It usually makes for a great photo-op, doesn’t it?
When a Bahamian achieves the level of success that Buddy Hield has, and you get to hear “Bahamas” over and over again in the international media, it gives us all that euphoric sense of pride. We love for the international community to tout the rags to riches story-lines:
Best little country in the world…. and all that
This is particularly true in sports where the triumph of the quaint underdog is meant to peak interest, endear him to the masses and eventually sell ad-space.
The Bahamas gets some free publicity, politicians make trips to the events, they use the story as fodder for stump speeches, or in special cases, they parade these athletes through the House of Assembly to listen to a few hours of shouting and name-calling.
Then, of course, there’s the ceremony where the self-perceived “intellectual gasbags” as Dan LeBatard would say, have to give their take and If we’re lucky, there’s a Junkanoo rush out or two thrown in there.
And then that’s it.
There’s no plan to sustain that momentum. Nothing in place to ensure that we can direct the path of another young athlete to that very same destination. We celebrate the now with not a thought to the past and what it took to get there or to the future and how we can improve on the existing model.
We forget about it and move on to the next thing. It’s either some politician’s corrupt, more rich guys argue over things that have no relevance to the everyday lives of average Bahamians and then there’s election season coming up so any momentum that Buddy has built up will be swept away in a sea of yellow, red and green.
Most American reporters used Buddy’s “crate story” as an anecdote to symbolise his story of perseverance.
I read and watched as well, but rather than beam with a sense of pride, my angst came from a different perspective.
I wondered why, in the mid-2000s, he still had to play on a crate hoop in the first place.
For me, it symbolised negligence by all of our administrations in funding youth sporting programmes. Not this government, not the one before, because I have no political leaning whatsoever, but to paraphrase Oliver Queen – They’ve all failed this city.
Buddy’s success wasn’t unprecedented and we have no reason to pretend as if it is.
Sterling Quant was drafted into the ABA in 1971. Seven years later – when Mychal Thompson made the leap to the pros, the Bahamas had the NBA’s No.1 overall draft pick in 1978. That’s 38 years ago. This wasn’t just a guy on a roster, this was unquestionably the best player in college basketball, authentically Bahamian, at a time when people were still grasping the concept of what a Bahamian was. Thompson averaged 20.8 points and 10 rebounds for the duration of his four-year career at Minnesota.
As a freshman he scored 12.5 and grabbed 7.7 boards, sophomore year he went for 25.9 and 12.5, as a junior – 22 and 8.9 and he capped it off with a senior season of 22 and 11.
This isn’t meant to be a comparison between eras. There was no 24-hour news cycle for sports back then, so there’s no way Thompson could have garnered the attention and media saturation that Buddy has this season. But the point is, we’ve been here before. We’ve had “the guy” in college basketball. We had him in 1977.
The fundamental problem is that although their stories are more than 40 years apart, Thompson and Hield had the same struggle to get to the pinnacle of NCAA basketball and eventually the NBA.
Since Thompson’s rise, we’ve done little to improve on the model for athletic success in basketball players that’s been in place longer than the Bahamas has been a country. Some have argued that we’ve actually regressed in terms of the frequency and quality of top-flight players we produce.
That model is as follows – You become great on your own. Not “your own” in the truest sense of the phrase but with the help of friends, family, and a few emotionally invested coaches. Perhaps you get seen at a showcase, AAU game, or based on the recommendation of one of these said coaches. You get the shot at a programme in the United States. Through it all, we cross our fingers along the way.
That’s how it happened in the 1970s. That’s how it happens in the 2000s.
Buddy was a lottery pick in last year’s draft. DeAndre Ayton is on everyone’s radar as the number one overall recruit in his class and may be the top selection in next year’s draft. Ayton is different – he’s a game changing, franchise building, shoe endorsing player.
Jonquel Jones was a lottery pick and the second Bahamian drafted into the WNBA. This means Bahamians are in the conversation as the top basketball players in America at the collegiate and high school level…yet this country has no true feeder system for basketball.
There’s a disconnect there.
We don’t have to dig deep into history to prove how woefully inefficient we’ve been at supporting the programs that creates these athletes. This past season there were over a dozen Bahamians playing Division I basketball, yet at the same time the game at the local level has been in a state of regression.
Mini basketball is long gone. The Father Marcian Peters National Tournament dedicated to Primary and Junior students just returned from a four-year hiatus. School teams play about 10 games in their leagues (most of them still play outside by the way) and if they’re lucky enough to have a coach that’s engaged in the programme, they find their way into a few tournaments throughout the course of the season.
