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How Northern Kentucky Coaches & a Star Player View Impact of AAU on Basketball

Some who follow the various levels of basketball may think the skills of the game have begun to slack.

Fundamentals like passing, shooting, and footwork have declined in the eyes of many. Typically, those who harbor this opinion point to AAU youth basketball as the culprit for the vacuum of skill in the game.

Recently, Los Angeles Lakers guard and future hall-of-famer, Kobe Bryant ripped AAU basketball saying that it's “stupid” and “ruining the game.”

“It doesn't teach our kids how to play at all so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all of this fancy crap and they don't know how to post,” Bryant told ESPN LA after a game against Memphis in January. “I just think European players are just way more skillful. They are taught the game the right way at an early age. It's something that we really have to fix. We have to teach the kids to play the right way.”

Such an extreme opinion is debatable, but there are those within the local basketball community that share at least some of this concern.

“I think it's a double-edged sword. There are certain things of AAU, like the competition level. When you play against high-level competition, you can move to another level,” Covington Catholic head coach Scott Ruthsatz said. “My thing is that there are guys who are already at that super high level, their athletic ability, and just pure God-given ability, that can negate a lot of the development of basketball. We don't have as many shooters as we used to have. A lot of times you go to these tournaments, and over four of five games, an individual might only get 20 shots. Where if that kid is in the gym four of five days, he's getting up a couple hundred shots, or a thousand shots. I think there needs to be a combination of the two.”

Ruthsatz led a Colonels team without much size to the Kentucky state title last year. That team won the championship demonstrating ample skill and fundamentals and did not come across as a team composed of AAU all-stars, but some of his players were a part of the AAU circuit. One of those players is the promising sophomore guard Cole VonHandorf.

“Cole plays at a high level with the Kentucky Travelers, so you can kind of tell the difference, but he has to earn that through his development, through spending time at the gym,” Ruthsatz said. “Now what we need to do is get him going and his competition level up. They need to be seen. We've got guys who can hopefully play in college and that is a necessary thing for them to go out and play in front of coaches. What we have to do as coaches back here is as soon as they get back, get them in the gym for those repetitions. We need each other, I just wish we would work a little better together, instead of two separate entities.”

Holmes head coach Mike Listerman also sees the benefits along with the pitfalls of AAU basketball.

“AAU is good because it showcases certain players. Players can show their skills and compare them to other players with similar skills. It’s also good for college exposure, of course. We have several players who play AAU,” Listerman said. “However, it’s not a great gauge of a player’s high school or future college success. There’s very little planning for AAU games. The kids usually just go out and play. It basically comes down to which team has the better press and which team has the most guys who can score one-on-one, and that’s who wins in AAU. It’s a very different game from high school basketball, but it has good and bad aspects.”

Because of the emphasis on the individual, many talented players with skills that are better suited for a more team-oriented dynamic often get glossed over for the bigger, flashier players who shoot more often in AAU games. Scott Ruthsatz's son, Nick Ruthsatz, was the state tournament's MVP a year ago and now plays at the University of Findlay in Ohio, but he was not one to garner much attention in the AAU arena.

“Nick played in New Jersey and then when we moved here he played with a couple of different teams. For somebody like Nick, the AAU didn't lend itself too well because he's not a guy that is going to be seen in a high-level game,” Scott Ruthsatz said about his son. “He's not really flashy, he doesn't finish above the rim, he's kind of a role player out there. Sometimes those guys get missed, but that's why he would come back to the gym and get his repetition there.”

On the other end of the spectrum is superstar Holmes senior guard James Bolden. Often viewed as the region's most talented player and on his way to West Virginia next season to play for coach Bob Huggins, Bolden has been involved in AAU basketball since sixth grade, even on a national level. He is a proponent of AAU because he says it gives the opportunities for players to be seen that might not otherwise have that opportunity.

“I really think that AAU is good for the kids. It's a lot of exposure for those who don't get it at the high-school level,” Bolden said. “It gives kids a lot more opportunities to get out there. It doesn't have to be a Division I basketball club, it could be Division II, Division III, anywhere to get to the next level.”

Indeed, 18 of the 30 first draft picks in the last NBA draft participated in AAU basketball, and nearly every player invited to the McDonald's High-School All-American game are AAU players as well. Bolden was a nominee to the game and says that the biggest benefit that AAU ball has over regular high-school ball is the addition of the shot-clock.

“When I played in the Nike Youth Basketball League, the shot-clock was the biggest difference. I think the shot-clock is valuable in AAU because you don't see teams holding the ball. It's also better competition. It's the best of the best out there that plays against each other. It makes you better and it lets you know where you stand in the country,” he said.

Ben Coffman runs a Northern Kentucky AAU program called the Kentucky Warriors which ranges from age 3 all the way through high school. Even though Coffman is so involved in AAU hoops, he too recognizes the ills of the organization.

“When I started, I can tell you that my focus was on development,” Coffman said. “I don't think in general AAU is about development, it's about putting talented kids together and winning tournaments. I think it's coming around to doing what we're doing which is development. When you're talking about the higher grades, it's usually about putting an all-star team together and winning a tournament. To me, I think it should be about development until the kid graduates from high school. I think eventually that's where it will go and I would like to lead the way. It's not about the wins and losses, it's about your kid getting better every week. I think we're different from the average AAU organization in the United States, because we are focusing on development.”

Coffman says that a player can play year-round for about $900 within his organization, depending on the level of play. The highest level of play is the AAU leagues, but there are also recreation leagues and simple basketball training for beginners.

“We have something for everybody, no matter your skill level, both boys and girls. We do training, we do rec leagues and we do AAU leagues. We pick you up from 3-years old all the way up through high school," Coffman said. "We've really got everything a person would want to do as far as basketball is concerned. It doesn't matter what your skill level is, we will put you on the appropriate team and start developing you.”

Coffman said that once he decided to sell the hotels he owned and become a full time basketball coach, he would spend some time recruiting players for his program. Now that he is established, though, he says that he draws participants from as far away as Lexington to his quarterly tryouts that he hosts in the Florence area. He maintains that his intentions as a coach and program coordinator are to make better basketball players and not just win tournaments.

“What we really want to focus on as an organization is the elementary and middle-school development of boys and girls. We will travel and we play year round to do that, but we will travel in the summer to the state and national tournaments if our team is good enough," he said. "We like to develop kids that play year round in the Northern Kentucky AAU Leauge or the Northern Kentucky Rec League.”

What do you think? Is the AAU stigma overblown? Has the spirit of the game become misguided? Weigh in at The River City News Facebook, Twitter, or email!

Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor

Photo: Holmes basketball team (Brian Frey/RCN file)

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