and paying your taxes, and whatever else might be deemed necessary.
And that’s the plan. Are there flaws in it? Probably so. But is it better than the scattered, games are the sole way of developing players, model of development that we have currently.
Thank you for reading this all the way through.