Feature report: The rise of club ball and its effect on recruiting and high school teams

Several nights a week all spring and most of summer, they are there at the gym practicing: layup and box-out drills, running plays, practicing transition and defense – all to the soundtrack of their own squeaking shoes on the hardwood.

Then there are the twice-a-month tournaments, which began in April, that bring out a huge cache of college coaches, as well as hundreds of spectators.

A common scenario for high school basketball players? Most definitely. But this is not your mother’s club ball team or club ball era, and these are not casual practices. This is the highly-competitive club ball circuit, and with college scholarships on the line, the stakes could not be higher.

Yet, one question remains: has the evolution of club ball hurt the game? Opinions vary.

The Rise of Club Ball

Long before there were viewing periods and complex rules regulating coach-athlete recruiting calls, there was the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which had basketball leagues for both boys and girls. And for a generation or so, that met the needs of young players just fine.

But in the mid-to-late 1990’s, a couple of things happened: two women’s professional basketball leagues formed, and the women’s “Dream Team” won the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics. Perhaps not coincidentally, interest in girl’s basketball increased. Club ball teams began forming, and many saw explosive growth. A nation of teams was born.

Some club teams flourished after one of the major shoe companies – Nike or Adidas – began sponsoring them. Other teams are more grassroots, and have risen due to sheer interest alone.

One program that mushroomed after Nike stepped in is Cal Swish. Since beginning as one team after its 1997 founding, Swish has become a group of 10 elite teams stationed around Southern California and the Southwest.

Director and head coach Russ Davis, also the head coach at Vanguard University, was originally asked by founder Mike Cherney to come in and help coach. Cherney became involved because he had a daughter who wanted to play. It was not too long before the Swish began winning tournaments, and being invited to more. When Nike offered to sponsor the team, Davis said things really took off.

Four of the Swish teams are in Orange County, four are in San Diego and two are in Arizona. Swish won the prestigious Nike Nationals Tournament in Georgia last summer, defeating power team Boo Williams in what many regard as the club ball national championships. Davis is quick to list the numerous other tournaments Swish won.

“If you look at our track record, we’ve been successful,” Davis said.

Swish alumni include Candice Wiggins, Dymond Simon, Jeanette Pohlen, Kristen Mann, Shay Murphy, Jennifer Lacey and Lindsay Pluimer.

Another power house program, the Cy-Fair Shock of Texas, has a similar story. Founded in 1997, the Shock took off three years later with the help of a Nike sponsorship. Founder and director Al Coleman said they’ve been one of the top eight squads in the nation since the year they began. Last year they had 12 teams based out of Houston, and this year they will triple that number as they go outside of that city to other towns.

“All the coaches in our organization understand the game of basketball, and they work to develop that basketball mindset in our athletes,” Coleman said. “We do a great job of teaching that at an early age.”

Two of the Shock’s most famous former members are sisters Nnemkadi and Chiney Ogwumike, who continue to make names for themselves.

Mark Anger’s club, the East Bay Xplosion of Northern California, has gone the opposite route: they began big but have whittled down their teams to five.

“We’re more of an elite program now,” he said.

The 12-year-old club used to have five teams but now includes two top teams and a team for younger players. They EBX is not affiliated with any particular shoe brand, but like many teams, they draw athletes from all over their area to their Orinda practices. Alumnae from that club include Jayne Appel and Courtney and Ashley Paris.

The Long Beach-based Cal Sparks were founded in 1999, but it was in 2005 that the club began to see explosive growth. Director Elbert Kinnebrew does not attribute that to anything in particular other than the continuing growth of the game.

“We’ve grown in spite of the recession and the economy,” he said.

The seven-team-strong Sparks do not have a shoe sponsor, but they go to numerous major summer tournaments every year and have helped quite a few of their players go on to play college basketball, such as Cierra Warren-Robertson.

“We get some support from FILA, but we’re not affiliated with Nike at all,” Kinnebrew said.

Nike declined to comment on its sponsorship of club basketball teams. But several club ball coaches said that in exchange for Nike sponsorship of their team, they are expected to participate in a certain number of Nike tournaments each July.

Adidas spokesman Paul Jackiewicz said Adidas began sponsoring teams in 2000.

“These programs give us the opportunity to connect with our target basketball consumer,” Jackiewicz said. “Our goal is to provide women’s basketball players with events and opportunities to develop their talent and showcase their skills for college coaches.”

Jackiewicz added that the relationships Adidas built with club teams has helped the company further develop their brand.

But regardless of when they were founded and whether or not they have a sponsor, the goal of club basketball team directors and coaches seems to be the same: get girls into college where they can play ball. And the explosive growth of the club game has changed the way NCAA coaches recruit players.

Coaches used to primarily assess athletes while they played with their high school team. Now they mostly do this during the club ball season, from April through July, and especially during the July tournaments. Why? It’s more economical and efficient.

“The clubs knew that if they got enough good kids together, that college coaches would come,” said Kathy Richey-Walton, who has coached at the club, high school and college levels for more than 20 years.

