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Tyson Chandler, of the Dallas Mavericks, and LeBron James, of the Miami Heat, both of whom are competing against each other in the NBA finals this year, played AAU basketball growing up. As George Dohrmann says in his book, Play Their Hearts Out, “Nearly every great-American-born basketball player of the last ten year—from Kevin Garnett to Kobe Bryant to Tracy McGrady to LeBron James—has been a product of the AAU system, yet it remains a largely unexplored world.” But know, thanks to Dohrmann’s book, many surprising connections between AAU coaches, players and large sneaker companies have been brought to light.
Dohrmann’s book uncovers details about how the AAU basketball system works. For general reference, AAU is a basketball organization for pre-college aged players. Some of the coaches for AAU have been known to have affiliations with large sneaker companies such as Nike and Adidas, who wish to align promising young talent with their products. Therefore, these coaches will be paid significant sums of money by these companies and be given their products. Then, the coaches have been known to extravagantly shower their AAU players with these products, as well as other gifts. Tyson Chandler is one such player. Dohrmann discusses one of Chandlers AAU coaches, stating,”He had allegedly bought Chandler a Cadillac Escalade, moved Chandler’s family from San Bernardino…and taken him on shopping sprees for clothes and shoes that often exceeded $5,000.”Dohrmann also explains, how on one occasion, George Raveling, the head of grassroots basketball for Nike, contacted Chandler’s coach at the time, for both Chandlers “shoe size and his address”. Following the call “approximately 20 pairs of shoes” arrived at Chandlers house.
To understand when and how the recruitment system by sneaker companies dipped into to AAU basketball market, one needs to know the story of Sonny Vaccaro and Nike Founder Phil Knight. Vaccaro approached Phil Knight in 1978 with a business proposition. The proposition was that Vaccaro himself could help Knight and Nike compete with Converse, a sneaker company that had the monopoly on the basketball-shoe market at the time. Vaccaro’s proposed plan was centered around the fact that he had connections to college coaches and believed that with these connections, he would be able to get the best collegiate players to wear Nike. Vaccaro believed that the best collegiate players wearing Nike shoes would create a domino effect to the fanbase. Vaccaro believed if the best collegiate players were wearing Nike, fans would be enticed to buy the same sneakers their favorite players were wearing.
Vaccaro cemented his claims in 1984 when he signed Michael Jordan to Nike. Michael was then only a sophomore at North Carolina and had yet to grow into arguably the best basketball player of all time. A year later, in 1985, all four final-four teams would be wearing Nikes, which symbolized their control of the market. In 1992, six years after the 1985 tournament, and after being fired a year earlier by Nike, Vaccaro joined Adidas. Vaccaro decided to bring Adidas to the AAU level in order to gain control of the youth market because thanks to his earlier work Nike already had the college basketball monopoly. Shortly after, Nike aligned itself with the AAU market as well.
All in all, George Dohrmann’s book Play Their Hearts Out is a fascinating account of the world of grassroots basketball. For any basketball fan, Play Their Hearts Out is a must read and it will change the way that you look at the game.