Nicolò Origgi on the wasted chances in Italy as generations seems to fall by the wayside despite the national passion for basketball. He asks what can be done to bring one of Europe’s greatest territories for talent back to the top
A lot of time and words have already been dedicated to Italy’s self-evident failure to produce first-class players apart from the well known NBAers and the restricted Euroleague colony. While many more eminent voices have taken the stage to address the issue, an humble attempt was made also on these pages. With that being only the tip of the iceberg, however, we will now have a look below the waterline to point out the biggest contradictions at the very roots of the whole national movement – local youth ranks.
Driven by a shared belief according to which their pupils must first learn to be resourceful enough within a sort of communistic five-out motion offence, coaches hope that their young boys – generally from eleven to fifteen years old – can develop the right feel for choosing when to dribble, pass, shoot or cut in a standardized way. Obviously needing a lot of time, focus and – most importantly – practice in order to master the foundations of team play at an age where flashy external stimuli have a great influence regardless of their actual worth, wannabe ballers soon make such a theorically remarkable strategy backfire on instructors by often turning precious training sessions and matches into huge dribble-heavy chuck fests, in complete disregard of the importance of give-and-gos, backdoor cuts and whatever else requires a prompt reading of a given situation. As a consequence, in spite of being rightfully instructed to be aggressive no matter what, opposing defences naturally tend to relax a little bit along the three-point line, working hard to deny driving as well as passing lanes but conceding relatively open looks with a few regrets. This, in turn, keeps the already stagnant offences well off the three-second area amid a series of unfruitful drive-and-kicks that inevitably lead to forced attempts in traffic or deep-range stinkers late in the shot clock. Last but not least, also considering that soccer-sized balls are replaced by standard ones in the sub-fourteen age group, the early abuse of threes and long twos might severely affect the future shooting form – and, to a various extent, accuracy in the mid-to-long term – of people in their pre- or early teens who try to compensate their lack of strength by squaring up improperly and/or releasing the ball after a momentum-crushing hitch through a shoulder thrust as well as the off hand’s aid – no joke at all since we have been shown that muscle memory plays a big role also in the art of shooting.
A compromise between the multiple delicate matters at stake has to be found, otherwise the uncontrolled shooting-centred drift will only take thousands of kids and boys – shorter and shorter of individual as well as collective fundamentals, not to mention on-court awareness – at a greater distance from mainland. First of all, a point that should be carefully addressed is the controversial implementation of zone defences in youth leagues. The rules explicitly state that, whenever such trick – on paper allowed starting from the age of thirteen – is not legal, the only discriminating factor behind its punisment lies in the defenders’ evident attempt to track only the ball’s movements instead of their individual opponents. One can thus get away with sagging off attackers at will as long as each player has his own assignment. In light of this, a logical solution would imply a timely technical-foul call on every coach caught encouraging his troops to disregard any non-sniper rival – or implicitly accepting his squad’s passive attitude – rather than anytime a non-man-to-man marking is spotted. Sadly, disgusting combinations of zoning and disinterested paint clogging are not completely uncommon especially in the lower tiers, but the sight of a committed zone defence should help recognizing which is the real plague. After all, lads have to learn using their grey matter also on the hardwood – well, linoleum may be more appropriate – if they really love the game, so what better than facing an unconventional challenge from early on?
Raising the bar too high, however, only emphasizes the already existing fracture between assertive and undisciplined boys – no matter how good a coach is at generating genuine interest around his inputs. Should a solitary diamond in the rough emerge out of nowhere in spite of that, a bunch of powerhouses will be soon knocking on the door – ever heard about Antonello Riva’s move from his local parish team to Cantù in exchange for an old bus? When a few average kids distance themselves from teammates only thanks to a more pronounced feel for the game, though, no one cares and they thus get stuck midstream. Who knows how everyone is going to develop in a couple of years? The bigger and stronger thirteen or fourteen year-old might slow his growth down without making any serious improvements to the point that he will have missed the train to the promised land, while the once pedestrian yet polished country boy might be ready to steal his spot. In order to seize this potential chance, such player needs to have fully taken advantage of his more formative years while still under the radar, but smaller clubs are at a crossroads when it comes to that as youth ranks’ annual membership fees represent their biggest asset to get by in absence of serious sponsorship deals. Therefore, an awful lot of instructors outside of the main centres of attraction find themselves forced to keep things too simple as well as a low profile in order not to lose the vast majority of their pupils and, consequently, their already precarious jobs. This, in turn, leads to a great diaspora of valuable young lads – most of whom could not even dream of pursuing a playing career, just as in the case of big clubs’ castoffs – who slowly conform to the general sloppiness around them and, in some cases, prematurely hang their boots.
If acknowledging such matters obviously cannot turn things around, at least it would provide a starting point to have a healthier basketball on all levels – not necessarily legitimated by the number of those who have made it to the top but by a better overall quality also in the least heralded tiers. A virtuous circle could be sparked as more and more well-formed players populate also those intermediate levels where a promising teenager could be sent in advance to put senior-level experience under his belt. If also Rome was not built in one day, why would the byproduct of this scenario not be worth the wait?