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The Kids Game

Why Erik Spoelstra’s Basketball Academy Matters

David Alvarez
By Couper Moorhead, HEAT.com
If you’re reading this, you probably love the NBA. If not, you at least like it. Or you have a family member who works in the industry. Whichever one it is, professional basketball is a part of your life. And as something that is a part of your life, you talk about it.

We talk about Dwyane Wade euro-stepping on the break. We talk about Goran Dragic splitting two defenders and finishing over a third. We talk about Chris Bosh defending centers and shooting like a guard.

But what we don’t talk about very often is where these guys came from.

When Kobe Bryant spoke up and out about the state of youth basketball in America, it caused a bit of a stir. For many, it was uncomfortable to hear one of the most prominent figures in the sport speak so negatively about the industry and, by proxy, our children.

“I just think European players are way more skillful,” Bryant told ESPN in early January. “They are just taught the game the right way at an early age. They’re more skillful. It’s something we really have to fix. We really have to address that. We have to teach our kids to play the right way.”

The culprit: “Horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all.”

The solution: “Teach players the game at an early age and stop treating them like cash cows for everyone to profit off of. That’s how you do that. You have to teach them the game. Give them instruction.”

If Bryant missed the mark, he didn’t do so by much. He’s not universally correct, nothing is that simple, but his points about the state of true, not collegiate, amateur basketball rang true. Miami HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra has seen the same. In what he considers his own small way, Spoelstra is trying to take the emphasis off trophies and put it back on the kids.

SMALL BEGINNINGS

Originally from Portland, Oregon, Spoelstra is now in his 20th season living in Miami. It’s just as much a home to him as any place that isn’t a childhood home can be. For a long time, he’s wanted to give back to the community that has given him so much. As early as 2005, he incorporated the Erik Spoelstra Basketball Academy, but then the idea sat there, untouched. Incubating.

“I didn’t really know how to get it off the ground,” Spoelstra said. “I only knew that I didn’t like the AAU culture. I knew that if I had a chance someday, that I would love to be able to, even if it was a small drop in a bucket, to be able to change the culture and be a part of a positive change. But I didn’t really know exactly the model that I wanted.”

Inspiration would come, eventually. There were solid programs in South Florida, but none that had every component Spoelstra wanted. He spent seven years looking for the right model until he found it on the other side of the country.

The idea started to bloom in the midst of a long road trip which gave the HEAT a couple days off in San Francisco. Planning to go to dinner with an old friend, Spoelstra first took in the practice of his friend’s son at the North Bay Basketball Academy, started by Rick Winter. And Spoelstra, always of an open mind – a single trip to the University of Oregon in 2011 had a profound impact on the HEAT organization – liked what he saw.

It was a team practice, but the first 45 minutes was all fundamentals. Ball-handling. Passing. Cutting. Reading the defense. Learning defensive situations. It was, as Spoelstra saw it, the anti-AAU practice.

Better yet, these weren’t just parents working with the kids. These were varsity-level high-school coaches.

Why would the high-school coaches spend their off days or nights coaching eight-year-olds, Spoelstra wondered. For much the same reason Spoelstra wanted to start his own academy, they were giving back. For love of the game, as they say.

“I started realizing, ‘This is the model that I wanted to emulate,’” Spoelstra said. So, he sent videos of the practice back to a friend in Miami with the message, ‘We’ve got to do this.”

 

THE ERIK SPOELSTRA BASKETBALL ACADEMY

The recipient of those videos was Scott Gurka, a onetime HEAT employee who had lived in an apartment complex he, Spoelstra and other resident team employees called “the guy’s version of Melrose Place”. Gurka had been brainstorming about the academy with Spoelstra during late-night meals in Coconut Grove and with his own two sons starting to play, saw an opportunity.

“When the Heat landed the Big Three, basketball exploded in South Florida,” Gurka said. “Youth sports in Miami had traditionally been dominated by football, baseball and soccer. All of a sudden there was this tremendous appetite for basketball and a limited infrastructure in terms of coaching, youth leagues and facilities to meet the growing demand. Not only did I see a real opportunity to do something meaningful, but I saw a definite need for it. I told Spo that if we don’t do this now, somebody else will.”

