Kevin Garnett’s reputation for starting dialogue continues even in retirement. Garnett recently sat down with Boston Celtics legend Kevin McHale on NBA TV and said he thinks AAU competition is a detriment to the development of young basketball players and, in turn, has hurt the NBA. Or, in his words, "AAU has killed our league."
Garnett’s comments align with previous statements from Kobe Bryant, who said European players are more skillful because of "horrible, terrible AAU basketball," and Charles Barkley, who called the current generation of NBA stars "AAU babies," citing their inability to handle criticism.
"Our league now is at a point where you have to teach more than anything. AAU has killed our league," Garnett said. "Seriously, I hate to even say this, but it’s real. From the perspective that these kids are not being taught anything. They have intentions and they want things, but the way they see it is not how our league works. You earn everything in this league. You’re not entitled to anything. And it’s more entitlement than anything."
While many coaches around the country will acknowledge the AAU system—one that has amateur basketball players on often-sponsored and often-shifting travel teams—isn’t perfect, Mike Duncan, CEO of the Ohio Basketball Club and a former coach of Philadelphia 76ers guard T.J. McConnell, said that pro players who criticize AAU basketball are forgetting their roots.
"You can’t make it to the top and forget what part of life got you there," Duncan said. "I know for a fact AAU had a part to do with [Garnett’s] life. They didn’t know you in Chicago until you played AAU. Come on! You’d still be stuck in lil' South Carolina."
AAU basketball has become more professionalized as more teams earn sponsorships from companies like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour. These corporations, however, have also helped structure the amateur game. All three companies organize leagues and tournaments for many of the best high school players in the country. According to Duncan, the experiences that come with the AAU circuit are invaluable for many athletes, most of whom will not play professionally.
"I’ve seen the good of it, I’ve seen the bad of it. The good part is this—I had a couple of kids who had never left the state of Ohio," Duncan said. "To go away, to stay in a hotel, if you get to see some of their faces, kids that would never get on a plane, it’s great."
Larry Butler, who coached the likes of Dwyane Wade, Andre Iguodala and Darius Miles during their AAU days, said that stars have no right to complain about players coming out of the AAU system.
"KG, this is the wrong time for you to be talking smack about AAU guys," Butler said. "I saw it benefit a lot of kids that played against lesser-known schools and didn’t play great competition all of the time in a school setting."
Duncan said that despite the issues that come with AAU basketball, the system provides an overall net positive to basketball players all around the country, and Garnett should not forget that.
"A lot of these guys, once they make the pros, they get amnesia," Duncan said. "There are too many benefits that are helping kids [to talk about the negatives]. For him to say that, like, come on, man. You were in South Carolina. You played for Boo Williams. How do you get from South Carolina to Chicago? That wasn't a benefit?"