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Marcus Liberty remembers how the process used to go.

As the top ranked high school basketball player in the country in 1986, Liberty had a decision to make. All the household coaching names in college hoops were vying for his services.

Liberty ultimately committed to Henson and Illinois, and was a member of the 1989 Final Four team before playing four seasons in the NBA and six more overseas.

Today, the nation’s top basketball recruits might still spend some time in June playing under the gaze of college coaches with their high school teams, but the focus has since shifted to July.

That’s when college basketball coaches make their annual pilgrimages to the meccas of club basketball, to tournaments sponsored by shoe giants like Nike, adidas and Under Armour.

Instead of spending their summers at home, high school basketball’s most promising ballers now zigzag the country with scholarship offers on the line.

“It’s ridiculous now,” Liberty said. “It’s either you’re playing on an AAU squad or you’re going to get left behind.”AAU stands for the Amateur Athletic Union, an organization that oversees many youth sports, including basketball. Even though most high levels of club basketball have no affiliation with the actual Amateur Athletic Union, the “AAU” abbreviation is often used informally to refer to club basketball teams and tournaments.

Club basketball has exploded during the last several decades. It was originally fueled by the efforts of Nike, adidas and, once upon a time, Reebok in order to create a way to get the most young talent as possible playing basketball in one city at one time.

The shoe companies quickly realized that inviting players and teams to showcase tournaments where fans could pay to watch and college coaches could recruit the best players all at once was a profitable business venture.

Regional club teams began to form, unrestricted by school district or state boundaries. Shoe companies pounced, brokering deals with club coaches to get teams in their gear.

It’s an investment and a relatively safe one. Nike sponsors many of the best club teams in the country. Chances are, a handful of players on those teams will commit to a college that is sponsored by Nike and fare well. Some will even make the NBA, during which they’ll sign shoe deals.

And after years of playing club basketball and receiving bundles of free Nike gear, their loyalties will probably lie with the Swoosh.

‘It’s more convenient’

In the years since Liberty and the players of his era hooped exclusively for their high schools in the summer, hundreds of club basketball teams have evolved into entire programs with multiple teams and age groups.

“The volume of teams has changed dramatically,” said Mike Mullins, head of the Illinois Wolves travel basketball program. “There weren’t very many teams back in the 1990s doing this. There was only a very small number, and now there’s hundreds and hundreds of teams within (Illinois), let alone the country. It’s grown exponentially.”

Mullins has built the Wolves into a national powerhouse since founding the program in 1999 and was one of the first coaches to sign a shoe deal with basketball upstart Under Armour five years ago.

The Wolves’ success has allowed Mullins’ teams to compete on one of the highest circuits of club basketball, which Under Armour sponsors in an attempt to compete with the other two major summer circuits. Nike originally created an organized summer format in 2010 with the Elite Youth Basketball League, and adidas responded by creating a league called the Uprising Gauntlet Series.

All three circuits have been largely successful in drawing the best high school teams and players to their tournaments while generating some semblance of structure in the deregulated world of club basketball. Thanks to the shoe companies, college coaches know exactly where and when to look for new talent.

“It’s more convenient,” said David Williams, an assistant basketball coach of 12 years at Peoria Manual High School. “(Coaches) are out all July; you can see a ton of guys. You could have eight guys on your list, and you could see all eight of those guys in one location, as opposed to high school season.”

If coaches enjoy the convenience, players like the system for different reasons.

“I preferred AAU no doubt, by far (as opposed to high school ball),” said Malcolm Hill, a junior forward with Illinois.

The highlights of Hill’s trips with the Southwestern Illinois Jets included traveling the country and meeting new people, playing against new competition and enjoying time with teammates and family.

“AAU’s kind of like a little basketball vacation,” fellow Illinois junior forward Maverick Morgan said.
adidas wedge trainers AAU basketball a necessary step