Not one to take half measures, Spoelstra officially partnered with Gurka but didn’t rush the process. As the HEAT won the next two NBA Championships, Spoelstra would visit with Rick Winter whenever the team was in town to play the Warriors, and while he was in Las Vegas for NBA Summer League he would drive over to watch North Bay playing the showcase AAU tournaments.

“What struck me the most, always, was the level of coaching,” Spoelstra said.

“I remember seeing one game and they were getting blown out by 30. And yet, the kids were still competing. I saw the coach go over to the other coach at halftime and say, ‘Hey, we’re down by 20, but I still want you to continue to press because we need to get better at it. Our kids need to look at it.’ I thought that was great.”

He and Gurka began interviewing coaches, only high-school coaches, with the guidance of HEAT assistant and longtime Miami high-school coach Octavio de la Grana.

Spoelstra would treat the prospective coaches much like he does any free agent the HEAT are considering. He would explain exactly what he was looking for, and when he was done laying down the expectations he finished off with, ‘This might not be for you. It’s not for everybody’.

Slowly, the team came together. Coaches from Coral Gables High School, Florida Christian, Palmetto High School and Calusa Prep. It didn’t matter where you were from, as long as you could do the job and loved the job. Needing a full-time caretaker for the program, Spoelstra and Gurka hired Brock Winter, the son of North Bay’s Rick, as Associate Director right out of college.

“They sold us on the camaraderie of the coaching staff, because it’s made up of rival high school coaches,” said Rick Landera, head coach at Palmetto High School. “That right there is going to be one of the big things that changes the culture [in South Florida].”

High-school coaches weren’t just for high-school kids. Spoelstra and Gurka wanted to give an opportunity to kids of any age, any skill level and any financial means to get high-level coaching. Skills clinics for beginners get the same amount of attention, and the same focus on fundamentals, as advanced shooting clinics. Free clinics would be offered to enrichment organizations such as Breakthrough Miami. If your child is interested in basketball, they would tell parents, the academy welcomed them.

It wasn’t a boys club, either. With even fewer opportunities available for girls in South Florida, the Academy would also partner with the Lady Jaguars AAU program and it’s head coach Diane Kunkel, also of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish School. Spoelstra would be there, too, hosting a special clinic for the girls last summer and staying afterward until he had taken a picture with everyone.

“That really, really made a big difference,” Kunkel said.

Everyone would have a place to learn, not just a place to play.

So, with a plan in hand and the pieces in place, it was time to settle on a code.

 

THE FUNDAMENTALS

“In our academy, we don’t allow zone defense and everybody has to learn the read-and-react, pass and movement offense.”

That’s Spoelstra’s gospel, and up and down the roster of coaches everyone has to buy in. But to understand why, you have to understand why other teams don’t do the same thing.

The defensive side of things is easy, literally in this case. Zone defense is used as a crutch for those who don’t want to spend the time teaching man-to-man or don’t have the time because it’s all spent playing games. Jason Doan, head coach at Florida Christian, estimates that only 20 percent of travel teams he faces run man-to-man defense.

“We’re all teaching man to man principles,” Doan said of the academy. “Down here, that’s pretty much gone.”

“Zones are easier just to throw out there and you don’t have to really teach it,” Spoelstra said.

What zones do teach, indirectly, is how to gamble on defense. When you’re only responsible for a certain section of the floor, kids are able to sit back and watch the ball bounce around the court until the opportune moment to shoot a passing lane. Steals, then, mean easy scores. You don’t learn how to stay in front of the ball, much less how to make help rotations. And when you come up against a team skilled enough to dissect that zone, you have no fundamentals to fall back on.

Problem is, most teams aren’t skilled enough to punish the zone like that. Talent is one thing – you can be born with talent, though even the most talented kids pay their way through the academy, where financial aid is available – but skills require teaching. Above all else, Spoelstra’s academy is about teaching.

While the read-and-react offense sounds like a system, it’s really about teaching kids to rely on their instincts rather than follow some rote instructions on what to do next. While every city and every culture is different, most people over the age of 30 probably ran some variation of motion or flex offense in high school. Systems of merit if they’re taught correctly, surely, but systems which can also provoke kids into going through the motions – not understanding why they are doing what they are doing.

“Read-and-react teaches the kids how to play the game with passing and cutting, moving without the ball,” Brock Winter said. “It’s not a set offense. This lays the groundwork on how to play the game of basketball without having a set offense. It teaches kids how to be decision makers and not just robots.”

