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The high cost of chasing college basketball scholarships

Part 1: Two parents debate the hustle, grind and desperation of trying to send their kids ‘D-Free’

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.

Jesse: What’s good, Lonnae? We’ve been sharing war stories in the office about our kids playing too much basketball. Before we get into it, let me say that balancing basketball with the truly important things in life remains a struggle for me. I have such a deep personal connection to the game, I have to be careful about letting it take over our family life. Sometimes, it takes over anyway. (And I like it.)

That said, you seem to be having trouble accepting what it takes for our kids to earn these scholarships. Why you hating? This is the life you chose when you married a former college player with athletic kids. And you ain’t done nothing yet. We’re in the “live recruiting period,” when college coaches are allowed to watch our kids’ games. Are you ready to spend a thousand bucks to play a weekend out of town, and then your kid’s team loses its first game and no college coaches see her play? You ready to see your son’s team bring in a new player at his position, and then your son has to come off the bench? Are you ready to skip vacation for basketball? Because that’s what this journey is about. You in or out? There are 9,406 Division I basketball scholarships for men and women. Less than 2,000 spots are up for grabs each year. Hundreds of thousands of kids play AAU. Your kids and mine aren’t one-and-done prodigies, or even big-time recruits — they’re in that gray area of players who have to really grind to get a scholarship. So if you want your young’uns to get this free college education, ain’t no half-stepping.

Lonnae: Hey, Jesse. Good to hear you on this, but I think you’re wrong about my choices. While I did choose to marry a former college ballplayer, I didn’t know — how could I possibly know? — how thoroughly the Amateur Athletic Union Industrial Complex would take over my life. Last year, my first full year of marriage, I remember feeling shell-shocked. Like, there can’t possibly be this many practices, they can’t possibly all be a half-hour to an hour’s drive away [after work], and surely they can’t so consistently run late as the coach wants to talk, or the team needs to meet, or the parents want to gossip.

We can’t let basketball completely consume our time and resources, because we’ve still gotta have enough money, goodwill and relationship left for when the ball stops bouncing, right? They’ve still gotta learn how to be good citizens, not just good ballplayers, and that’s another kind of investment and it takes its own time. BTW, our kids will go to college whether or not they go D-Free, and the money we’ve paid in fees, hotels, trainers, travel could have gone into 529s so they wouldn’t have to chase scholarship money. Just sayin’.


Half-Steppin’ in Virginia

Jesse: Your math is off. Drexel costs more than $60,000 per year. I’m not gonna say how much I spent on my son’s AAU teams, but it’s nowhere near what even one year of college costs. That may sound like gambling, but I don’t see it that way. The boy loves to play basketball. His younger sister too. They should be able to explore their passions, to explore their passions, chase their dreams and …

OK, that’s mad corny and not totally honest. Here’s the truth: Basketball helped make me who I am. Genetically and environmentally, my son inherited that obsession identity. When he said he wanted to play Division I ball, and it became clear that he had a decent chance to make it, I was all in. I knew how much money a scholarship would save our family, and I knew, as a ballplayer, how rewarded our son would feel to achieve that goal. So I made it my busine$$ to make it happen. It was expensive, difficult and emotional. My wife, who is much more sensible than me, worked hard to keep our family properly balanced between hoops and all those truly important things like … well … ummm … you know, the stuff you said earlier.

So I don’t believe we gambled on a scholarship. Call it a strategic investment of time and money.

We can’t let basketball completely consume our time and resources because we’ve still gotta have enough money, goodwill and relationship left for when the ball stops bouncing, right?

Lonnae: I do take some of your point. I know the kids love basketball, they love their teammates, and there are tangible and intangible benefits to digging deep, fighting through, working together and scoring — in basketball, and in life. But, Jesse, real talk, whose dreams are they really? Parental enthusiasm and approval is a powerful thing, and if you create a life where the most intimacy, the most outsized memories, the most intense bonding is done around the rituals of basketball, won’t they naturally gravitate toward that reward, Pavlovian-style?

