So the 2013 Peach Jam is over now, and the Riverview Park Activities Center has no doubt gone by now reverted back to merely housing Saturday morning third grade dodgeball games, zumba classes and summer camps for four year-olds. It’s hard to even comprehend that this very same locale, only several hours prior, was without question the absolute go-to destination for anyone who’s anyone on the NCAA college basketball landscape. It’s kind of surreal to think that there’s now a 260-pound father of four sitting in a folding chair watching his runny-nosed seven year-old shoot at a backboard in the same chair where Tom Izzo just watched college-and-NBA-bound Jahlil Okafor shoot on the very same backboard.
This was my first time at a high-profile AAU tourney like this one; I had, of course, attended many AAU games as a high-schooler (my younger brother was involved in our town’s AAU league), which means I’d seen in the past how intense the play — and, maybe moreso, the parenting — can be in situations like these. But it was, of course, nothing on the level of the Peach Jam. These were high, high stakes.
There’s a very weird vibe going on as you walk around the halls and courtsides of an event like this. It’s surprisingly casual that coaches like these can be just walking around, chatting, as the kids whose lives they could absolutely change forever are mere feet from them and no words can be exchanged whatsoever. Think of it this way: imagine you were, say, the greatest jazz clarinetist in the entire state of Iowa (you’ve probably fantasized about this exact situation many, many times already) and suddenly you’re face to face with Quincy Jones. Your clarinet is even in your hand. And you can’t say anything to him. You can’t even play your clarinet until it’s time for you to play it. And yet, here he is, the great Quincy Jones, standing right next to you. It would be tortuous, surely.
We talk a lot about seeing the coaches, the other media members and the facilities, but one thing we haven’t said much about yet is how these kids themselves seem to be handling a situation like this. You might imagine the halls are filled with cocksure forwards sporting gigantic Beats by Dre and looking like they’re getting ready to show the world what they’ve got, but to be honest the majority of these kids look absolutely terrified out of their minds. I would be, wouldn’t you? If you’re ranked 71st in the nation and play terribly, you could drop completely off the table. Likewise, you could be unranked and, if you have the game of your life, you could end up on a championship-contending team (or at least a much higher-visibility team than you thought you’d ever make it onto). There are surely kids here who may come from backgrounds they need to escape, and this is it — the moment to run at the wall. There are probably kids here who have gone to sleep every night since they were six years old dreaming of playing in the NBA, and this is the next hurdle toward that dream. It’s easy to be drawn to the big-name coaches in the room or the gaggle of CBS correspondents laughing over a shared story in the corner, but one look in one of these players’ eyes and you really can see the weight suddenly come back to an event like this. One thing about the Peach Jam that really surprised me was the lack of obvious ego on display — ego doesn’t mean anything in this situation, because these coaches know exactly what they’re looking at. And if you’re not the real deal, they know it. Quickly. You might be able to posture yourself into being the most popular kid in your high school, but everyone here will see right through you. It’s time to deliver or sacrifice the caliber of your future.
It’s a good thing, if you’re here to be seen, that the entire AAU scene seems designed organically to promote you. Many of these teams even have hired individual camera crews specifically purposed to, one guesses, get footage for YouTube videos and Mixtapes. It’s odd to see these camera crews up in the players’ faces at all times. Team Scan out of New York, for instance, had a crew who followed the every move of its players — from close-ups of their starters inbounding balls to bench-riders’ expressions as their peers made big plays. I’m not sure where all these hours of footage end up, but it’s definitely headed back to an editing suite somewhere. Even coaches get into the spotlight by cranking their intensities up to eleven, stomping and yelling and arguing with referees. Truth be told, an AAU head coach could even be auditioning for an NCAA assistant coaching position in a situation like this, and since many coaches turn themselves into package deals in delivering players as it is, it’s not hard to see these players become assets to be traded and promised to the coaches who need them.
Another interesting notion that Matt, Drew and I discussed frequently this past week is the entire system of ranking players. I mean, how do you rank a kid from Los Angeles, who’s playing other kids from other Los Angeles high schools, against a kid from Detroit who might be playing a much more difficult set of high schools, and the two of them against a kid from Mississippi who’s playing another hundred different opposing players? Especially if the three players never faced off in the same game? It would seem, on paper, to only be possible if all variables were taken into account — those variables being the statistics of every single player each of those recruits have ever played, on a newly devised system for ranking those variable and extraneous high school players. It would be mind-bending. It would be the most elaborate matrix ever devised. That’s why — if you want my personal opinion, which you did not ask for — I think that the recruits ranked 20 through 100, are totally subjective. There may be no discernible difference at all between #34 and #41. Sure, it’s easy to see the top ten — we watched them ourselves, and guys like Malik Newman and Jahlil Okafor are insanely more gifted than their peers — but after the big dogs, it’s gotta be all speculation. A good reputation can be everything until you get here and face off against the other top recruits.
Matt and I were sitting with Ohio State assistant coach Greg Paulus one day and asked him how he judges the kids he’s watching. He answered that “it’s good to see these guys in person, to see how they carry themselves, how they come on and off the court, if they get water for their teammates, stuff like that.” He went on to explain. “It’s a lot better than talking to them on the phone, and after this is over I can say to them ‘hey, I like how you did this, or that, or how you helped that guy up off the ground.’ That goes a long way.”
I found Paulus’ words fascinating and encouraging that, in this day of championship-chasing, a mid-level recruit can still bump himself up and make himself more attractive just by being a decent person and teammate. That feels kinda good, to be honest, in a meat market like this.
At the end of the day, however, make no mistake that the Peach Jam IS a meat market. And a fascinating one at that. But that’s the AAU system, and that’s the AAU system’s whole raison d’etre. I loved seeing it first hand, and I hope I was able to bring you guys some of those observations as well and that we could experience it for the first time together. It was fascinating, strange, bizarre, impressive, fun, exciting and unlike anything I’d ever seen in the arena of sports. I know that I definitely want to go back next year. A peek behind the mighty curtain of NCAA basketball like this is a must-see, and it’s a blast to watch this young future of college and pro basketball in action. We can’t see it yet, but the next few weeks and months will illustrate how important this week was. And just how much it meant not only to big-business NCAA coaches, but to the focused kids whose fortunes have yet to swing wide open for them.
Also, the Peach Jam has in its media room the best tasting peaches I’ve ever had in my entire life. So there’s that, too. Which is a nice addition when you’re watching someone’s entire life be changed before your very eyes. You want to settle in with a good peach for a show like that. See you next year, North Augusta.