The Jr. NBA World Championship is an opportunity of a lifetime

Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images   Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images /

It had taken almost 14 years, 9,000 miles and a hell of a lot of basketball for Diya Kothari to get here. The actual journey to Main Street, U.S.A. in the heart of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom had begun about three days before. But she was here, now, jet-lagged and nervous and arm-in-arm with her friends in the sweltering Florida sun. Determined to make the most of it, she walked through the parade as she was cheered by strangers, leading an impromptu chant of “India! India! India!” while a stale breeze blew sunscreen-scented air and hope through The Happiest Place on Earth. Kothari looked up from the parade to see a mouse-eared balloon floating away, and the smallest player on the team from Bengaluru suddenly wore the biggest smile.

Less than 48 hours later, the wide grin had been replaced with tight-lipped determination. The Indian team was among the first to tip-off the tournament and faced a much bigger group that had made a long journey of their own from Australia. Kothari, a point guard, handled the ball deftly but was immediately hounded by 80 pounds of freckles, braces and ribbons-in-her-hair tenacity. Kothari turned the ball over once, twice and a third time before throwing her arms up in a silent, desperate plea. One of her teammates would score India’s first basket with just over two minutes left in the first quarter, already down 12. They would go on to lose by 46 and would lose four of their fives games by an average of 38 points.

This is the Jr. NBA World Championship (JNWC), the league’s latest foray into youth basketball, but now on a global scale. The event took place from Aug. 5-12 in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, a gargantuan facility somewhere in Disney World’s sprawling 40-acre maze. Three hundred seventeen participants were split into 32 teams, 16 each for girls and boys. Eight girls’ teams and eight boys’ teams represented different US regions, having advanced in tournaments throughout the year. The remaining 16 teams hail from Africa and the Middle East, Asia Pacific, Canada, China, Europe, India, Mexico and South America

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Despite the full and considerable weight of the NBA and its partners, you’ve likely never heard of the inaugural event. It was scarcely attended save for the family and friends that had the means necessary to do so. And while hours of televised games featured dozens of players from 35 different countries, they were hardly the household names that the casual fan tunes in to watch.

But make no mistake, the JNWC is here to stay. The league spent 18 months of arduous planning and a considerable amount of money because this the beginning of a long-term commitment, regardless of attendance numbers or ratings. “We really believe we can build something special here,” says NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

What the NBA is exactly building is open to speculation. The league sees this as an investment in the game and in future potential players, beyond just the bottom line. “This is certainly not a business,” says Silver.

Merchandise — banners at $12, t-shirts for $25 and decals for a mere $10 — was sold at kiosks throughout the arena to the sparse crowds in attendance. But there was also the expense of flying in competitors from around the world, arranging for their stay in one of Disney’s nearby resorts, and the complimentary passes to the theme park (even if family and friends paid their own way). There were the dozens of staffers onsite to handle coordinating an event of this scale. Inasmuch as a profit was concerned, Silver’s point stands.

Still, there are markets that remain untapped and the JNWC is an innovative way of introducing a product that already has considerable global appeal. This might not seem like a business at the moment, but there’s undoubtedly a long-term payoff in mind.

David Krichavsky, NBA Vice-President and head of youth basketball development, summarizes the concept behind the JNWC. “We saw an opportunity to create a best-in-class event that’s tied to the NBA brand and unifies our existing global youth programming in a new and exciting way.” That programming includes Basketball Without Borders, which has, according to a league website, produced more than 50 former campers who have reached the NBA level. There are also NBA Academies located in Africa, Australia, China, India and Mexico, that promote a  structured approach to basketball vaguely described as “the NBA way.” The JNWC emerged as the culmination of those efforts and, not coincidentally, most of the teams participating in the event are from regions where an Academy is already in place.

Establishing youth basketball in the United States isn’t as much of a priority, not with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) already entrenched. For most, the Union is an amorphous entity, viewed through an obscured lens as either a blight or a boon. It is a chance at fulfilling a dream or a marketing tool for multi-billion dollar shoe companies, a pipeline for elite players or an opportunity for adults (coaches, family members, sponsors) to exploit children for their own selfish benefit. The 16 teams representing the US in the World Championship are all part of the AAU.

