“Teams play game after game after game, sometimes winning or losing four times in one day. Very rarely do teams ever hold a practice. Some programs fly in top players from out of state for a single weekend to join their team. Certain players play for one team in the morning and another one in the afternoon. If mom and dad aren’t happy with their son’s playing time, they switch club teams and stick him on a different one the following week. The process of growing as a team basketball player — learning how to become part of a whole, how to fit into something bigger than oneself — becomes completely lost within the AAU fabric.”
Head Coach, 2015 Western Conference Champion Golden St. Warriors
“AAU basketball.. Horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.”
5 Time NBA Champion
17 time NBA All-Star
“If you’re playing defense in AAU, you don’t need to be playing… I’ve honestly never seen anyone play defense in AAU.”
NCAA All-American 2007-08
2nd pick in 2008 NBA Draft
“AAU is the worst thing that ever happened to basketball…”
1992-93 NBA MVP
11 time NBA All-Star
“It’s a bad system for developing players… They aren’t learning to handle the ball, they aren’t learning to make plays against pressure. The emphasis with our high-school players is to get exposure and play as many games as you can and show everybody how great you are. If I can win the 11-and-12 year old league and tell all my friends about it, that is a whole lot more important than if my kids actually get any better or learn anything about the game.”
Stan Van Gundy
Head Coach, Detroit Pistons
The consensus is clear… The experts, the people whose opinions are valued most by fans and observers of collegiate and professional basketball, have emphatically declared that AAU basketball ain’t worth shit… Is that a fair assessment? One rarely has an opportunity to hear the other side. What do AAU guys think about the role they play?
The Black Cager sat down with Philadelphia’s most renowned AAU/Grassroots basketball figure for an in depth discussion. Kamal Yard is the director of Philly Pride a grassroots basketball program sponsored by Under Armour. He is also a marketing consultant with Under Armour charged with developing strategies to increase brand awareness in the Greater Philadelphia region.
Kamal Yard, Philly Pride Basketball
Black Cager: How long have you been involved in AAU/Grassroots basketball and how did you first get involved?
Kamal Yard: It’s funny man… For me, it started with my early years at the John Chaney/Sonny Hill basketball camp in the mid 1980’s. The camps were held at Cheyney University and on the Ambler campus of Temple University. During the camps, they had something called “lecture time.” During and lecture time, Mr. Hill and Coach Chaney would always talk about the importance of giving back. That was their main thing “giving back.” And, then you look at the camaraderie of the Chaney/Hill camp and the Sonny Hill League it was all about service. So that kinda like planted a seed in me that never left. Since then, I always wanted to establish a program that provided young kids in Philadelphia with structured, supervised and well organized opportunities to play basketball.
The legendary Sonny Hill
Black Cager: Most people are unfamiliar with the nuances and subtleties of AAU/Grassroots basketball in the Philadelphia area. Team Final, WE R 1, Team Philly and Philly Pride are the elite boys programs. Your partner program Philly Triple Threat, led by Eric Worley does a phenomenal job on the girls side. Team Final and WE R 1 are known as programs that feature elite Division 1 players, however, Philly Pride has developed a niche whereby you serve student-athletes that tend to come from less than ideal family, educational and social situations. How has that come about?
Kamal Yard: Honestly… I get motivated when people tell me a kid can’t make or won’t make it. When people say a kid is a “problem” or a “head case” I actually become more attracted to the kid. I’m from 25th and Diamond and I wanna help the kids that the other programs don’t want to deal with. Now, we’ve had some kids that were can’t miss in terms of their family and educational backgrounds. Garrett Williamson (St. Joseph’s), Ryan Brooks (Temple) and Darryl Reynolds (Villanova) all came from Lower Merion High School. These were kids that would have graduated from college without basketball, their families situations were straight. But for the most part, we tend to have kids from the “hood.” That’s just a commitment on my part. I’m the guy that will give kids a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th chance. Every situation is different, every case varies.
Black Cager: That’s a very interesting point. I can think of situations where the cases vary within single families. Let’s examine the White family. Older brother Desean, spent a season and a half at Providence, he transferred in the middle of the 2005-06 season to La Salle. After sitting out a year, he was dismissed from the team and never played a game for the Explorers. White then moved on to Delaware but was again dismissed from the team after being ruled academically ineligible. White ended up playing his final two years at Northwood, an NAIA school in Florida, where he was coached by former Villanova legend Rollie Massimino. There, he was a two-time NAIA First Team All-American. His younger brother, Devon had a much different experience.
