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Charles Hirshberg
March 20, 2000
Two Contrasting Views of Youth Basketball: from the Hideous to the Sublime
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March 20, 2000

Books

Two Contrasting Views of Youth Basketball: from the Hideous to the Sublime

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Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America's Youth
by Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger
Warner Books, $24.95

Authors Wetzel and Yaeger claim to have uncovered "the nastiest feud in basketball." Think about that for a minute: This is a sport in which trash-talking is considered a valuable skill and sportsmanship is a dirty word. Yet Wetzel, an associate editor of Basketball Times, and Yaeger, an associate editor at SI, do not exaggerate. Their book chronicles the vicious street fight raging between rival athletic shoe companies. Billions of dollars are at stake. Between 1987 and 1997 the annual revenues of Nike, the industry leader, rose from $877 million to $9.19 billion. Shoemakers try to seduce players as early as possible, pouring money into sponsorship deals with high schools and amateur teams. They shower teenage ballplayers with merchandise (even junior high kids are considered fair game), fly them to tournaments held in such character-building environments as Las Vegas and subtly steer them toward prep schools and colleges whose teams happen to have lucrative shoe deals with these companies.

The two principal capos in this turf war are Nike's George Raveling and Adidas's Sonny Vaccaro. Once bosom buddies, each now regards the other as a kind of pestilence, and both may be right. It's hard to say which is more nauseating, the cynicism of Vaccaro, who freely admits that the amateur game is "a cesspool, and we start the process," or the hypocrisy of Raveling, who dismisses the whole problem as "make-believe stuff."

Raveling sanctimoniously praises the coaches who collaborate in this make-believe stuff, saying they're "willing to work with kids." But one wonders how much these lucky kids benefit from working with an AAU coach such as Nike-sponsored Myron Piggie, a former crack dealer who did time for firing a gun at a policeman. When asked about this, Raveling praised Piggie as a stand-up guy. "The past has got to be the past," Raveling said. "How long does a person have to pay?"

It is young people who will continue to pay, until the predators in youth basketball, and their financiers, stop exploiting the kids they pretend to serve. To anyone who loves basketball, or kids, this is a familiar refrain, but one worth repeating. Sole Influence repeats it rather ponderously; the book is neither particularly well organized nor well written, but it is a timely plea to stop the madness behind March Madness.

A Season on the Reservation
by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
William Morrow, $24

Just when you thought there was no hope for youth basketball, along comes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with a memoir of Alchesay High in White River, Ariz., where, for one dollar, he coached a team made up mostly of White Mountain Apaches. He ran windsprints with the team but collapsed in exhaustion; he shook his glasses under a ref's nose after a bad call; and he was tackled in practice by a rowdy player.

Abdul-Jabbar doesn't pretend to have saved lives or changed the world. But he believes he helped his players "understand the difference between good criticism and getting their feelings hurt by an adult."

The kids accomplished something, too. "They [gave] the game back to me," he writes, by "stirring my emotions and making me stand up and cheer." Good for them. And good for Kareem.

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