Basketball’s Chris Webber: Pressure on kids to make the NBA is “scary”

September 19, 2019  • Jon Solomon

This year’s Project Play Summit was an away game, venturing away from Washington D.C. for the first time in its five-year history. Detroit welcomed the convening with more than 500 leaders at the intersection of youth, sport and health – the largest turnout in the Summit’s history. The Summit hashtags, #DontRetireKid and #ProjectPlay, were the top two trending items in Detroit. Through two days of panels, workshops and activation announcements, participants discussed barriers to get all kids equitable access to sports and physical activity, and shared activations that are happening to create solutions.

At the Aspen Institute’s 2019 Project Play Summit, former NBA and University of Michigan star Chris Webber implored parents of youth basketball players to become more involved — and more aware of the pressures of youth sports — so their child enjoys a positive experience.

“I think growing up in my time was easier because the culture allowed it to be different,” Webber said. “I can’t imagine the pressure of being 12 years old and being told you can make it to the NBA and believing it, [when] you don’t have the skills but a coach told you that to keep you around. That’s scary.”

Webber spoke on a panel in Detroit that honored the 25th anniversary of the documentary film Hoop Dreams, and explored the pressures and opportunities in youth basketball today. This year’s Project Play Summit was the largest in the event’s five-year history with more than 500 attendees, and marks the first time the Summit left Washington D.C.

At the time of Hoop Dreams, Webber was the country’s highest-rated recruit, having been identified as a top prodigy when he was only 11 years old. But Webber had the advantage of being raised by “a village” in Detroit – his parents, high school coach, AAU coach, police officers at Detroit PAL, and older local players who made it ahead of him. “It was really more of a community culture,” he said. “It was not about the coaches, it was about the people who are the coaches.”

Today, Webber said, youth basketball coaches frequently gain their status simply because they are associated with a talented player. In reality, the coach may be a bad influence on the child.

“This is not a secret club — these [youth basketball] coaches are not as good you think they are,” Webber said. “Go back to your high school days and go to a guy that may have been a jerk. He’s still a jerk today, but coaching your kid. They’re teaching your kid how to communicate, how to problem solve (poorly).” recently documented America’s “youth basketball crisis,” in which kids are playing too many games and entering the NBA with broken bodies. In recent years, the NBA and USA Basketball created youth development guidelines for the sport and developed a coaching license. Webber said these tools should empower parents to know what a good basketball experience looks like.

“The No. 1 8-year-old kid is not going to the NBA. So, let’s quit putting that out there,” Webber said. “When we talk about the kids playing too many minutes, those are for guys who have already chosen their major in sports. How can you choose a major in sports before 14? How can you choose what you’re going to be great at? Your body hasn’t even developed. You haven’t even grown. I would just encourage community leaders and parents not to be intimidated by sport. You know enough. You know how to discipline your child. You know how to encourage them.”

Watch select sessions of the Summit here.

Michigan Secretary of State supports state authority to help access to sports
Speaking on a Summit panel about the role of government in youth sports, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said she would support adopting a commission and/or creating a high-level state government position that would help prioritize access to sports.

Benson is chairing a 14-member task force in Michigan, commissioned by the state governor, that aims to increase opportunities for women and girls in sports. The commission is still several years away from issuing its report, but Benson anticipates it will recommend a cabinet-level position focused on access to sports — an idea she has discussed with Big East Conference commissioner Val Ackerman, an advisor for the task force.

“We notice in states that are leading, and in foreign countries that are leading, they often have that high-level position — whether it’s advisory or authoritative — to actually implement changes and to advise those making decisions how to prioritize access to sports,” Benson said. “In my view, any government at any level – state, local or federal – should consider that type of permanent voice at the table as they make decisions from transportation to budget and everything in between.”

As states across the country consider legalizing sports betting, Benson said the opportunity exists in Michigan to use gambling revenue for access to youth sports. It’s a concept that’s used in Norway.

“Where the revenue goes – whether it’s to schools, to schools and sports, or to sports – I think is part of the negotiation right now,” Benson said. “In my view, it is a way to generate revenue. There are also ways to get revenue by having high-profile sporting events – hosting the NFL Draft, for example. That also enables us to create policies that will generate revenue for our state and our economy that can be reinvested as opportunities for people to play sports.”

Benson was also asked by an audience member if college athletes should be allowed to make money off their own name, image, and likeness. California may soon finalize a law making it illegal for colleges in that state to punish an athlete for accepting endorsement money. Benson said she would “lean toward wanting to ensure individual athletes’ likenesses are empowered and their likenesses are protected and they have some autonomy over that – whether it’s through payments and/or other ways to protect their own brand, even if they are in the early stages of an amateur or professional career.”

Special Olympics chairman: Sports doesn’t yet teach that everybody belongs

The biggest problem facing sports is clustering people around ability levels, a structure that narrows the field and stigmatizes everybody else, said Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics. Speaking on a Summit panel about sports for social impact, Shriver said he believes the day will come when every U.S. high school has a Special Olympics Unified team, meaning athletes with intellectual disabilities play on the same team as those without intellectual disabilities.