Kamal Yard: Devon is a success story. Devon is a straight up success story. Absolutely! Look man, I don’t think of these kids as failures because sometimes they go and they try the school thing and it doesn’t work out. Most of the times it works out for the kids, but sometimes it doesn’t. What do you do? Do you throw him to the wolves because it doesn’t work out or do you try to pick him up? In my mind Desean and Devon are successes. Devon graduated from LaSalle and he even went on to pursue a Master’s degree at Niagara. He’s playing professionally overseas and taking care of himself and his family. That’s what this thing is all about.
Devon White, LaSalle University
Black Cager: When did you make the transition to a sponsored program and travel team? How did that come about?
Kamal Yard: First, when my cousin Cuttino Mobley was drafted into the NBA in 1998, he was with Nike so we were sponsored through a Nike “community deal.” How it worked was like this, we got the same amount of product that all the other Nike sponsored teams received. This arrangement was part of Cuttino’s contract with Nike. He simply diverted some of the compensation to our program through a “community deal” arrangement. We received sneakers, bags, T-shirts and uniforms. We had that arrangement for the duration of his career. That arrangement was good, it was really good for us. Then we switched over to Under Armour after he retired in 2010. I also became a consultant for Under Armour. In 2011, our program became officially sponsored by Under Armour… I just took that and ran with it. We currently have 370 kids in our program from 3rd grade through 11th grade, girls and boys.
Black Cager: Before I became acquainted with you, my perception of Under Armour was that it was a football, work out gear focused company. I didn’t really view them as a force to be reckoned with in the basketball marketplace. I did not associate Under Armour with basketball.
Kamal Yard: Nobody did… So, the first thing I did when I started working with them was to make sure all the top kids in the rec centers became familiar with the brand. I put up banners in rec centers, sponsored leagues and gave away shoes to all the little kids. I made sure all the top kids had it on in North Philly, Southwest Philly, South Philly, West Philly. Then I went out and signed up some of the best high schools. I signed Imhotep to a contract with Under Armour. Then I went after Roman Catholic and Chester High and signed them to their contract. At that time MCS was emerging and Vaux had Rysheed Jordan so I signed them. That was an important step. You have to remember at that time Rysheed, Aquille Carr and the Harrison twins were among the most highly visible high school players in the country. By having the top guys in Philly, Baltimore and Houston they really helped drive brand awareness in the inner cities. Under Armour really didn’t have a lot of pros at the time. We had Kemba Walker and Derrick Williams, other than that we didn’t have anyone in the league. The young guys kinda fueled the shit for Under Armour. They kinda served the same role as professional endorsers. Aquille was hot as fish grease down there in Baltimore. They called him the “crime stopper.” He had like 50,000 twitter followers. Rysheed had 30,000 twitter followers and the Harrison twins had a huge following. It really helped that we had Rysheed in Philly and he was a pretty popular player. And, then you have the success of the high schools we sponsored. Rysheed and Vaux won a state championship. It just helped catapult it and now it’s all over Philly.
Rysheed Jordan, Vaux High School
Black Cager: That’s really interesting… What would you say to someone that looks at that strategy and feels that you are just branding them and trying to turn them into future Under Armour consumers?
Kamal Yard: The reality of the situation is that in places like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Houston the publicly funded opportunities are gradually disappearing. The taxpayers are walking away… When we were kids you could play in the league at the rec center, you could play in free summer leagues, you could play junior high basketball, you could play junior varsity basketball. All of these publicly funded opportunities are disappearing. I feel a duty to leverage my relationship with corporations like Under Armour to provide opportunities for kids to play, participate and be within structured and supervised organizations. As far as the players, I’m with my guys for life. For me it’s about the high I get when I pick up a poor inner-city kid and take him off to college in front of his young siblings and little kids in the neighborhood. For me seeing the looks on those kids faces builds my confidence and my self-esteem. Right then, right there, I feel like I have a million dollars in my pocket. Think about the Whites. Everything didn’t pan out for Desean, but Devon watched his mistakes. Devon did everything he was supposed to in school, never had any issues with anybody. That’s how that shit go. We’re not trying to brand kids. I guess that comes with the territory. But, I’m doing this to save lives. I’m trying to go to graduations. My man Scootie Randall ‘bout to get married.
