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

March 20, 2000

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.

COLOR PHOTO: WARNER BOOKS COLOR PHOTO: WILLIAM MORROW
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