It’s a partnership that Silver doesn’t deny, but he is quick to point out that the league doesn’t see the JNWC as an extension of a system that many view as broken. “We tried to put an overlay over the existing programs,” Silver says, “and then bring elite youth together in sort of a structured tournament and it’s our hope that through USA Basketball — and, of course, the NCAA is a partner in USA Basketball — that we can have an ongoing relationship with elite young players in the United States throughout the year.”

Beyond that, Silver recognizes that while AAU programs can vary in terms of quality, there’s a need for the league to establish itself as a watchdog. The NBA is focused on, along with the NCAA and USA Basketball (two entities with problems of their own) to develop an accreditation system for teams, hiring protocols for coaches, and establishing age-appropriate skills as children make their way through the pipeline. “And, just as importantly, that young people aren’t playing too much,” says Silver. “In Little League, there’s a pitch count…we don’t have anything like that in basketball. And you hear a lot about that in many [AAU] tournaments, that you have young people equal the age of the players we have on the court right now, playing up to eight games in a weekend. That just can’t be good for you.”

Aside from the administrative stewardship over youth basketball, Krichavsky believes that commitment to ideals that symbolize the league is what primarily separates the JNWC from other youth tournaments. He noted daily sessions that promote mental health and mindfulness — with translators provided whenever necessary — as a major point of emphasis. There were also lectures on preparing your body “to achieve peak performance,” along with instruction on diet, and the proper use of social media. Krichavsky beamed as he described the tournament’s “Day of Service” for all 300-plus participants, in which players put down basketballs and picked up paint brushes and shovels to help build a playground at a local park. Four banners alongside the main court reflect the league’s, and by extension the tournament’s, core values: Teamwork, Respect, Determination and Community. There are a number of things that separate this tournament from others, says Krichavsky proudly, “but I would say the focus on the off-court programming is one of the main ones, for sure.”

Still, one former NBA player who didn’t want to be identified didn’t care too much for what separates the JNWC. “This is AAU,” he said, spreading his arms wide, “and who cares if it is?”

It’s a point of contention, to be sure. The league and its representatives remained steadfast in their promotion of off-court values as a significant differentiator, almost to the point of cultishness. But there’s no denying that the players building a playground were involved in a worthwhile effort, or that they may have learned ideas about mental health and its connection to sport that are more prominent than ever. There’s also the view that Silver espoused, that the JNWC wasn’t fiscally-driven, even as the tournament and other global grassroots efforts continue to spotlight the NBA brand. There will eventually be revenue from these efforts. But there will also be improved facilities, better coaching and a chance, however slim, of realizing a dream of playing professional basketball.

That chance requires exposure, to scouts, coaches or anyone in the position to help accelerate that process. And this, according to the unidentified source, is why the JNWC and AAU aren’t rivals, or that the former is a threat to eventually overtake the latter. Rather, the Jr. NBA Championship is just one additional avenue for a player to do “whatever he or she has to do to get noticed.”

It’s a realization that usually comes to professional players, often too late. Retired WNBA great Swin Cash, who has tasted championship success on multiple occasions, tells reporters that her message to the children of the tournament is “‘Use the game. Don’t let it use you.’” Dwyane Wade, in Orlando fulfilling his role as a “Global Ambassador” for the Jr. NBA World Championship, talks just as openly about when he started seeing the game as a business. Wade ponders his response before acknowledging that it was in 2007, the year he suffered a season-ending injury, when things started to change. “I was just having fun with the game [before that]. I won a championship at 23 in just my third year. And then, the next year, I got my shoulder injury, had shoulder surgery. And from that standpoint, I started thinking my career could be different now or, possibly, with one injury, it could be over.”

When asked what he thought about players reaching that same conclusion at a younger age, Wade responds, “I mean, it’s smart now. It’s the way it is. You see a lot of these kids, at a young age, you got brands reaching out to them. They go out there, wearing all these brands that send them packages, getting them prepared. So their mindset has to change and they have to understand that, yes, it’s a game. Yes, you play this game because you love it. But the game is also a business as well.”

If that attitude seems antithetical to the tropes often associated with youth sports, keep in mind that the power to decide the fate of young players has heretofore been in the hands of faceless corporate entities or governing bodies like the NCAA and NBA. For all the emphasis that the league places on mental wellness and education, perhaps the greatest lesson is an unintended one: to wrest control from those who have it in order to protect yourself and your interests.

