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An AAU basketball vocabulary lesson

Part 2: From ‘looks’ to ‘offers,’ the definitions every hoop parent needs to know in the quest for a college scholarship


Lonnae O’Neal is a mom/stepmom to six kids, four of whom are athletes. This year, for the first time, all three of her bonus kids play travel basketball. She’s salty.

Jesse Washington has four kids. They all hoop. His oldest son, a high school senior, accepted a Division I scholarship from Drexel University. His 15-year-old daughter got next.

In this recruiting rat race, you gotta understand the language if you want to get that cheese. Now that the first two “live recruiting periods” of the summer basketball season are over, it’s time to share some of the terms we’ve learned as parents of high school basketball players trying to go “D-Free,” aka obtain a college athletic scholarship.

Summer basketball can be a frustrating and confusing scene, especially for the vast majority of families who have talented but not dominant (i.e., highly recruited) athletes. Words can have different meanings depending on when, where and by whom they are said. For example: We call it “summer” hoops, but the games start in April. And summer hoops is widely known as “AAU,” which are the initials of the Amateur Athletic Union. But the actual AAU organization has little, if any, involvement in most summer tournaments, which are run by sneaker companies and individual entrepreneurs.

With that in mind, let us put you up on the word game within the game. We begin with the foundational term of summer basketball, heard more often than referee whistles or ATM withdrawal beeps, a word that’s supposed to be the first step to going D-Free:

  1. Awareness of a player’s existence by a college coach. Demonstrated by a coach’s attendance at a game and/or reading the player’s name in the recruiting packet. “Kendra is playing well and getting some looks.”
  2. A word used to tell untraceable lies, or address parental doubt, about a player who’s not being recruited. “Kendra is playing well and getting some looks.”
  3. Lure used by summer coaches as they wait for parents’ checks to clear. “Keyon got a lot of looks last summer. If he plays with me again, the college coaches will be all over him.”
  4. Alternate usage: Often from a less “committed” (i.e., obsessed) parent or guardian. “Look at all these resources going to basketball and imagine what Keyon and Kendra could do if all this time and money went into math.”

Next comes the second-vaguest word in summer basketball. It’s a step up from “look” but still miles away from an actual scholarship:

  1. Consideration of a player as potentially worthy of a scholarship offer. Demonstrated by a discussion between a college coach and a player’s AAU or high school coach, parent or guardian. “Virginia South called and has some legit interest. Keyon should go to their elite camp in August.”
  2. A lie told by AAU coaches, often on social media, after they mention a kid’s name to a college coach in a conversation about a more talented player whom the coach is actually recruiting. “Kendra’s recruiting is heating up! Interest this week from Virginia South!”

When the looks and interest don’t materialize, it’s time to get that SAT tutor and shoot for an academic scholarship — right? Not so fast! Not when you can still find a …

  1. A person whose purpose is to identify the current skill set of the player and maximize the player’s ability to bridge the gap between where that player is and where she or he wants to be. “Keyon has Division I athletic potential, but he needs a good trainer to get his skills up to the D-I level.”
  2. A good trainer makes sure that a player gets maximum results from consistent, hard work and has a track record of getting players to the Division I level and even on to the professional leagues. “My boy Obie Handlez trained Kelly Oubre, LeBron, Lolo Jones, Dr. J, Wilt AND Satchel Paige.”
  3. Alternate usage: Another basketball person taking your money for something other than college savings.

Choosing the right summer team is crucial to obtaining a scholarship. But there are so many teams, and they make so many promises. Here are some words to help you separate the game from the truth:

  1. When a sneaker company allows an AAU team to put its name and logo on its jerseys, tournaments and social media, it gives the team a discount on gear — but does not provide free shoes or travel expenses. This allows the AAU team to pretend it’s big-time and gives the sneaker company free advertising. “We’re sponsored this year — big things are happening with our program. Oh, the fee for the season is $800, plus $350 for team uniform and sneakers. And you pay for your kid’s hotels.”
  1. Payment from a sneaker company to an AAU team, in exchange for the team playing in the sneaker company’s tournaments. Payments often reach six figures. Players receive free shoes, apparel and travel. (And sometimes, for the very best players, cash.) Whoever owns the AAU program pockets the leftover money.
  2. Alternate usage: If we’re going to pay all this money for compression shirts, leggings and wristbands, then you best believe I’m getting me some red-bottom shoes, Cardi B style. That’s MY shoe deal.
  1. The five weekends (two in April, three in July) when college coaches are allowed to watch kids play basketball. If a team isn’t playing in good tournaments during these weekends, no coaches will see your kid play. “Before I write this check, where is your team playing during the live periods, and what college coaches attended the last time you were there?”
  2. Alternate usage: The number of days a woman may need to spend separate and apart from her AAU-obsessed husband and kids so that she doesn’t do violence to them and they continue to live.

So what happens when a college coach actually wants your child to play for her/him? More verbal hurdles remain:

  1. When a coach tells a player, either verbally or by text/social media, that he can have a scholarship. “Virginia South just offered!”
  2. A nonbinding statement of intent to provide a scholarship. Often evaporates if a better player comes along or the original recipient has a bad stretch. “The poor kid had three offers, but after he shot 2-for-25 in the July live period, all his offers disappeared.”
  3. A vague promise of favors, including possibly romantic, from one parent of Baby Jordan (aka Keyon) if the other parent ever stops watching basketball. For example, “I’m offering Netflix, wine and a foot rub if you can bow out of that fourth game tonight.” Or “Perhaps we can offer up Jr. to anyone who needs a combo guard and has space in their hotel room so we don’t have to all bunk together for the fifth night in a row.” Or “I’m offering to stay married to you if we leave this gym RIGHT NOW.”
  1. A player’s verbal promise, often delivered over social media, to accept a college’s scholarship offer. “After much consideration, I’m committing to West Utah State.”
  1. Breaking a verbal promise to accept a scholarship. “After much consideration, I’m decommitting from West Utah State.”
  1. A legally binding document signed by a player, obligating the school to provide a scholarship and the player to attend that school. College is now paid for, barring transfer or academic disqualification — but often for only one year guaranteed.

Congrats! Your firstborn has achieved her dream. Now your second child wants next. So we end with:

  1. Renting a conversion van, filling it with a half-dozen teenagers and driving to Manheim, Pennsylvania, for a weekend of nonstop bleacher fun. Exciting rest stops and mystery meat nuggets throughout.
  2. Forget about it. Not gonna happen. Something to shoot for next year, maybe, hoop dreams and schedule permitting.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at Andscape. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.