Flex and Motion aren’t as popular these days because, as with the lack of man-to-man, few teams have time to properly teach it with kids playing 80 to 100 games a year. Over the last 10 or 15 years, as the NBA has undergone a similar transformation, amateur teams have started running more and more pick-and-roll offense. If you have a talented guard and a talented big man, the pick-and-roll puts the burden of offense on your two best players. But unlike in the NBA where those other three players are often highly-paid role players who excel at shooting, at the youth levels those players are kids who aren’t getting a chance to develop. The talented kids are identified early and given the ball while others are simply along for the ride.

This is not to say that the academy is entirely devoid of pick-and-rolls, only that they’re not put in until kids are ready for it. They’re a component, not the focus. The youngest groups, eight-year olds, are learning the most basic layers of the offense. If you’re standing in the corner, your teammate dribbles at you and you see your defender is playing too close, then you make a back cut in much the same way Dwyane Wade would ghost a defender.

“It’s tough to become where it’s robotic because you’re constantly paying attention,” says Derrick de la Grana, head coach at Calusa Prep. “If a kid says they aren’t getting enough touches, we can say, ‘If you would do the cut you’re taught, you can have a catch or a layup.”

Every year after, as the kids advance their fundamentals in practices and clinics, a new layer is added.

“By the time they get to Sophomore and Junior year of high school, if they’ve been in the program all those years, now it looks like poetry in motion,” Spoelstra said. “Where they’re not even thinking, they’re truly reading the defense and playing without the basketball and making high IQ basketball plays that you can only learn if you’re building fundamentals and doing that over a period of time.

“The only way to really do that is to make sure that you don’t skip steps, and if you’re not going to skip steps, winning can not be the number one priority.”

THE CULTURE OF WINNING

Counterintuitive though it may seem, especially for those of us who primarily watch professional sports, the academy is running against the grain in trying to counter the culture of winning. It’s the American Way, in a sense, to teach children that winning is the main thing and the only thing, but doing so can sacrifice the opportunity for growth. Sure, you might be more likely to win playing zone defense and a two-man offense, but is anyone on the court getting better?

“Development doesn’t happen a lot in AAU culture here, because winning in paramount,” Landera said.

The reverse of this isn’t to say that losing is good. To Spoelstra, “it’s not just about winning or losing, but to learn about teamwork, learn about sportsmanship, learn about discipline. The value of working together for a common goal. Have the emphasis on fundamentals, not just games.”

Spoelstra talks about his high-school days not as someone standing in his lawn explaining to someone for the twentieth time that he used to walk to school barefoot, in the snow, uphill both ways to school, but as someone who has taken a good, long investigative look at what it was his own coaches did and didn’t do. Rather than bouncing around from team to team and coach to coach, Spoelstra says players in Oregon stuck with their high-school programs all year. When he made the Oregon Select team, they practiced four days a week before heading to the Las Vegas tournaments. If they played 20 games in a summer, they practiced at least 20 times.

“The ratio for games to practices in AAU now is probably closer to six or seven to one. In Europe, it’s the opposite. You have five practices; there are one or two games a week. When I was growing up, AAU wasn’t as much of a fixture that it is now.”

No, scouts aren’t coming to practices, but if you’ve been getting dedicated practice time for years you’ll be all the more prepared to have a good showing when you get to the showcase tournaments that the academy, like everyone else, participates in.

In essence, nobody cares how many games you won in middle school if you’re one of the most skilled players in high school. And if you’ve been taught well, the wins will come.

THE FUTURE

While this is only the second season the academy has been fully up and running, it’s already up to 22 teams and 20 coaches. Spoelstra meets with Gurka and Winter regularly to go over curriculum, and when the HEAT aren’t playing Spoelstra has been known to turn up just to make sure everyone is on message.

“If I walk into any gym, I have confidence that all our coaching staff is teaching the same thing,” Spoelstra says. “So there’s not an inconsistency. When you find the consistency and now you’ve hired talented coaches, kids can really improve at a rapid rate. And they’re doing it the right way.”

Process over results has always been Spoelstra’s way of thinking with the HEAT, and now he’s transferred that philosophy over to teaching the young basketball players of South Florida. Nobody who works for the academy claims to be changing the landscape of AAU basketball. They’re just doing their part, in their own way, and hopefully setting an example.

Their way isn’t for everyone, but their way is about the kids.

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