With his father "Jellybean" Bryant playing basketball overseas, Kobe Bryant spent most of his time in Europe until the age of 14.
He formed his basketball habits on the courts of Italy and France, while his counterparts in the U.S. fought for a spot in the highly competitive youth system, called "AAU."
In an interview with Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, Bryant says that learning basketball outside the U.S. was actually a huge advantage because it taught him to rely on fundamentals, not athleticism.
"I was lucky to grow up in Italy at a time when basketball in America was getting f***** up with AAU shuffling players through on strength and athleticism. I missed all that, and instead I was taught extreme fundamentals: footwork, footwork, footwork, how to create space, how to handle the ball, how to protect the ball, how to shoot the ball. I wasn't the strongest kid at that camp. I wasn't the fastest. I wasn't the most athletic. I was probably the most skillful, but that didn't matter. It was all about the 360 windmill dunks."
Kobe is taking some liberties here. While he has a legendary work ethic, he was freakishly athletic to begin with when he first came into the league.
But his main point — that the AAU takeover of youth basketball in America has hurt the game — is becoming an increasing popular view among former NBA players.
A few years ago Charles Barkley also slammed the AAU game.
He explained that AAU focuses too much on competitive games and not enough on technique, which means players can't build any skills outside of athleticism.
He said (via Sports Radio Interviews):
"They’re killing the game. AAU is the worst thing to happen to college basketball ever. I hate AAU more than anything in the world. These kids aren’t getting good coaching. They’re playing too many games and not working on their game enough.
"And what’s happened is the NBA, we’re the beneficiary of it unfortunately. We’ve got a bunch of guys who … my number one thing I hate in the world is when you’re talking to fans and they’ll say ‘man that guy can really run and he can really jump.’ And I always say ‘so can a deer but I wouldn’t put him in a game.’ These guys, listen, they’ve been coming into the NBA for the last three years and they can run and jump, but they’ve cut out the middle man when you go to college and learn how to play."
At age 35, Kobe is still one of the best players in the NBA despite his diminished speed and quickness. And that's all because he's a genius when it comes to things like footwork and fundamentals.
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