The growing disparity between good and bad in girls basketball

I picked up the USA Today featuring this week’s high school girls top 25 and looked though the scores. I focused primarily on the California schools, as those are the ones who I know the best. The scores are outrageous (I left out the names so as not to embarrass the losing teams):

  • private vs. public 59-13
  • public vs. public 91-11
  • public vs. public 67-14
  • public vs. public 96-18
  • private vs. public 75-23
  • private vs. public 93-18

Now, the following is based solely on those scores (and those scores feature some of the best teams, so lop-sided wins are somewhat understandable), as well as some conversations with coaches who I know in California. This is a small sample size, and it may be that the conclusions drawn for the scores of one week of basketball are incorrect or overblown. It also may be that other areas are immune to the problems in California. Therefore, there are limitations in my observations; however, the scores appeared to point out problems with girls basketball that have been growing over the last decade.

The biggest issue is that the disparity between good and bad is growing. I am not familiar with the current situations of these schools, but a decade ago, several of the losing teams were able to hang tough with the victors. There are several potential explanations:

  • Recruiting
  • Good programs attract good players
  • Good coaches attract good players
  • Programs who play in national tournaments attract the most talented players
  • Changing demographics (i.e. an aging community with fewer young families)
  • Rise of smaller private and charter schools attracting students
  • Smaller pool of good players

The final point is the big issue, at least in California. According to friends in southern California, schools with 3000 students no longer have enough girls show up for tryouts to field a junior varsity team. Again, according to friends, a team that used to compete for southern California championships less than a decade ago now does not field a junior-varsity team. According to another friend, the numbers in his youth programs are dwindling, as parents put their daughters in volleyball or soccer. According to another friend, the number of good, sustained youth AAU programs is decreasing. 

Specifically, there was once a very good youth program who fed players to several of the above schools – winners and losers. It was not the only good youth program in the area, as there were at least three other prominent programs who fed players to these schools. These are prominent programs, as in programs winning AAU tournaments – I have no idea about what other, smaller, more local programs ran in the city during that era or now. However, of the prominent programs that fed those schools, only one still exists to my knowledge, and it draws players from a wide geographical area.

If, as the comments from friends suggest, fewer girls are playing basketball, and fewer programs exist to develop good players, the pool of good players is smaller. If the good programs attract the same number of players as before, there are fewer and fewer players left for the non-powerhouse programs. With fewer good players to go around, games are less competitive.

This creates other issues. If there is one elite program in the area, are good coaches seeking jobs at the other league schools that are losing by 60+ points or will they seek jobs in areas where there is a better chance to become the elite program? If you have a school that has fewer girls signing up for basketball, and fewer good players enrolling in the school, and cannot attract the best possible coach, how is the school supposed to become competitive again? It becomes a cycle – no incoming talent, fewer numbers, lesser coaches, talent going to other schools, less talent, fewer players, nobody wanting to coach, etc.

For the past 15 years, those involved with girls basketball have praised the advances of the game, which have been great. Every time that someone criticizes the game, a women’s basketball defender will point to Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker, Maya Moore, or Brittany Griner as an example of how far the game has come. This argument has two flaws: (1) It is arguable whether these players are significantly improved from Lisa Leslie, Cheryl Miller, Nancy Lieberman, Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, etc.; and (2) Pointing only to the elite ignores 90+% of the game.

The best of the best has improved. USA Basketball dominates the world in women’s basketball. Moore, Griner, Parker, etc. likely can do things that the former greats never imagined. The WNBA provides these players an opportunity to make a living and to make women’s basketball about more than just receiving a college scholarship. These are great and important advances for the game.

However, what about the other side of the game? What about the 8-year-old just picking up a ball? Have her opportunities improved over the last 15 years? Sure, she can aspire to play in the WNBA, but are there better programs for her to join to help her reach these aspirations? Are there better coaches at the local recreation center to teach her the game? Are there more and better competitive opportunities for her once she decides that she wants to improve her game? Is her local high school likely to have a better coach and better overall program?

I don’t know the answer. I am sure it differs by location. However, I don’t know that an 8-year-old in West Los Angeles is better off now than 10-15 years ago when Lauren Kelly ran Hoop Masters or since Dante Sarmiento left the Santa Monica Surf. I don’t know that a child in Long Beach is better off now than during the heyday of the Long Beach Warriors. I don’t know that a child in the Inland Empire is better off now than during the days of John Wells and BTR. I don’t know if SGV is near the same program that it was with Lyle Honda 15 years ago. I don’t know that Barry Moon and the Monterey park Heat taking a reduced role was good for children from all over Los Angeles and Orange County. I don’t know that children from the Valley have a program as good as the old ARC program or children from Orange County with the old O.C. Sharks. (I honestly don’t know, as I have not lived in Los Angeles in a decade). Some of the programs, like the Lakewood Sparks with Elbert Kinnebrew, are still around. I know Hoop Masters is around in some form with Sarmiento.

Despite all the progress in women’s basketball, and the skills and athleticism of the elite, I don’t know if the same progress has been made at the local, grassroots level. Does a player today have the same access and opportunity to good coaching and good competition as 10-15 years ago? If not, why not? If not, is that a reason why girls reportedly are choosing volleyball, softball, lacrosse, and soccer over basketball? If not, could the lack of good opportunities explain some of the high-school blowouts and lack of participation?

If these issues are connected in some way, has the focus on the elite and the progress of the elite shifted our focus too far from the grassroots or local programs? Will the elite continue to improve without a greater focus on developmental programs? If the programs are disappearing and the numbers are dwindling, is it possible that we have hit the apex of women’s basketball and are on the downward slide without realizing it due to the exploits of generational talents such as Moore, Griner, and Parker?

Edit (November 2016): It’s not just California:

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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