“It’s a way to save time and money, and for [coaches] to see hundreds of kids at once instead of just a few. There are so many more games and tournaments in the summer now that hardly any college coaches come to high school games anymore.”

The first viewing period of the year, where college coaches can see prospects play in club ball tournaments, is the second or third weekend in April. There are tournaments all during the month of July, save for a 4-5-day dead period in the middle of the month where no games are allowed. The club ball season culminates the last few days of July with major tournaments, such as Nike Nationals.

This time frame is also useful because the first NCAA signing period is in mid-November, before high school season even starts.

“Our goal every year is to have them ready to go by that July viewing period,” Anger said.

“We’ve watched them grow up”

Many club ball founders, such as Davis of Swish, began their programs as a way to help their own basketball-playing daughters, or the daughters of their co-founders. Such was also the case with Dallas-Forth Worth Elite.

Co-Director Irving Butler helped found the team in 2003 with the late Marques Jackson and two other men. Both Butler and Jackson had daughters playing for other club organizations, and Butler said they wanted something new for their kids.

“All four of us had kids in college, and we knew that the competition [for scholarships] was difficult,” Butler said. “We wanted to create something else for young ladies. Marques wanted the best competition there is.”

Others decided to start programs to fill a need, and Matt Henna fits that category. The former Colorado high school coach founded Mile Hi Magic 11 years ago because he said there “weren’t enough club ball options” for girls in the state. By 2003 his club had 12 teams, but he’s scaled it back to six to keep the quality of the teams high.

“We play a lot of tournaments in California and can compete with them,” Henna said.

The founders of Seattle-based Tree of Hope did something similar. Thomas James and Damian Young started the program in 2002 not only because they saw a need for more teams, but because they wanted to have lower-cost club ball team opportunities available for girls.

“The first and second years we paid for [the girls’ costs] on our own through donations from our church,” said Young, the head coach and assistant director. “We do charge now, but it’s much less than other teams charge.”

Still others, such as Boo Williams, Louisiana Select and Chicago Bulls Elite, began their girls programs in the wake of the successes of their boys programs.

Whatever the case, parents and athletes now have a wide selection of teams with different philosophies of play from which to choose.

Anger said EBX is known for their defense, and especially their presses. Coleman characterized the Shock as being fundamentals-based.

“We do a great job of teaching them the basics of the game at an early age,” he said.

Boo Williams said he and his coaches emphasize specialty work.

“I’m big on the development of skills – I’m really big on that,” he said.

DFW Elite’s Butler said that beyond their trademark “suffocation defense,” coaches teach players how to be actively involved in the game.

“We don’t just bring them in there and have them run a bunch of plays – we teach them how to make plays,” he said. “Basketball is a language, and if you don’t speak the language, you have a problem.”

Team tryouts are usually in March, after the regular high school basketball season ends. Player dues for a club team range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending upon how much sponsorship a team has. Families are usually allowed to pay in installments. Some teams conduct fundraisers.

Club ball teams originally drew from their immediate areas, but increasingly today, kids commute longer distances to their once- or twice-a-week practices. Last summer, Santa Ana, California-based Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis played for the Tennessee Flight. Perhaps not by coincidence, a few months ago the NCAA began regulating out-of-state players on club teams. Even those who stay in-state have their own tactics.

“We don’t actively have tryouts,” Butler said. “We try to select kids. And coaches do call and recommend players to us.”

Once players and their families do make a choice for a team, one thing is clear: tight relationships usually form – bonds that maintain long after a player has left a program.

Butler said DFW Elite alum-turned Los Angeles Sparks reserve guard Andrea Riley jumps into team scrimmages when she’s in town for a visit. Williams said he would never ask a player to come back and say “thank you,” but many do. Coleman said Shock teams are close-knit.

“It’s a real family flavor we have,” Coleman said. “We don’t just say that – we mean it.”

Anger started coaching Appel when she was 10 years old, and he said it has been rewarding to witness her transformation into a pro player though hard work.

“We’ve watched them grow up,” Anger said of his athletes. “Nothing really compares to that.”

The High School vs. Club Ball Debate

Though all agree that the rules of the recruiting game have changed, some don’t think those changes are for the good, while others say they’ve seen improvement. Perhaps at the heart of this debate is the relationship between high school and club ball coaches, or lack thereof. At best the two communicate. while at worst there is contention.

Cal Sparks Director Kinnebrew regularly communicates with the high school coaches of all of his players, if he doesn’t actively work with them. He calls coaches to tell them if an athlete has missed a practice, or to check on her grades. Over the years, Kinnebrew has hired a handful of high school coaches to coach with the Sparks during the summer.

Williams also hires a lot of high school coaches to work with his 85 girls teams. He said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“A club ball coach has got to work with high school coaches,” Williams said. “You’ve got to be on the same page and work together for the kids, because each one of us can do things that the other can’t do.”

But Butler and DFW don’t maintain the same close ties with the high school coaches of their players.

“We do try to work with high school coaches as much as we can,” he said. “But sometimes you’ll have the tension; they blame us for problems they have with kids, and vice versa.”

