LOS ANGELES — A star player taking the night off in the NBA has ignited a contentious discussion in recent years as the trend was finally given a face and an official title.
Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard, for better or for worse, became the central figure most associated with the term “load management” when the Toronto Raptors reduced the amount of games he played in his lone season with the franchise that ultimately led to an NBA championship.
And while load management isn’t an approach many fans are warming up to, the conversation has progressively advanced to questioning what has contributed to this attempt at body preservation.
Earl Watson — the former Phoenix Suns head coach who played 13 years in the NBA — recently tweeted that AAU basketball is the reason players are entering the league with an ample of amount of wear and tear.
As someone who came up playing AAU in the midst of the organization’s peak and who also has two sons who are active in today’s AAU sphere, there’s no better player to weigh in on the subject than Lakers superstar LeBron James.
“These kids are going into the league already banged up, and I think parents and coaches need to know [that] … well, AAU coaches don’t give a f- - -,” James told Yahoo Sports. “AAU coaches couldn’t give a damn about a kid and what his body is going through.”
James granted Yahoo Sports an exclusive interview that covered the state of load management, a draining AAU culture that often leads to destruction, how he monitors his son’s involvement, and preventable measures to ensure that kids aren’t being taken advantage of and physically damaged before beginning their professional careers.
“I think [AAU] has something to do with it, for sure,” James told Yahoo Sports. “It was a few tournaments where my kids — Bronny and Bryce — had five games in one day and that’s just f- - -ing out of control. That’s just too much. And there was a case study where I read a report. I don’t know who wrote it not too long ago, and it was talking about the causes and [kid’s] bodies already being broken down and they [attributed] it to AAU basketball and how many games that these tournaments are having for the [financial benefit]. So, I’m very conscious for my own son because that’s all I can control, and if my son says he’s sore or he’s tired, he’s not playing.
“Because a lot of these tournaments don’t have the best interest of these kids, man. I see it. It’s like one time, they had to play a quarterfinal game, a semifinal game and a championship game starting at 9 a.m., and the championship game was at 12:30 p.m. Three games. I was like, ‘Oh, hell no.’ And my kids were dead tired. My kids were dead tired. This isn’t right. This is an issue.”
Some of the top high school players in the country play approximately 30 AAU games a year, plus a few play on the USA Basketball U19 national team, and that is all on top of a high school basketball schedule that ranges from 25 to 35 games. That’s around 80 games of organized play a year, not including practices, scrimmages and pickup ball.
“You know that old saying. It’s like, ‘Boy, you ain’t tired. What you tired for? You're only 12 years old. You don’t even know what it means to be tired.’ Nah, that’s bulls--t. Those kids are tired,” James told Yahoo Sports. “And they don’t eat great too. The nutrition part. They don’t eat well at 14, 15, 16. They’re taking all that pounding and then they’re not putting the right s--t in their body. It’s tough.”
Although James is 17 years into his NBA career and is a 15-time All-Star, four-time MVP, winner of three championships and three Finals MVP awards and is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, he acknowledged that he’s not completely certain of the physical toll AAU had on his body.
“It didn’t affect me. But now that I look back on it, I don’t know,” James told Yahoo Sports. “But there are way more tournaments, there are way more showcases now compared to when I played. We didn’t have the EYBL [Nike Elite Youth Basketball League] circuits. We had certain national tournaments. But we didn’t have the circuits and multiple tournaments that go on now. The EYBL is great. They only play like one or two games a day. But there’s some other tournaments in these cities where they’re playing four or five games a day and that’s just not good. I don’t care what nobody says.”
And James also doesn’t care much for the glorified social-media basketball trainers.
He singled out the ones who issue promises to parents, guaranteeing that their young children will receive a competitive advantage with private workout sessions that feature unorthodox training techniques.
“You know how we got better as kids? We played against older kids because we knew if we lost, we had to wait a long-ass time before we got back on the court,” James told Yahoo Sports. “That was our motivation. That pushed us. That’s how we got better.”
James entered the NBA draft right out of high school in 2003, which eliminated the extra mileage he would have rolled up in college. But he has compiled quite the workload ever since stepping on an NBA court.
He has logged 46,551 regular-season minutes, placing him first among active players and 13th on the all-time minutes list. Furthermore, the 6-foot-8 star is the all-time minutes leader in the postseason with 10,049 and one of the highest usage rates in the league.
James will turn 35 on Dec. 30. One could argue that no one is more deserving of continual load management than the man who once averaged 42.5 minutes per game for a season.
“Me, personally, if I’m hurt and if I’m not able to play and I feel like I’ll hurt my team, then I won’t play. That’s the [arrangement] me and my coaching staff have always had,” James told Yahoo Sports. “You can talk to any of my coaches throughout the course of my career. They get mad at me because I don’t like sitting down. You can ask [Clippers assistant coach] Tyronn Lue. You can ask anybody. They be mad as hell at me because I won’t sit down. I just love to hoop, but I’ve also been fortunate enough to take care of my body, except for last year and a couple of years where I maybe had a couple of bumps and bruises or the last game before the season and we’re getting ready for the postseason and you’ll take that game off, but you're doing that because you don’t want to risk anything going into the postseason. I just love to hoop, personally.”
So does the NBA have an interjecting role to play by regulating guidelines in amateur basketball? How can the league better adapt to players who are physically deteriorated before joining the association? Is an 82-game season rational and practical in today’s world?
These were questions posed to James.
“I don’t know. That’s a longer conversation with the league. I think it’s just based on if [parents] know you have a special kid or some special kids, you can’t be putting them in every f- - -ing tournament just because people want to see them,” James told Yahoo Sports. “But like I said, these coaches don’t give a damn about these kids. I care about my kids. I don’t put my AAU kids in every tournament. We probably play like five or six tournaments a summer.”
James says it’s very important that parents do their homework and educate themselves on the difference between a quality AAU program and the ones merely seeking money and running kids into the ground.
Underprivileged kids and families being taken advantage of is something James wants to prevent.
That’s why he endorsed SB 206, which would allow college athletes to profit off their names and likenesses starting in 2023.
On the AAU front, James hopes that his advice from his years of experience as a player and parent provides parents and young athletes with a better grasp of the multiple developmental options out there and the many consequences of trusting the wrong people.
“The best programs are the EYBL. There’s no question about it,” James told Yahoo Sports. “They play one or two games a day. It’s the off-brand tournaments [that are the problem]. It’s those tournaments in those small cities. There’s no Whole Foods in those small cities. Those kids are eating McDonald’s, bro. They’re eating bad, and they’re playing five, six games a day. Come on, man. That’s what it is.”
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