At an AAU tournament when I was 16, just minutes before my third game of the day, I ate three slices of pizza and drank a sugar-free Red Bull. I nearly threw up twice during the game, but I got shots up and hit six threes. I think we won that game, but I don’t remember. I don’t remember anyone even looking at the scoreboard the whole game.
AAU is not a forum for competitive basketball. Games are played, shit gets talked, coaches check their phones during timeouts and sometimes during play, scouts are hopefully impressed, and nobody pays attention to the score. The amount of charges taken and hard fouls given out per game are directly proportional to the number of Division 1 assistant coaches in the stands. Decorum doesn’t exist. AAU basketball is playground ball with a coat of paint, a Porsche with a go-kart engine in it.
This weekend, LeBron James made people not currently playing, parenting, coaching, or reffing AAU ball think about AAU ball for the first time in years. This happened because he was rather exuberant in his celebrations both of his son Bronny dunking during games and of Bronny’s teammates’ accomplishments; James even took part in layup lines. To hear certain third-tier sports shouters tell it, all this giddy dad behavior was a distraction from the game, or another sign of LeBron needing to be the center of attention, or performative fatherhood, or whatever other psychosocial projections the critics could muster.
This foolishness is understandable. These are prideful men, playing the sport of warriors (tweeting online, wheezing on television), and as such couldn’t possibly grasp the world of AAU basketball, which to reiterate is a world in which much cooler people show off for their friends and the girls in the stands and no one cares about the scoreboard or random parents’ shoes on the court.
Some of the finest memories I have on a basketball court took place while I was on the losing end of absolute throttlings. Bill Walker, future Kansas State University star and Boston Celtics reserve, once dunked on me and our center off an inbounds pass. By the time I’d realized the ball was even inbounded, Walker had gathered and was destroying the goddamned rim. O.J. Mayo scored 50 on us without taking a dribble inside the three-point line. We lost that game by at least 40, I’m sure, but we talked about Mayo and Walker for weeks. They seemed unreal: somehow the same age as us, but with the abilities of the people we saw on TV. I promise that the opposing kids that LeBron and his son are supposedly “showing up” were definitely more geeked than even LeBron to be involved in all this.
I know that those moments will become treasured memories for them because that’s how it went for me. Sean Singletary destroyed me. Lou Williams dropped 49 on us. Tabby Cunningham, a local legend in Philly, crossed me three times and called me a “bad white boy” when I hit a three on him on my next possession and talked shit. I grinned like an idiot for a week.
My single favorite memory was at AAU Nationals in Orlando, playing against a team from Memphis that featured two future Calipari players and two future Pitino players. They started against us in a zone defense, a strange decision against a relatively unremarkable team of white suburbanites and Philly Catholic League castoffs but one which allowed me to get enough space to go 7-for-7 from three in the first half. The stands were filled with D1 coaches (not there to watch me), and an assistant told me while I was inbounding that they wished I was “four or five inches taller.” The Memphis squad abandoned their zone and went man defense after my seventh three fell. Our 10-point deficit became 20, then 30, then who knows. Who cares?
(I can’t imagine how much cooler that memory would be if I had done it in front of the greatest basketball player of the 21st century. I would likely lead with it during introductions to strangers, telling them that I’m Casey, and LeBron James once screamed “that dude can shoot” at me.)
At these same nationals, we were forced to play with an altered basketball. In the early aughts, Tracy McGrady lent his likeness to a sporting goods company that made a basketball with an extra leather panel, allegedly to improve grip. It felt like holding an entirely different object, and with every dribble you could sense the sheer idiocy of a room full of marketers attempting to create a new stream of revenue from such a lemon of an idea. Why did the best high school players in the world have to play with these monstrosities? Because the company selling that stupid ball bought a sponsorship spot at the tournament, because that’s what AAU basketball is.
We drove hours to these tournaments, usually in SUVs and church vans, eating candy and talking shit about music and girls. We ate fast food right before games, which were held within hours of one another, back-to-back, in some shitty gym in rural Lancaster. We tried shit on the court that would make our high school coaches wring our necks. This was during the height of the And1 mixtape phenomenon, and barrel roll dribbles were common during the games.
AAU games are refereed by rec league crews, local guys who haven’t even qualified to officiate high school games. The role of the coaches, for the most part, is more chauffeur than tactician. The best teams we played were the best teams because they somehow got four major-conference D1 players on the roster, not because they had the best or really any coaching. They were usually coached by a guy in Reeboks with a fat-man sweat towel over his shoulder, men who shouted a lot and implored people to get back on defense. They didn’t actually run plays beyond a handful of half-court motion picks.
All of this is to say that whatever LeBron James is doing at his son’s AAU games, it isn’t a distraction for anyone in the gym because there’s nothing to be distracted from. He is not tarnishing anything important, because nothing important is happening there.
Or, anyway, nothing that the old grouches squeaking about it would consider important. I feel at least a bit qualified to speak on behalf of the kids on the other end of Bronny’s dunks, and I can guarantee they told all their friends about it as soon as the game was over—or maybe even at the next timeout, if they kept their phone near the top of their bags. They excitedly talked about it for the fifth time with their parents in the back of an SUV at the Steak ‘n Shake drive-thru. Perhaps 19 years from now, they’ll sit in a hotel room in Seattle 2,500 miles away from their family, somewhere in their early 30s, wistfully remembering all the times that they wowed an audience on a court with the best high school players in the world, a handful of whom are still being paid millions of dollars in the NBA. I’m doing that right now. Maybe they’ll get sentimental and write about those memories and that silly atmosphere for some website that doesn’t exist yet, after another athlete dares to violate the sanctity of AAU and another bunch of grumps get mad about it.
There are writers much better equipped than I to discuss the emotional side of LeBron performing active fatherhood after not having his own father in his life. But I can help fill in the context from the perspective of Bronny Jr.’s opponents who are on the other end of LeBron’s Holy Ghosting when Bronny dunks. I can guarantee you that they love every minute of it.
Casey Taylor is a writer living and working in Pittsburgh. If you’d like to praise him, yell at him, or offer him an unfathomably lucrative writing opportunity, you can email him here or follow him on Twitter.