The Shock’s Coleman has a completely different view. He said he has developed a lot of relationships with college coaches in trying to get his athletes scholarships.

“The high school coach becomes irrelevant during the summertime recruiting period because they aren’t as accessible as we are,” he said. “When they’re done with their season, they go back to teaching math, or whatever. We’re working with the kids 365 days a year.”

Richey-Walton, who has coached at Southwest Dekalb High School in Georgia for eight years after being a club ball coach, said attitudes like Coleman’s are more prevalent among club ball coaches. And she doesn’t favor the change.

“The high school coach now sometimes feels left out,” she said. “I had a situation once where a college coach never made contact with me for one of my kids they were interested in.”

Richey-Walton said the situation is indicative of the culture around recruiting now, and she called it short-sighted.

“High school coaches are being overlooked, but they should get more respect,” she said. “High school coaches have to be certified, whereas anyone who wants to can start a club team.”

Middle Tennessee State Coach Rick Insell, who has also coached club ball, said he and his staff contact the high school coach of an athlete they’re interested in. However, many other schools and coaches don’t have the same philosophy.

“We’ll go through the high school coach, but keep the travel coach very much in the loop,” Insell said. “But I’ve noticed that travel team coaches usually don’t pay attention to the high school coach at all.”

Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale shares Insell’s philosophy. She said she is a “firm believer” in speaking to a high school coach about a player. She also likes to see an athlete play at her school.

“It’s very important to me to see a girl play at her high school during the high school season,” Coale said. She coached high school for six years at the local Norman High School.

Coale also sees detriments in the rise of club ball: primarily over-work and the loss of skill development.

Athletes now go right from their high school season into club ball season with no break until August, after the July viewing period. That means that young bodies are playing for almost a year without a break.

Coale said that because the goal of club ball teams is to play as many tournaments as possible to get athletes seen by colleges, that basketball fundamentals have taken a dive in recent years.

“The greatest problem with young players today is that they don’t work on their game anymore – they don’t have time,” Coale said. “For the sake of volume playing, they’ve given up many of the skills.”

Coale said this is evident, for instance, in the number of players she sees now that can’t perform skills with their weak hands.

“There has to be a foundation to set the game on,” she said. “The best coaches demand that.”

Some coaches like Coleman, however, say they’re enhancing the game.

“We have a real sense of pride, because not only do we have a better brand of basketball, we’re sending kids to higher level colleges,” he said.

Chicago Bulls Elite Coach Erin Babarskis sees a lot of benefit in the travel her teams do during the summer.

“The players get exposed to different types of play,” she said. “For example, the east coast game is very different from the west coast game – west coast play seems to be faster-paced.”

Babarskis said last summer, a team from London came to Chicago to play her team, which proved beneficial to both squads.

Athletes say there are definite differences between high school and club ball, but that they need both.

Kacy Swain, who will be a senior next year at Chaparral High School in Southern California, has already committed to UCLA. She said Chaparral’s league is strong, but still gives the edge to her club team, West Coast Premier, for intensity.

“Club ball pace is quicker, faster and a lot more athletic than high school ball,” Swain said. “It’s because the level of competition is higher.”

She credits the exposure she got playing for WCP for getting her college offers. And now that she’s made a choice, the pressure is off.

“After years of playing hard, I’m learning to focus on just the game,” she said.

July 6-15 is the first portion of the July viewing period this year. The dead period is July 16-21, where no games are allowed. July 22-31 marks the second portion of the July viewing period.

DFW Elites begins the summer with the Big State Flava Jam, a popular tournament among college coach at Southern Methodist University, July 5-8.

Sue Favor’s Blog: They’re Playing Basketball.

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  • Interesting article. I have two articles that may be of relevance to your readers.

    1) Every year, I read about the high school vs. AAU argument. It's not that one or the other is better, but together there is a problem, as Sherri Coale says: http://thecrossovermovement.wordpress.com/2009/06

    2) In terms of development, despite what the coaches may say, the current set up is not created to maximize a player's development. Last year, I compared the development of a player playing for the u18 team of a professional club in Europe with that of AAU/club basketball in the U.S. and high school basketball: http://thecrossovermovement.wordpress.com/2009/06

    While the number of hours dedicated to basketball do not differ greatly, the emphasis does. The higher practice to game ratio in Spain favors more development and more balance in development.

    The big problem right now in the U.S. is that when a club coach feels that his or her players need a break, the players go to a high school practice or a private skill trainer. The players go and go until their body breaks down, which you see through poor performance or injury.

  • The fact that the shoe companies (Nike and Adidas) have stepped up their support of girl's basketball by sponsoring teams, but one thing about that disturbs me just a little. While they are supporting the sport in spirit, they may be affecting the players in a negative way by not adapting their basketball shoes for the female athlete. They are, to me, still men's shoes scaled down to women's sizes (or the players just wear men's shoes altogether). This does not help minimize the risk for ACL injuries. Instead of the shoe companies just lending their name to a program or tournament, I would like to see them make greater strides in developing basketball shoes for the female athlete. The sport is growing. The shoe companies need to keep up with them.

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