Not to draw too fine a point, but them lines get real blurry between all those parents’ hoop dreams and all their gym rat kids, and I’m not sure any of y’all know the difference sometimes. I’m not saying that’s a horrible thing, or even unnatural — we all have dreams and aspirations for our kids. I’m just saying pushing this hard often feels like pushing too hard. Like it’s all too much. And sometimes it feels like basketball takes more than I can afford, and we’re not just talking about money. But about that money: We can fight over the math. You ever heard of #compoundinterest?


Jesse: Don’t play me, Lonnae. I know about compound interest. That’s when more than one college is interested in offering your kid a scholarship. 😂

For real though, I hear you. Think about how successful our kids — shoot, millions of black kids — would be if they spent all this sports time studying. That bothers me as much as anything about this whole circus. But I also know how much fun basketball is. Getting buckets at a high level is a special experience. And as you mentioned earlier, there’s value off the court in the pursuit of excellence.

Lonnae: There’s value, but where’s the balance? And don’t @ me about buckets. You know what I did with my husband a week ago for my birthday? (BTW, my birthday was actually Saturday but my husband was out of town for, you guessed it, a basketball tournament with his oldest daughter.) Anyway, we went to dinner. Then we went to a jazz club. Tonight we’re going to see a play. You know how that made me feel? Grown. You know how basketball tournaments make me feel? Adjunct. Auxiliary. Like I’m the shortest person on the court. Like something’s wrong with this ecosystem, but we can’t find a way out and we have to play it out regardless. Like as a basketball mom, I’m a heretic and there’s no safe space to say any of this.

Jesse: OK, I admit this whole thing is out of proportion. It comes from overemphasis on sports in American culture, which is even greater in the black community. I admit that to earn a college scholarship, most families have to spend too much time and money on basketball. And you’re also right about there being no way out. It always bothers me when people say, “If you’re good, the coaches will find you.” Nah. If you’re GREAT they will find you. If you’re great, you don’t have to pay for anything AAU — the system will often pay you. But our kids are in that mushy middle: probably good enough, but not dominant. Our kids will get overlooked unless they play AAU. Ain’t nobody coming to see them score 25 in a high school game against a bunch of future accountants.

Lonnae: Right, and that mushy middle is soft on clarity. And that’s why I can’t just say no. Because my kids ARE good, because they DO have a shot and because sometimes it feels like the difference between college star and neighborhood legend is just a little smarter hustle, just a little more grit, man, just a little more faith. Like if they momma and daddy had just invested a little more, Jr. or Baby Girl could have really been somebody.

But, of course, that’s how we’re supposed to feel, right? Matter of fact, there’s a whole cottage industry of trainers, exposure camps, scouting services and videographers set up to monetize every single one of your basketball feels. I see it, and I’m caught up in it. It’s a hard place to be.

Our kids are in that mushy middle: probably good enough, but not dominant. Our kids will get overlooked unless they play AAU. Ain’t nobody coming to see them score 25 in a high school game against a bunch of future accountants.

Jesse: Real hard. I’ve been there, and we’re starting down that road again this summer. And you know what? Most kids playing AAU won’t get a scholarship. It’s just simple math. Despite it all, regardless of the prospect of our summers vaporizing in a mist of games, airports and hotels, we are still chasing that scholarship. So what about you? With all your half-stepping, Lonnae, I feel like you’re not willing to do what needs to be done.

Lonnae: No, I’m in (ish) to win. This year is crucial. My bonus son is a junior. He had a really good varsity season in high school, but now we’re in the paint. And we’ve got to make this AAU season convert. I’ve decided resistance is futile. But more to the point, I want to see my stepson and all my children happy, and fulfill their potential. I know what it is to chase something and go hard as it takes to get it, no matter what. Last year I was like, ‘Y’all crazy. Full stop.’ This year, I’ve decided to go along to get along. But only to a point. After that, I’m calling fouls.

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.