With that understanding, the tournament’s dual purpose becomes clear. It serves as both the hammer and nail, a tool to be used all. For the league, it is an iron fist wrapped in a velvet glove, an avenue to further promote its global dominance as the preeminent authority on all things basketball while spreading the values that it chooses to define itself by. For the players, it is one more road of a tangled highway to an unsure destination, but at least they can take the most scenic route.

Over the course of a week, the tendency to consider the event as a globalized commercial enterprise is a powerful one. Core values lose their charm when repeated ad nauseum as what makes the tournament special; the NBA way includes more than its fair share of proselytizing. But if there’s an obstacle to defining the JNWC in such dreary terms, it’s the human fly in the institutionalized soup. With the on-court action ostensibly acting as the connective thread, perhaps the best part of the tournament were the stories taking place off of it.

A hardened professional like Cash finds herself at at a loss for words when recognizing that the JNWC is another chance for girls to find a way to thrive, one more than she had just a few years ago. “I’m just so happy,” Cash says, pausing, “I see the girls with these smiles on their faces, but at the end of the day, they get the bigger picture and they’re just happy to be here and celebrate this opportunity.” Later, she would leave her courtside seat with her infant son carefully nestled on her shoulder, and walk toward a quiet, unoccupied row of seat in the stands to feed him, looking up from the baby on occasion to make sure she didn’t miss a single thing.

There is Wade, proud to be just a fan for a few nights, with one long arm wrapped around the shoulders of his 16-year-old son, Zaire. “These kids are so talented,” he says. “That’s what I get so excited about, to see the talent, to see what these kids are capable of. At 13 or 14, I was not even close to the level of skill of a lot of these individuals out here. It’s just cool to see where the game has grown and where it’s going and you get to see it all right here on this platform. It’s so cool to see.” For Wade, the next few hours wouldn’t be about developing a brand but the chance to strengthen a familial bond.

There was also Cynthia Seals, wrapped in a houndstooth blanket to fend off the arena’s icy air, clapping for girls born thousands of miles away from the city of Atlanta she calls home because “they could all use the support.” There were the girls facing elimination, sitting stunned and holding back tears, while parents that spent thousands of dollars to get here from Melbourne, Australia, give one last rallying cry of “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!” as a comeback falls short.

There was Mark Tinder of New Castle, Washington, a frenetic uncle in a Seattle Sonics jersey passionately cheering on his niece and smelling faintly of cigarette smoke, celebrating, if only for a few days, the chance to be part of the NBA with his family. And there was Veronica Johnson of Detroit, almost brought to the point of tears as she thought of her grandson walking in a parade just days before with other children from all over the world. “You know, I did not know that it was so…big. I got goosebumps…I really did! Just seeing and hearing about it…” Johnson’s words trail off as she looked wistfully at the court, misty-eyed as she saw the picture of global unity forming in her mind. “We just pitch in and take care of one another.”

And on and on it went, over the course of the tournament, snapshots of humanity with captions written in the language of basketball, tiles that form an imperfect mosaic that can occasionally, when the light hits just right, blend into something beautiful.

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At 6-foot-5, Prasanna Rajamanickam stands tall over most of the attendees of the event. But he also stood out for exuding an unflappable calm, one that seemed impossible given his role as the coach of the girls’ team from India. Each blowout loss might have led to emotional outbursts from others, but Rajamanickam simply took it all in stride. His players handled each loss with similar composure, thanking opponents, referees and even the scorekeepers that recorded for posterity each disheartening defeat.

On the last day of the tournament, Rajamanickam seemed as optimistic as his team had been while they walked through Disney World just a week before. “Back in India, we don’t have anything like this. But soon, we will have more facilities, more interest and more excitement. People are getting to know what basketball really is, and my team…they talked with people from other countries, got more experience and gained new friends. That is what you really want.” For him and his country of well over a billion potential fans, this connection to the NBA was only the beginning. “By next year, we’ll be more focused on what we did. Yes. Yes. We’ll be back and we’ll be better. This has truly been the opportunity of a lifetime.”