Scootie Randall, Temple University
Black Cager: Run off some of the names of players that came through your program that went on to play in college.
Kamal Yard: Scootie Randall (Temple), Ramone Moore (Temple) Rahlir Jefferson (Temple), Garrett Williamson (St. Joseph’s), Tyrone Garland (LaSalle), Jesse Morgan (Temple)… I don’t normally include guys like Darryl Reynolds (Villanova), Miles Overton (Drexel) and Ryan Brooks (Temple) because they would have made it college without our program and without basketball. They just came from really stable educationally focused families, but they were an important part of our teams. They would have been good no matter what. I always like to cite guys like Jeremiah “Lump” Worthem (Indian Hills Junior College), Quadir Welton (St. Peter’s) and Malike Starkes (Cecil Community College). Those are the guys I go after, because I feel like I can fix all of ‘em. You can’t tell me I can’t. We also had guys like Vinnie Simpson (Hampton), he was tough. I think I got over 100 guys that received Division 1 scholarships. I would bet that I have the most in this area by far. For a while I was getting 8, 9 or 10 a year. On Scootie’s team we had Larry Lougherty (Penn), Russell Johnson (Robert Morris), big Dev White (LaSalle) and Charles White that went to Hartford University. Charles is from the projects, he got his degree and he just got a big job with the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
Black Cager: How do you respond to the criticism that AAU programs don’t work on skill development and focus almost exclusively on playing games?
Kamal Yard: Honestly, the top tier programs… They got those kids in the gym. I know we do. We do mandatory stuff every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. But 5 days a week you can catch Sean Colson in the gym doing skill development for our program. We have 5 different coaches like that. Colson is coaching my 17u team and a Philly Public League product from FLC. He played at Charlotte University and in the NBA. With Colson, it’s really all about the “giveback” we talked about earlier. He’s an AAU coach and he’s also a high school coach. He understands the commitment, he understands the need to give back to the kids and sharing what he has learned. His whole thing is really making kids better. That’s all he talks about. If he could be in a gym 7 days a week making guys better that’s what he would be doing. I’m happy that he’s with us. I’m happy we got him. If you look at everything we do it’s really all about service to our kids, service to our community and service to our staff. I had to convince him to take the Martin L. King job. The principal at King came from Vaux and he told me he needed a coach. I told him I know just the guy and told Colson to take the job. We went back and forth for about 6 weeks because he still had offers to play overseas. Ultimately, I was able to convince him that this was a perfect opportunity to give back. For us, we take care of all of our people. You can’t be asking people to do all this volunteer shit and then not have a plan for them. I want all my coaches to be ambitious. They have to want to move on and be a college coach or high school coach. We want to see them progress. We take care of our guys.
Sean Colson, Philly Pride and Martin L. King, Jr. head coach
Black Cager: I think the recruitment of one of your current players, Charles Brown, gives a clear indication of how AAU/grassroots basketball is more important that high school basketball.
Kamal Yard: It is… it’s not the AAU guys fault… It’s just changing times… The college coaches, especially the coaches from the bigger conference tell me they don’t wanna see a kid like Charles Brown playing in a high school game against guys that aren’t even Division 3 prospects. A lot of this ties in with the way scholastic hoops has become saturated. The explosive growth in the number of charter schools means there a lot more teams, but there hasn’t been an increase in the number of players. These teams have to field teams. It’s watered down the basketball… What, if you are a D1 coach… are you gonna come see Charles Brown play against Palumbo or Esperanza? You are not coming to see that stuff.. If you wanna get a good gauge on his ability you wanna see him against Division 1 prospects. If you come to an Under Armour session, there are 40 17u teams and about 40 16u teams. With one plane ride you can see at least 100 Division 1 prospects.
Charles Brown, St. Joseph’s University commit
Black Cager: In Philadelphia, there’s a concentration of talent at say 6,7 or 8 high schools. These programs are so stacked up that some really talented players don’t an opportunity to play. Guys like Brown, DJ Newbill (Penn State) and Jarrod Denard (Claflin) leave one high school because they don’t get any playing time and emerge as All-State players at another school.