There’s no shortage of basketball summer camps, but what happens once the fall rolls around. As a parent of a second grader obsessed with the game, there wasn’t a readily available outlet for him to learn it at the introductory level. This is now his third year playing baseball and second running track.
Baseball, swimming, track and field all have feeder systems and we now see the fruits of decades of labour blooming on the biggest stage in each of their respective sports.
It’s amazing that the basketball community has experienced this level of success void of a similar structure…considering we’ve had “the guy” since 1977.
This is a basketball-centric column, but the problem is bigger than basketball.
Just this past NCAA season alone we had a pair of Bahamians – Alex Cooper for the Houston Cougars and Mavin Saunders for the Florida State Seminoles – play in a major NCAA Division I bowl game for nationally ranked teams. Again, two Bahamian players at the apex of a gagillion dollar college football industry. Cooper had his shot at the NFL, Saunders plays for a dynasty in Tallahassee. Again, no feeder system for football.
At some point, we have to lose the infatuation with the “plucked from relative obscurity” story-line and use our resources in a meaningful way to properly fund and develop our athletes.
There has to be a systematic way that we can guide more student-athletes to this apex. Celebrating the few that get there is rightly justified, but dozens, maybe hundreds more are falling through the cracks because of lackluster funding and organisation for youth sports development.
It’s been largely up to private citizens to become so frustrated with a lack of action and accountability that private leagues and academies were formed.
This is how we got Moon McPhee’s HOYTES programme that cultivated both Buddy and Jonquel’s game in Grand Bahama. How we got the Junior Baseball League of Nassau, Freedom Farm Baseball League, the Moore’s Island Student-Athlete Programme, Maximum Development Academy, the litany of track clubs, soccer clubs and the others I’m sure I’ve probably missed.
It seems as if there would be some government mandated programme to facilitate this development. Not a one-off event, not a summer camp, a structured and sustained programme.
To that end, you’re going to hear a lot of grandiose promises over the course of the next few months.
When Antoan Richardson was called up to the Yankees, the promises spread across the baseball community like wildfire. At one point there was even a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Andre Rodgers baseball stadium at the Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre. If you drive by the area right now you may see the divot in the dirt where that ceremonial groundbreaking took place, but that’s all you’ll see.
Another great photo-op.
The same with Tureano Johnson once his fights began appearing on pay-per-view undercards, Magnum Rolle when he was drafted in 2010, and of course, we repeat the routine every four years when we achieve Olympic success.
Since he entered office as minister in May 2012, the National Sports Academy has often been a talking point for Dr Daniel Johnson and an integral part of his Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture platform.
In May 2013, Prime Minister Perry Christie announced that his administration “will begin the process to invest some $10 million in the construction” of multi-purpose sporting facilities in the family islands similar to those in New Providence and Grand Bahama, giving young athletes in those islands more opportunities to develop in competitive sports.
The formation of the National Sports Academies have also been at the focal point of each budget debate following the success of the “Golden Knights” at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
It’s 2017. Let me know when you see one built.
Basketball may not be on the list in the archaic “national sport of the Bahamas” conversation but give it the respect and attention it deserves.
Walk into any school in the country and ask the students how many of them have hoop dreams. Ask them to name their 10 favourite NBA players and they would probably list 20. Ask them what they play in the afternoons, what they play all summer, what they watch the most on television. Then ask them to name two guys that play cricket. Or if they have a favourite A class sloop. Better yet ask them if they even know the difference between A, B or C class sloops.
Don’t get me wrong, from a politician’s angle, I get it.
When these athletes receive international acclaim, we need a reminder to everyone that they’re one of “our guys,” whether they were competing in Bahamian flag colours or not. These athletes should indeed be celebrated by the entire country, from the top down. Politicians should pay attention and be knowledgeable on the issues that are important to their community. These athletes become major story-lines in those communities, so its clear how those interests align.
There are others behind this current group. Others that will reach the Hield, Jones, Ayton plateau. There are even hundreds, thousands more that are under-served and are assured to fall through the cracks because of a lack of youth sports funding and development. If we invest, make a concentrated effort to plan and systematically produce more of these iconic figures, we would have more reasons to celebrate. Perhaps It’s asking too much to assume the decision makers to be this deeply invested in sports. Maybe it’s asking too much to look forward to the day when the narrative shifts from “plucked from obscurity” to “product of a well-organised system.” That takes a hands-on approach, organisation, a system, hiring the right people and running a well-oiled machine that has to be grounded in a genuine concern toward change for the better.
It’s far easier to just be there for the photo-op.