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THE FUTURE OF ELITE HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL IN THE UNITED STATES:
REGIONAL ACADEMY TEAMS

The high school basketball landscape has been changing for years. The current system is not optimal for student athletes who attend public schools and hope to be recruited to play basketball in college. In fact, players who choose to remain playing varsity basketball at their public school are at huge disadvantage compared to the private school players when it comes to being recruited to play at the college level.

A better situation for high school basketball players who want to live at home and attend their public school or other school of choice is to play for a regional basketball academy.

A regional basketball academy is a hybrid model that combines the best of what is offered by public school/private school/basketball academy models. This new model is probably best referred to as a regional academy model because elite basketball players will live at home, attend their school of choice, and commute a short distance to basketball practice. The school of choice could be a public, private, charter, trade/technical, or even home school. The sport programs will be separate from the school of choice in all cases. Schools will still offer physical education classes and varsity sports might still be offered, but the best players who want to earn athletic scholarships to attend college or who have the goal of playing professionally will play for a regional academy.

High School student athletes in Europe do not play for their schools, they play for their local club or academy -- with the exception of England. However, even in England the elite levels of sport are played by club teams. School sponsored sports in England are more akin to intramural sports in the United States. Likewise, varsity basketball in public schools in the United States is more akin to intramural basketball when it is compared to the elite basketball that is being played at top private school programs. The downside to this changing landscape for public school varsity players is that they have only a miniscule chance of getting an athletic scholarship to play basketball in college. It is exteremly difficult, if not impossible, in the current environment for public school players to be recruited even by Division III basketball programs! There are many outstanding players at the Division III level and the basketball can be super competitive. That means it is more difficult than ever to get the attention of Division III coaches.

Playing basketball outside of public schools in the United States has become the most important path to take to get an athletic scholarship to attend college. Very few public high school basketball players get Division I scholarships straight out of high school simply because public high school basketball is not where the best players play these days. The men's basketball roster at universities like UCONN, Kentucky, or Duke are filled with players who attended private high schools or spent a year in post-graduate programs at private schools or basketball academies. Many other Division I teams recruit players from junior colleges. There are junior colleges that seem to exist just to develop high level basketball players for Division I teams. Very few, if any, colleges recruit from public schools unless the public school is known to be a perennial basketball powerhouse. To make matters even more difficult for U.S. players, many college scouts and coaches are recruiting players from overseas.

Len Stevens, former basketball coach at Washington State and Nevada, says part of the problem today is that 50% of high school coaches are not teachers at the schools. Their salaries probably range from $5,000 to $10,000 per season. Low salaries means players in public schools are not getting coached by the best coaches. Private sports academies are able to pay a higher salary to coaches and therefore tend to attract better coaches. Better coaches attract better players and since private school and academy coaches are allowed to recruit players they try to recruit the best ones and they are usually successful. Hence, public school basketball teams have been drained of the most talented players which helps explain why suburban public schools are now able to compete against larger urban public schools. The best players from larger urban public schools have been recruited to play at private schools. Since private school and academy coaches are often better paid than public school coaches, private school and academy coaches often have strong ties to colleges, have better networks, and are usually more familiar with the how the industry works. It is important to keep in mind that it is an industry.

Private schools and academies belong to a different governing body for sports than public schools. More often than not, private schools and academies have fewer restrictions on how the programs can operate. The most important of these rules is that coaches at private schools and academies can coach their players year-round. Recruiting the best players and coaching them year-round means that private schools have much more competitive games with higher skilled athletes compared to what public schools can offer. Conversely, public school governing bodies usually allow coaches to coach their players only during the winter basketball season which means public school players, in general, are less skilled and less experienced. Additionally, the use of a shot clock greatly benefits private schools and academies in Connecticut. The public high school rules in Connecticut do not allow for a shot clock. This puts public school players at a distinct disadvantage because the shot clock game is much different than the non-shot clock game. Private schools and academies prepare their high school players much better for the college game because the college game uses a shot clock. Again, private school players are gaining valuable experience playing a game that is more similar to the college and pro game than the public school non-shot clock game.

