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The Beautiful Game
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
When the NBA season began last week, it began without the services of Philadelphia 76er center Joel Embiid, the talented first-round pick out of Kansas University. Embiid, a native of Cameroon, had suffered a stress fracture in his back shortly before the start of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament in 2014, and the prolonged recovery time knocked him out of both last year's tournament and the first few months of the NBA season. The injury probably also prevented Embiid from being the top selection overall in the 2014 NBA draft, an honor that went to Embiid's Kansas teammate, Andrew Wiggins.
Embiid was such a highly-touted prospect by NBA scouts mostly because he's 7-feet tall and athletic, but also because of a few intangibles that he developed in his native Cameroon. Like most Cameroonian youths, Embiid played soccer as a kid, and the footwork he learned in the game helped make him a surprisingly agile and versatile big man. Also, and unlike many of his American contemporaries, Embiid came to the game relatively late in his adolescence--he didn't start playing until he was 15, when an NBA player visited him in Cameroon and convinced him to fore go his dream of playing professional volleyball and take a shot at basketball instead. His progress has been astonishing and meteoric since then, going from an absolute beginner with no experience to one of the best (potential) prospects in the NBA and the world. In just five years.
Some basketball analysts have opined that Embiid's relative lack of experience actually helped him succeed; unlike most serious American basketball prospects, who, by fifteen, have already adopted the grind of travel teams, AAU affiliations, and 365-day-a-year commitment to the sport, Embiid was just getting started; his attitude, according to most major college recruiters, was refreshingly positive. He seemed to genuinely love playing the game, just like he loved playing soccer and volleyball. He had that elusive, magic quality, "coachability," a quality that all Division 1 coaches love, a quality that separated him from many of his American contemporaries. More than one analyst talked about Embiid's almost naive joy at playing basketball. He seemed to treat the game as a game--granted, a game that he was phenomenally well-suited to succeed in, but a game nonetheless.
It's hard not to make comparisons between Embiid and highly-touted American high school athletes of the same era. While Embiid thrived in an environment where he could play multiple sports, in America, star athletes generally "specialize" very quickly in their chosen sport and fore go participation in any others. Although interest in high school athletics remains robust nationwide, actual participation numbers have declined in the past decade. The days when star athletes "dabbled" in other sports during the off-season of their preferred sport are gradually slipping away; for the athlete dreaming of continuing his career into college, there is no "off-season" anymore.
It's an evolution in high school sport that I'm not sure anybody is truly comfortable with. While I believe that participating in sports is theoretically a beneficial activity, I wonder if most teenagers are well-served by the almost fanatical devotion that is required to succeed in today's environment. Is it a good thing for kids to be absolutely so one-dimensional? Yes, I know, they learn discipline, dedication, commitment, etc., et al., but aren't those lessons that can be learned in a variety of places? Other sports, other activities? Life itself? It seems that sport has become the default setting for defining what "success" means for a high school student.
The fact is, you know (and I know) dozens of 14-and-15 year olds who haven't had a Saturday to themselves in years. Saturdays used to be devoted to that time-honored, indispensable practice known as "goofing off," but now, even average athletes are getting up at 5am, packing a lunch, and then driving to Louisville or Cincinnati to participate in a travel team tournament that will eventually lead to. . . what? A college career? A pro career? Ha. The numbers scream otherwise. Most likely the "tournament" will just lead to windfall profits for the organizers who don't give a damn about your kid's dreams. And yes, while I'm totally aware that the weekends away can be fun and playful and beneficial and full of positive development but still. . . man, what a drag. And it seems a disservice to force kids down that one lonely avenue of development when there are so many other roads available, if they (and their parents) only knew where to look.
I have a high school friend whose son became a pretty successful collegiate swimmer, and one of the reasons the dad encouraged his son to participate was because he wanted to keep his son "out of trouble." It sounds like a laudable goal, what a "good parent" should do, and while the kid turned out just fine, I'm not sure that even that is such a good idea. Trouble is going to find most kids anyway, and how they deal with it — the choices they make when a moral/ethical dilemma presents itself — gives every kid the opportunity to prove that they have the character to do the right thing. It seems like an indispensable part of a child's development to me, a chance for the kid — not his dad, not his mom — to make the right call. To prove that he's his own person, capable of making his own decision whether to do right or to do wrong. I know every parent gets the cold sweats even thinking about their kid being in such a position, but it's going to happen, and trusting the kid to make that decision for himself is incredibly supportive.
Of course, my friend lived in an upper-middle-class, low-risk neighborhood, and I'm well aware that in more dangerous environments, keeping kids away from Trouble is an absolute necessity. But I remain unconvinced that fanatical athletic participation is the lone answer. It's becoming obvious that such one-dimensionality can lead to a "dark side" of inevitable, unfortunate consequences. More than one college coach has talked about the difficulty in dealing with today's recruit, who often seem to have an almost incorrigible sense of entitlement. In this environment, how could they not? They've been taught since they were pre-teens that "their game" is the most important thing in the world. In 2014, there were record numbers of Division 1 basketball players transferring to other schools. Some were for academic reasons, but a majority — 90% — were for "athletic" reasons. "Coach doesn't appreciate my game" is the rationale for players who never even question whether the opposite — that they should appreciate the coach's game — might be true.