By Peter Schwartz
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Youth sports always seems to be a hot topic of conversation, particularly when it comes to injuries and fair play. But recently, AAU basketball took a huge punch to the gut from Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant.
“Horrible, terrible AAU basketball,” Bryant told ESPN in January. “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.”
Tough words coming from one of the all-time NBA greats, but a new documentary tells a different tale about AAU basketball — and it’s a story that you’ll feel good about, especially if you’re a parent with a child playing in organized athletics.
“Little Ballers” is a two-hour documentary that debuts on Nicktoons on Wednesday, February 25 at 9 p.m. It’s the first original documentary to be a part of NickSports, a block of sports-themed content. It tells the story of four diverse 11-year-old boys and their coach as they shoot for an AAU National Championship.
“I’m so excited,” said director Crystal McCrary, who is also the “Team Mom” that is featured in the film.
“It’s been a journey that started in 2011, so this story is just so special and close to my heart because my son is in it,” she said, “but also to show how basketball really offers youth hope.”
The four boys play for New Heights in Brooklyn, an organization that’s all about the student athlete. The club stresses tutoring, extra-curricular activities as well as structure and gives players a home away from home.
Those are not characteristics of all AAU programs.
“Certainly you have teams or various coaches that don’t necessarily look at what’s in the best interests of the kids,” McCrary said. “You have teams that are really just about winning and not about teaching fundamentals. That was not the story that I was trying to show with ‘Little Ballers’ because that wasn’t the team that the kids were playing for.”
Former Knick and current Mavericks forward Amar’e Stoudemire serves as the film’s executive producer. The documentary features a number of NBA players, including Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, who delivered a very important message to all young athletes.
“Carmelo was so wonderful,” McCrary said. “He emphasized that when you’re playing basketball at 10 or 11 years old, you’re still a kid, so enjoy it. Be a kid. Don’t rush those years because you can’t get that time back.”
Other basketball stars interviewed in the film include Steve Nash, Russell Westbrook, Joakim Noah, Walt Frazier, Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith, and Chamique Holdsclaw.
The boys featured in the documentary come from diverse backgrounds. But that didn’t matter to them at all as they came together as teammates. The film also shows how the game of basketball offered each kid a different level of hope: staying off of dangerous gang-infested streets, developing a bond with a father and having an opportunity for an education.
The boys also created a bond with each other.
“I think that they each learned from the others in different ways,” McCrary said. “They learned about what it means to play through adversity, through loss, and how to be tolerant of other people’s situations that we don’t necessarily teach our kids at 10 or 11 years old.”
As a parent of two boys, I’ve seen the good, bad and ugly of youth sports. While winning is nice, playing is supposed to be fun for kids and should serve as a learning experience. This film is a must-see for anyone associated with kids’ leagues.
In the aftermath of the recent Little League Baseball scandal in Chicago, “Little Ballers” is a refreshing look at how to do things the right way.