Kamal Yard: Take a program like Imhotep. Brother Andre Noble is doing an excellent job. Brother Andre is just like us.. He is all about giving back and lifting up the kids. Once you’ve been around him you gain an appreciation for all the things he does to take care of his kids. Now… Brother Andre looks at and feels that he has one of the best programs here. He has the best structure. So.. he’s going in… he’s getting the best talent. His program is just like DeMatha. DeMatha has kids that don’t play. They have kids that don’t qualify. Here in Philly, Roman Catholic has kids that don’t play a lot and transfer. People just aren’t used to seeing public schools doing it. Calculate the number of kids that have left different Catholic League schools over the past 5 years.
Brother Andre Noble, Imhotep Head Coach
Black Cager: Let’s talk about Philly college hoops… Which programs make the most sense for Philly kids? If I sent you my son and he was a D1 player which school would you suggest?
Kamal Yard: Imma keep it real with you… I’m a pro-Philly guy. If I was King for a day, if I could make rules I would make a rule where all of the top guys have to stay in Philly. I think that would reverberate throughout the Philly basketball community. Everyone would be better off. More assistant coaches would get head jobs. There would be higher salaries for the coaches and better attendance at the games. The talent level is so high here that if Philly kids were able to really infiltrate the City 6 programs shit would be bananas!
Black Cager: Do you think we are moving toward that? Kids are starting to stay home after watching many of those that left transfer back to City 6 schools. It seems the younger guys are learning from the experiences of the guys that came before them.
Kamal Yard: I think throughout the history of college basketball in Philadelphia, the better prospects, the better players always left. Wilt Chamberlain (Kansas), Andre McCarter (UCLA), Gene Banks (Duke), Dallas Comegys (DePaul), Pooh Richardson (UCLA) and Rasheed Wallace (North Carolina) all left. You have some that stayed like Michael Brooks (LaSalle), Cliff Anderson (St. Joseph’s) and Lionel Simmons (LaSalle). But for the most part, the better guys have always left. I think one of the main reasons kids leave is because it’s so rough around this city… The parents really influence that… They wanna get their kids away from the violence and mayhem they have seen all their lives. A lot of times the coaches get real petty and blame it on the kid, but in reality it’s the parents. If I’m raising a kid here for 18 years and I’m going to funerals all the time, first thing I’m thinking is my son is getting the heck outta here. If you go see the campus at the University of Virginia or you go out UCLA that’s the first thing you are thinking. I’m getting my kid as far away as possible from Philly. Take a kid like Savon Goodman (Arizona St.) at the end of the day he could have stayed here. But he had a pretty rough upbringing and when it came down to it his people were like you getting outta here. Same thing with Rakeem Christmas who grew up in Southwest Philly, his Aunt Amira was like you are going away. I do think it goes in cycles. At different times a lot of kids go away and at other times a lot of kids stay home. For me, I remember going to Big 5 games and I remember the intensity and the level of competitiveness Randy Woods (LaSalle), Aaron McKie (Temple), Bernard Blunt (St. Joseph’s) and all those guys played with. I think a lot of that was because those guys really knew each other. I think you are going to see more of that. All it takes is for some of these local kids to blow up and make to the NBA. I’m good with all the coaches.. I think all of ‘em do a good job. One thing about all the coaches, they are real Philly guys. I’ll never forget about ten years ago we were in a war down in West Virginia. Phil Martelli was so caught up in watching the game that he started yelling at the refs on our behalf. He got really loud and might have said some strong words. The refs threw him out the game… He actually got kicked out the game. The refs told him to get out and he said F you! He wasn’t faking it… I honestly can say, the area coaches are Philly guys to the core.
Wilt Chamberlain, Kansas University
Black Cager: If you were an AD or if an AD asked you and he needed a coach which current Philadelphia assistants would you recommend?
