Last month, the NBA announced the launch of the Jr. NBA World Championship, a new youth basketball tournament that, by the sound of it, appears to be the NBA’s answer to the Little League World Series. The tournament, which will be played in August, was met with general enthusiasm from the public but some have expressed skepticism about the Jr. NBA World Championship being as successful as the league believes it will be. One of those doubters is former NBA player Bob Bigelow, who has spent more than 30 years advocating for youth sports. Bigelow understands the appeal of the Jr. NBA World Championship but, as explained to Fatherly, he thinks the tournament will be more about money than fun and sportsmanship.
What was your initial reaction when you first heard about the Jr. NBA World Championship?
A friend of mine put me in touch with the Washington Post and up to that point, I had not read a thing about it or heard anything about it. The quote from that article was my initial reaction. I had my most cynical and sanctimonious response. The first thing that came to my head was just, “Why?” I understand business and I understand the NBA. I know that August is the downtime for the league and they want to have as little of an offseason as possible. They are already a story 11 months of the year and this is their way to keep their name in the headlines for all 12 months.
But the cynical side of me wonders how long it will really be for just 14-year-olds. Right now, it’s just a 14-year-old tournament but it feels inevitable that they will go younger. When is it going to go to 13? When going to go to 12? Or 11? It’s the natural order of things in youth sports. The Little League World Series goes down to 12-year-olds so I doubt the NBA will be able to resist lowering the age. You can’t stop the adults once they realize they can get younger kids to play too.
Is there an underlying issue with parents trying to get their kids into competitive sports from a young age?
Parents think kids can get better by starting earlier which is one of the biggest misconceptions in youth sports. It’s the Tiger Woods syndrome. The minute he won the Masters in 1997, parents were suddenly convinced they could turn their kid into a prodigy by having them play a sport as soon as they can walk. Because everyone saw him swinging a golf club when he was three years old. So people start believing you want your kid to be the best they can, they better start young.
Of course, there’s a lot of evidence against that directly contradicts that notion but parents will assume they know best. People will have their seven-year-olds playing in competitive leagues when they should just let them have fun. I am a former first-round NBA draft pick and I didn’t play basketball until I was 14. Not playing basketball at age 12 obviously devastated my career. People think development in sports starts so much sooner than it comes. It comes later. Your average seven-year-old is 4’2” and weighs 54 pounds. How can we be expected to tell how good that kid will be?
Are you concerned the league will prioritize its needs over the needs of the kids?
Whenever big million or billion-dollar corporations start putting kid’s stuff together, you should get a little nervous. Because no matter what the original intent was, if there is that much money at stake, the needs of the adults will always come before the needs of the kids. Just the way it goes. The NBA and the USA basketball have been talking about doing something like this for years because they want to try to take away youth basketball from AAU. There are some good AAU people out there but there are charlatans as well. And believe me, this event will attract its fair share of charlatans. Good luck trying to keep them out.
Theoretically, you’re going to be introducing the kids to Mickey Mouse at Disneyworld and Disney is happy to sponsor the event, of course. Because it’s bringing a lot of kids to the parks and is great publicity. A kid from Slovenia playing against a kid from France in Orlando sounds good enough. But if there are adults and money involved, ulterior motives are going to quickly emerge. Parents may try to get in bed with the NBA and shop their kid as “The Next Great One” or whatever.
Do you think the tournament is doomed to fail?
From a superficial standpoint, this tournament looks fine. The NBA is trying to connect with youth sports and do right by it. The concept itself is pure but the devil is in the details. And it could get messy really fast.
I’m not throwing out the entire idea but the NBA is going to face two big challenges putting this tournament together. Number one: How do you keep it mostly pure? Make sure all the kids are the right age and are actually from where they are supposed to to be from. Number two: Stay focused on the fun. Don’t let money and ambition get in the way of letting the kids enjoy themselves. Because if done right, this could be an amazing experience for kids from all around the world. It needs to be a fun youth tournament. Nothing more.
And what can they do to ensure the tournament overcomes these challenges?
I have no idea. It’s so hard to monitor. You can cover the age thing relatively well but look at Little League, where kids are being moved all over the place to get to join certain teams.
Do you think other leagues would try tournaments like this? Maybe the NFL?
The NFL wouldn’t try something like this. Youth football and the NFL would have a mess on their hands if they tried to put together a tournament.
Do you see this tournament as an attempt by the NBA to officially kill their offseason?
Definitely. July is NBA free agency and by September everyone is gearing up for the season but August in dead space for basketball and that’s just not acceptable for the league. The last two weeks in August are the Little League World Series so the NBA figured they could occupy the first two weeks with little competition.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.