“I don’t think the world of sport has yet fully absorbed the challenge of the Special Olympics movement because it is a radical vision of human equality,” Shriver said. “It’s not a cute sidelight. People ask me do you go to the real Olympics? And for a long time I said, ‘Well, sometimes, but only occasionally and we’re not the same as them.’ About 10 years ago I started saying, ‘Yes, I do – all the time.’”

Shriver said sport has an unhealthy paradigm by selecting kids for teams solely by performance and spectators. “That’s a super powerful destructive influence on children. … Who’s the fastest person with Down Syndrome in the world? I have no idea – and I don’t care, honestly.”

Shriver said he becomes emotional when a Special Olympics athlete raises his or her arms in joy after a third- or fourth-place finish. “Not because I feel sorry for her, but because I wish I was more like her,” Shriver said. “And not because she has an intellectual disability, but because she has the bravery to reveal that she herself believes that her best is enough.”

College baseball coach finds rec league better than travel ball

Even college baseball’s national coach of the year isn’t immune from the pitfalls of travel sports. University of Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich said he mistakenly signed up his son for travel baseball around 8 years old.

“We thought he was really good,” Bakich said. “He ended up not really liking baseball at all. Here he is, we’re paying $2,000 a year, and he says, ‘I hate baseball.’ Dagger to the heart. So we said, ‘OK, we won’t play travel.’ We gave him a year off travel ball and went back to playing a rec league and he loves it. The competition and coaching and caliber – there’s not much difference. He’s enjoying baseball again.”

Other Announcements from Project Play Summit

  • Please join us in congratulating our Project Play Champions. These organizations committed to taking a new, meaningful, specific action consistent with the strategies of Project Play.
  • New local State of Play reports were released in Hawai’i and Seattle-King County. Coming in 2020: Reports in Central Ohio and Camden, New Jersey.
  • The 2019 State of Play report was released with the latest youth sports participation data and trends. Read the report and see the charts.
  • The football team at American Heritage School is the first Healthy Sport Index Contest winner. Nominations for other high school teams based on exemplary health are being accepted at pn/hsicontest.
  • Project Play and Nickelodeon developed the World Wide Day of Play partner playbook. Register here to gain access to the playbook.
  • Project Play and Kellogg’s announced a partnership to search for the best middle school programs in the country. The goal: Revitalize middle school sports by inspiring leaders to adopt models that serve as many students as possible.

“I’ve lived with depression, and without sport, I don’t think there was a way to approach that challenge with such optimism and belief and a hard wire that I can control my fulfilment and what I want to get out of life. All of that came through being a kid and finding play.”

— Kyle Martino, NBC Sports broadcaster and former pro soccer player

“I would challenge those in the room to make a commitment. Don’t have a coaching staff for a girls team that has all men. Don’t serve on a panel that has all men. Insist on diversity because we need you to do that.”

— Nicole LaVoi, Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport co-director

“As a big brand, we have a responsibility to make awareness to the whole world about giving opportunities to everybody.”

— Mariona Miret, FC Barcelona Foundation head of programs

Here was a gut-punch reminder of how brutal life in the NFL can be. ‘Not For Long’, indeed.”

— Yahoo! Sports columnist Pat Forde on C.J. Anderson, who learned he was cut by the Detroit Lions shortly after a moderated conversation with Forde at the Summit.

“Don’t bet on programs, bet on people. People have values. People have passion. Great programs are the result of passionate people.”

— Dave Egner, Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation CEO

When you rearrange the letters in ‘listen’ it spells ‘silent.’ In order to truly listen, we have to silence our brains and stop trying to be right and figuring out how to respond. Just shut up and listen to our children.”

— Valorie Kondos Field, former UCLA gymnastics coach

“I’m familiar with how you can get caught up in this (youth sports) mania. You want so much for the happiness of your kid that you’d do anything for that, and this seems like their happiness is being good at this time. But in retrospect, it was mania. In retrospect, my son wishes he had played more sports and not played 100 games of baseball a year.”

— David Brooks, New York Times columnist and executive director of the Aspen Institute Weave: The Social Fabric Project

“I’ve messed up at it (sports). My daughter was a D-1 (college) athlete and I fell in love with it. Who wouldn’t? I think I pressed too much and junior year she burned out of college. It’s hard for parents, but the big thing I want to say is we all have to do what you all are doing here today: We all have to tell our stories.”

— Peter Gilbert, Hoop Dreams filmmaker

“I’d like to see parents who don’t pay to see their kids win, who don’t try to fuel arguments because they may have lost, or their kid may not have won the meet.”

— Daniel Solomon, 12, Urbana, MD

Staying in the Game: Progress and Challenges in Youth Sports
September 4, 2019 • Jon Solomon