Kamal Yard: Right now, Geoff Arnold and Ashley Howard are everyone’s favorites. I think Geoff in terms of the type of person he is has everybody pulling him. Geoff is special. You know there are some guys that Geoff helped get into coaching that are now head coaches and Geoff has no bitterness towards anybody. So, selfishly speaking I would like to see Geoff get his shot. But I think Ash might be next up because he’s at Nova and he’s done an unbelievable job everywhere he’s been. When you talk about Geoff and Ash, I believe you are talking about 2 of the best assistant coaches in the country. I really do. They can really recruit. Look at the class St. Joseph’s just got. St. Joe’s doesn’t get those guys if Geoff’s not there. Look at the players Villanova’s gotten since Ash has been there. It ain’t no secret that when Ash was at Drexel they were able to win 28-29 games. Damian Lee was his parting gift to Drexel. He goes to Xavier and they get Semaj Christon. He goes to Nova and the DC pipeline really starts to open up. So at the end of the day, I think either one of those guys will be phenomenal coaches and they will recruit the hell out of Philly.
Geoff Arnold, St. Joseph’s Assistant Coach and his nephew New York Knick’s guard, Langston Galloway
Black Cager: A program like Rider, led by Kevin Baggett gets a lot of Philly kids. What would it take for a program like Delaware to really make inroads in Philly? Outside of Temple, they have the best facilities in the area.
Kamal Yard: I think that visibility is really important. I know Monté is from here, but I can’t tell you the last time I’ve seen him. When was the last time he was in a barbershop in Southwest? When is the last time he was in a barbershop in West Philly? You know what I mean… I know as coach, a lot of times you can’t go to games like that but I think visibility is really important. If they could have some games where they play at Temple, at LaSalle or at St. Joseph’s every other year that would increase their visibility. But all it really takes is for them to get one that has a solid career and graduates. They can go from there. Delaware is a sleeping giant.
Monté Ross, University of Delaware Head Coach
Black Cager: Penn has had 2 Black coaches, Princeton has had 2 Black coaches, Bruiser’s been at Drexel for 15 years. Coach Chaney was at Temple for 25 years. Rider has a Black coach. Delaware has had 2 Black coaches. Maryland has had a Black coach. Georgetown and St. John’s have had two Black coaches. Rutgers and Seton Hall have had Black coaches. The Philadelphia Catholic universities, LaSalle, St. Joseph’s and Villanova have never had Black coaches. Why are some schools more successful in attracting and hiring Black coaches and does it matter to guys like you that are advising elite prospects?
Kamal Yard: I think each situation is different. However, if it is overly and abundantly clear that a school doesn’t have Blacks in senior positions then that should be a problem. Because when I’m trying to tell a kid to go to a particular school or advise him on his decision one of the things I tell him is that you have to open your eyes up and open your ears up. Who’s gonna be role models for the kid? Hypothetically, say they go to the University of Virginia and Craig Littlepage is the AD. That’s telling you that job is an attainable goal for you. You are seeing more African-American ADs. Temple has one. There’s a little progress being made and I think it comes from us complaining. But it’s still not enough. Blacks make up 70-80 percent of the players. It’s not just a problem at the college level. Look at the high school level. Catholic schools in Philly may have had, maybe 4-5 Black coaches in the history of the Philadelphia Catholic League. Two of them were from West Catholic. That is an issue. Where is our network? Shit is important.
Craig Littlepage, University of Virginia Athletic Director
Black Cager: Thirty years ago, John Thompson, John Chaney and Nolan Richardson spoke out against what they perceived as attempts to limit or reduce the Black presence through increasingly restrictive academic requirements based on standardized test scores. Who is gonna speak out today? Where are our Chaneys, Thompsons and Richardsons?
Kamal Yard: We don’t have any… We are in an era where there is an overall lack of support for those fighting these measures. At one time, we had some power. When Thompson, Chaney and Richardson were in there battling they were very secure in their jobs. Now guys have to worry about job security. There is no security now. I think we need to start real small and build the opposition to some of the things the NCAA is implementing. I want to bring guys together… I think dialogue like this is real important.
Black Cager: Thanks for taking the time to give us your thoughts on these important issues. The Black Cager is very pleased to provide you with a platform to counter the very negative narrative usually associated with AAU/grassroots basketball. We wish you the very best in July. Philly Pride is the 3rd seed in the Under Armour Association and will be expected to vie for the national championship this summer. Let’s hope Phil doesn’t get kicked out of the gym rooting for you guys.
May 28, 2015