- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 23, 2011


It’s easy to be jaded and cynical and skeptical about the merits of big-time youth basketball, in which teenagers fly around the nation, play on national TV and grace magazine covers.

It’s easy to surmise that the attention is excessive and premature, contributing to larger problems in college and beyond because it puts teens on pedestals and instills a sense of entitlement, merely because they’re good ballplayers.

But it’s harder to reach those conclusions once you learn about some of the players or watch a documentary like “Prayer For a Perfect Season,” which debuts Tuesday on HBO.

This exceptional, behind-the-scenes look at an elite-level prep program provides much more than the sliver of sports — the actual games — we’re accustomed to watching.

“Prayer” clothes the players and coaches in humanity we typically forget when discussing rankings, records and statistics. Though it chronicles the 2010-11 season of St. Patrick High, the Elizabeth, N.J., school that finished No. 2 in the USA Today Top 25, the documentary details storylines undoubtedly found at other national powerhouses.

That list would include Rockville’s Montrose Christian (NBA All-Star Kevin Durant’s alma mater), ranked No. 3 last season and likely to be No. 1 this year in several preseason polls.

I’m the first to admit we make too much of sports in our society, from the pros to Pop Warner and everything in between. There are websites and national publications devoted to ranking and rating prodigies as young as 11 years old, which seems extreme if nothing else.

Recruiters, alumni and agents have created a feeding frenzy over gifted schoolboys. The kids are flown to tournaments and camps and all-star games from coast to coast, to place them before as many eyeballs as possible. It’s no wonder that some star athletes believe they’re above the law and the common man is beneath them.

But the majority of players aren’t superstars and they don’t get in trouble. So while the ills of big-time youth sports are real, they’re not applicable to most of the participants.

I realized as much several years ago while covering the City of Palms Classic, among the nation’s premier prep tournaments. I saw St. Patrick play in that tourney a few times, and their visit last season is part of “Prayer.” Journeying to Fort Myers, Fla., and other outposts are among several long trips taken each season by the Celtics and similar programs.

Top stars are recruited heavily and have multiple schools to choose from. But the travel draws looks for their teammates, too — players who often can’t afford college but earn athletic scholarships, even if “only” to Division II schools.

And for every player who never cracks a book and leaves college after a year or two, there are thousands of others whose lives are vastly improved through scholastic/collegiate hoops.

“I’ve been all over the world because of basketball,” Georgia Southern coach Charlton Young told me when he was an Auburn assistant attending the City of Palms Classic. “I’ve got a degree because of basketball. These tournaments are a big thing for these kids. We can’t take that away from them.”

Young, who played at Miami’s Carol City High and lived in one of the city’s roughest sections, was Most Valuable Player of the 1988 COPC. He wasn’t heavily recruited, but the performance earned him a scholarship to the school he now coaches.

Youth basketball opens doors for the most dedicated and skilled players, a fact that should be celebrated not scorned. Those who play and coach at the highest level shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed just because there are sleazeballs, low-lifes and knuckleheads among them.

Such miscreants are found in every field, including business, government, religion and the arts.

Yet there’s a tendency to dump on youth sports for the sins of a few, overlooking the virtues of many. “Prayer” serves to remind us that behind the highlights are human beings, dealing with pain, loss and failure, trying to achieve their dreams while doing the right thing.

I used to advocate major reform for youth basketball. Scale it back and scale it down. More emphasis on hitting the books and less on hitting the boards. Decrease the gap between students who are athletes and athletes who aren’t students.

Now I support tweaks, not wrecking balls. Yes, make every effort to help youngsters stay level-headed and keep sports in perspective. And recognize that the task requires teamwork from concerned adults at home, at school and in the community.

But eliminating elite-level programs and high-profile showcases won’t eliminate all the shady characters giving youth basketball a bad name.

It would just eliminate a great experience and terrific opportunity for many well-deserving kids.

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