College scouts and coaches, already stretched thin, are more likely to attend practices and games of private school and academy teams because there are more high level players to be seen at one time. Most public school teams typically do not have well-known players. This means college scouts and coaches are unlikely to know about the best public school players and therefore have no reason to visit most public schools to see unknown players.

There is a wide-spread misconception that all private schools can provide a better education than public schools. This is simply not the case. Most public schools in the United States offer excellent academics, but the same cannot be said for their basketball programs. The best basketball is played at private schools and academies. However, the cost of attending a private school or academy for the purpose of playing basketball can be prohibitive for many families. Many New England private schools with outstanding basketball programs charge $50,000 or more per year for a student to attend. An academy like IMG in Florida that offers boarding for student athletes charges tuition close to $85,000 per year for tuition, room and board. Private school teachers are often not as qualified as public school teachers. The requirements to teach at a private school are less stringent than in a public school. Of course, there are exceptions. Some private schools have amazing teachers and some public schools have horrible ones. The price of tuition is not the best indicator of the quality of education.

Regional academies can serve the varied needs of student athletes better. Not every student is college material. Some student athletes are ready to turn pro at the end of high school. Some are ready to turn pro after a year of college and become "one and dones". Some student athletes may need an extra year of basketball after high school to allow them time to grow physically and emotionally before they are ready to attend college and compete athletically at the college level. Some players might simply need an extra year of post-grad basketball before they are ready to turn pro. There are many plausible scenarios. Every student athlete is different and the current models do not allow for the needs of every student athlete to be met. The hybrid regional academy model is the optimal solution. Virtually any scenario that exists for an elite athlete can be handled by the regional academy model. For example, a student athlete who wants to take a gap year after high school before attending college, but who also wants to pursue an athletic scholarship could attend a regional basketball academy for a post-grad season for the purpose of increasing his or her skills and maturing physically and emotionally. Another scenario might be where an outstanding high school freshman who is capable of competing against elite players may be promoted to the regional academy's post-grad team to compete at the national level.

"Reclassification" is an attractive option for parents of public school student athletes because of the restrictions set by the governing body for sports at public schools in Connecticut. This governing body is the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC). Per CIAC rules a student in a member public school is allowed only eight consecutive semesters of athletics. One benefit of a private school over a public school is "reclassification". That is, the governing body for private school athletics allows a student who transfers from a public school to a private school to repeat a school year. Reclassifying can give a player ten consecutive semesters of high school athletics rather than eight and also has the benefit of allowing a student athlete to improve academically.

Additionally, a student who has graduated from a public school can enroll in post-graduate program at a private school and receive ten consecutive semesters of athletics.

Parents and student athletes should understand that the student athlete who plays for a regional academy can repeat a grade in the public school which would also allow the student athlete to receive ten consecutive semesters of athletics, but the difference is the cost savings a regional academy offers compared to a private school. It does not cost a player's family extra tuition to repeat a grade of public school and the regional academy player will not lose basketball eligibility due to poor performance in the classroom or for using up eight semesters of eligibilty before graduating from a public school. A player should not have his or her basketball career cut short just because they are not academically inclined. There are many ways to measure intelligence and public schools are not always able to meet the needs of every student effectively. A student athlete should not be punished for having academic shortcomings. Michael Lewis' book, "Blindside", is an excellent story of how not every student has the same ability to learn in the classroom. Poor perfomance in the classroom does not mean a student lacks intelligence. It means the teachers do not have or are not willing to find the right techniques to teach the student effectively. Given the right method of instruction every student can be successful in school.

For many families of elite athletes the bottom line is financial and one of the main benefits of a regional academy model is that the cost of attending the regional academy is far less than the cost of a private day school, a private boarding school, or a boarding academy. The player attending a regional academy can live at home and attend the local public school or other school of choice. The cost savings can be significant.

This is the golden age for young basketball players. Never before have so many opportunities for players been available. Given that it is an industry, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a young elite athlete pursuing a career in basketball or using basketball to get a scholarship or simply get into a higher level academic school than they could get into without being a basketball player.

The high school basketball landscape will always change, but in its current state many potentially elite public school players are going to miss out on a chance to play at a higher level because they played for their public school rather than joined a regional academy team. Their high school education will be the same, but their college educational opportunities and professional basketball opportunities could be much greater by playing for a regional academy.