By Matt Norlander
AUGUSTA, Ga. — The assistants are there to work. The head coaches are there to be seen. That’s my primary takeaway from my first day, ever, on the AAU circuit.
I wondered what to write about. There’s a lot of avenues to hit here, but with Borzello delivering a lot of the goods on recruits and the latest (for the die-hards out there, he tells me the most impressive players from Tuesday were Brice Johnson, Jarnell Stokes and Nerlens Noel), and Goodman and Parrish on the pulse of other worthwhile topics from this week and this month, I figured it’d be worth it to deliver a series of quick essays on what it’s like to experience the AAU circuit for the first time. There are plenty of fans who have no idea what July is really like for prospects and coaches. I hope these entries eliminate some of the haze.
I write to you from a Fairfield Inn & Suites hotel room about 15 miles away from Peach Jam headquarters, well after 2 a.m., heading into Wednesday morning. My posterior is positively flattened after sitting in unforgiving chairs all afternoon. The tournament lasted 11 hours but felt like 20. Don’t interpret that as complaining; I’m plenty thankful to have gotten the chance to watch the “naked corruption,” as one person referred to it, all afternoon and evening.
The best part: I think I unintentionally ate lunch with a runner. I didn’t even realize that was the case as it was happening, which speaks much more to my naiveté than his savvy social skills, no offense.
There’s a cynicism that’s centered around this event — hell, all events — and I love it. I love it because it’s honest and refreshing and makes the whole showcase seem a little more on the up-and-up, as contradictory as that sounds. Right now, many of the coaches embrace July and this part of the recruiting period. Peach Jam is the most well-organized event, they say, and the talent level here makes it a lovely portion of the 20-day bob-and-weave.
Even if there’s a shady film to this event, it’s much more contained than others, from what I gather.
But I’ll get more into the seedy element tomorrow. Let’s swerve back into the recruiting/coaching aspect for now. Recruiting simply isn’t easy. I’m not breaking new ground, but experiencing a trite notion for the first time almost always has a bit more realism to it upon immediate reflection.
To give you an idea of how it works, there’s a rotation of games and teams in the morning and afternoon. Some 16-and-under teams play, the rest are 17-and-under. Coaches jump from gym to gym — there’s four of them — and basically watch the same thing over and over and over and over for nearly 12 hours. The coaches cannot talk to the players, the players’ families or coaches on the way to, during or after the tournament. Do most coaches skirt these rules in one way or another? Of course — but like I said, we’ll get to that tomorrow.
The coaches don’t sit in the bleachers — that’s for fans, invested onlookers, families and teams who got next. The logo-adorned men from universities across this great nation are reduced to a pinning in cushioned steel chairs against a cold white wall. Their feet casually protrude onto the floor with nary a concern about tripping a fly-by official or player. Many take notes here and there, but most have their faces fixated on their phones, only God knowing who they’re communicating with.
There is a dichotomy that’s undeniable at these events. The coaches, most of them — the ones who aren’t completely paranoid; one BCS coach seriously gave me this advice today: "In this business, the fewer the friends, the better" — share smiles and stories more frequently than they do watch games. Check the phone every 60 seconds, then jump back into conversation about who knows what. Just keep smiling, stay happy, let Player know you’re there and thrilled. It’s embarrassingly obvious how much over-smiling happens.
That doesn’t mean these coaches aren’t grinding. They are, but it’s a soft, unforgiving grind. A grind that doesn’t pay immediate dividends and often seems pointless in the moment. A lot of it is babysitting. Coaches have commitments from 2012 players — but they don’t want to ignore the kids. That’s how verbal commitments vanish into born-again prospects. So it’s reinforcement. Yes, we’re here to see you. We care about you. We want you to know you’re just as important to us now as you were when we chased and courted you for the past two years.
It’s not true — a few assistants told me as much Tuesday — but the façade must go on, especially for the 90 percent of schools that don’t get to act the shark that schools like Kentucky, Duke, Ohio State, North Carolina, Kansas and the like do. This is a puppet show and the players are the ones with the strings on their fingers. I got a sick sense of satisfaction by observing all these powerful men in the sport, guys like K, Roy Williams, Calhoun, etc., all simplified to this observer role. And for what? For the right to keep their job, long-term.
Here’s where I give coaches a lot of credit; it goes back to the grind part of it. By 8:30 I was undeniably wiped. And it’s only been one day. The repetitive nature of these games — they already started blurring together. And this is the Peach Jam — the best of the best. The best teams playing the best games in the best, most-organized environment. This is the Rolls Royce of recruiting events. And I’m unashamed to say I was itching to leave the building with still two hours to go.
I wasn’t the only one. Pretty much everyone except the players and runners—and maybe even them—were ready to leave by 8 o’clock.
But the grind continues. It all starts again at 9 a.m. The coaches that really put emphasis and care into this event will be in their interchangeable thrones by 8:30, ready to court and care for their prizes, one game at a time.