LeBron James isn't a fan of modern Amateur Athletic Union basketball.
The four-time NBA MVP, who's gotten the chance to witness current AAU culture up close thanks to the participation of his two sons, Bronny and Bryce, left little doubt of that during an exclusive interview with Yahoo Sports.
"AAU coaches couldn't give a damn about a kid and what his body is going through," said James. "It was a few tournaments where my kids—Bronny and Bryce—had five games in one day and that's just f****ing out of control. That's just too much. And there was a case study where I read a report. I don't know who wrote it not too long ago, and it was talking about the causes and [kids'] bodies already being broken down and they [attributed] it to AAU basketball and how many games that these tournaments are having for the [financial benefit]. So, I'm very conscious for my own son because that's all I can control, and if my son says he's sore or he's tired, he's not playing."
While we can't be sure exactly which report LeBron is referring to, there's plenty of evidence that the current youth basketball system—of which AAU is an integral part—is leading young athletes to suffer overuse injuries at alarming rates. For those talented (and physically resilient) enough to make it to the NBA, they usually arrive with so much mileage on their bodies that the odds of a long, healthy career seem bleak.
"A lot of these tournaments don't have the best interest of these kids, man. I see it. It's like one time, they had to play a quarterfinal game, a semifinal game and a championship game starting at 9 a.m., and the championship game was at 12:30 p.m. Three games. I was like, 'Oh, hell no.' And my kids were dead tired. My kids were dead tired. This isn't right. This is an issue," James said.
"You know that old saying. It's like, 'Boy, you ain't tired. What you tired for? You're only 12 years old. You don't even know what it means to be tired.' Nah, that's bulls**t. Those kids are tired."
Many kids who participate in AAU basketball specialized early—meaning they began playing only one organized sport (in this case, basketball) before they hit high school.
Instead of spending time honing a variety of different physical and mental skills playing multiple sports in both organized and unorganized environments, they simply devote all those hours (and perhaps more) to playing just one sport, subjecting their body to the same repetitive actions multiple hours a day over the entire year. We recently detailed why early specialization may be one cause of Zion Williamson's injury-riddled start to his NBA career.
James also believes that poor nutrition isn't helping matters, either, which is an excellent point.
"And they don't eat great too. The nutrition part. They don't eat well at 14, 15, 16. They're taking all that pounding and then they're not putting the right s**t in their body. It's tough," says James. "There's no Whole Foods in those small cities. Those kids are eating McDonald's, bro. They're eating bad, and they're playing five, six games a day. Come on, man. That's what it is."
While James did grow up participating in several AAU tournaments, he says the system has drastically changed since then. He also believes that playing pick-up games, often against older competition, was a much bigger factor in his success than AAU.
"There are way more tournaments, there are way more showcases now compared to when I played," James said. "You know how we got better as kids? We played against older kids because we knew if we lost, we had to wait a long-ass time before we got back on the court…That was our motivation. That pushed us. That's how we got better."
James' comments are made all the more interesting considering his own longevity.
The 34-year-old has logged more NBA minutes than any other active player. He's already appeared in more career games than Shaquille O'Neal or Scottie Pippen, and he shows little sign of slowing down.
Coincidence or not, James did not specialize early. His first love was football, and he was an All-State receiver at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School (Akron, Ohio). Even as the hype around him as a basketball player grew into a supernova, he continued playing football all the way up until his senior year of high school.
While many parents rush their children into early specialization in hopes of creating a future pro, just look at LeBron's childhood. He believes his most valuable basketball development came via pick-up games, not organized tournaments or private skill sessions, and he continued to compete in multiple sports well into high school.
While James forbids his own sons from competing in youth football due to safety concerns, he did encourage them to participate in sports such as soccer and baseball. Now that they appear to be specializing, he's concerned about them being pushed to play too much basketball.
"I think it's just based on if [parents] know you have a special kid or some special kids, you can't be putting them in every f***ing tournament just because people want to see them," said James. "But like I said, these coaches don't give a damn about these kids. I care about my kids. I don't put my AAU kids in every tournament. We probably play like five or six tournaments a summer."
Photo Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
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