The line between amateur and professional athletics become increasingly blurry during the past 30 to 40 years. Perhaps it doesn’t even really exist anymore. That’s one question that might occur to you while watching At All Costs, a documentary about AAU basketball.
While these teams and leagues are presented as “grassroots” efforts, they’re also significantly funded by shoe companies who want access to the best amateur basketball talent, seeking to play a role in their development into top college players and potential NBA stars. That’s probably not a revelation to anyone who’s been following high school and college basketball recruiting for years, and familiar with names like Sonny Vaccaro and George Raveling. But director Mike Nicoll zooms in on the AAU experience by focusing on individual players (and their families) in addition to one of the most successful programs in the country.
University of Arizona basketball fans may be particularly interested in two of the players shown in the documentary. Gabe York, who played for the Wildcats from 2012 to 2016 (and now plays professionally in Italy), is one of the athletes whose development in AAU and progress to top college recruit is followed. But Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who’s about to enter his junior season in Tucson, is prominently featured, representing the path that most high school players have to take to get noticed by coaches at the elite college basketball programs and the top recruiting services.
Jackson-Cartwright’s father, Ramon, is a self-described “coach’s worst nightmare,” entirely familiar with the process of playing for the top travel teams in Los Angeles, attaching his son with a shoe company (Nike), and putting Parker through a grueling spring and summer schedule of competing in the top AAU tournaments played throughout the country. Parker’s older son, Miles, was also a promising prep player who ended up playing college ball at the University of Pennsylvania. Ramon learned from that experience and is applying those lessons with his younger son, a top point guard prospect who needs to show that his sharp shooting touch, quickness and excellent ball-handling skills make up for his lack of size.
As Ramon flies his son across the country, from Los Angeles to North Carolina to Chicago and back, playing in one to two showcases per week against the other top AAU players — not to mention workouts and drills with coaches — the grueling schedule and constant play throughout the summer months takes its toll on Parker. While watching, you can’t help but wonder if this is something that the young man truly wants for himself or if he’s living out his father’s ambitions. Parker’s face lacks joy as he talks on camera, yet his play on the court seems to indicate that he’s having fun. Or is it just that he knows what’s at stake as far as earning a Division I scholarship and setting himself up for a possible NBA future?
Nicoll doesn’t appear to be casting any sort of judgment with what he includes in the documentary. The director is mostly following along with his camera, and Ramon is more than happy to let a filmmaker chronicle his son’s path through the AAU system on his way to earning a scholarship from a top college basketball program. But a clear narrative begins to develop as Parker keeps playing, without much opportunity for rest or summer enjoyment, and his father explains some of his core beliefs regarding pain vs. injury, emphasizing how important it is to display toughness and leadership to college coaches.
The other figure At All Costs follows to tell its story is Compton Magic CEO and coach Etop Udo-Ema. (York is one of the players on his team.) His program is one of the most successful in AAU, consistently targeting, recruiting and developing top high school players in California and throughout the country. Udo-Ema has an established reputation among college coaches and those who cover the sport. Perhaps more importantly, many parents seeking a mentor figure for their talented children and looking for someone with connections to scholarships and potential NBA careers are aware of his track record.
But AAU is a highly competitive landscape. Just like top college programs, these teams need to constantly and consistently recruit the best talent, and they need to win games to maintain their lucrative deals with shoe companies such as Nike and Adidas. (Compton Magic is an Adidas — or as Udo-Ema proudly declares “the three stripes” — program.) As successful as Udo-Ema and Compton Magic has been, when his shoe contract is near its end, he has to keep winning to get that deal renewed and show that his program is a worthwhile investment. Udo-Ema and his coaches frequently refer to Compton Magic not as a team, but as a brand. And that brand only has value when its players earn Division I scholarships, a goal the staff frequently (and often profanely) reminds these young athletes about.
Any fan of college basketball will almost certainly find At All Costs intriguing. (Perhaps you’ll be surprised at how little impact high school basketball seems to have in the recruiting and development process anymore.) Several analysts and reporters who cover the sport, such as CBS Sports’ Doug Gottlieb and Sports Illustrated’s George Dohrman are featured, while Nicoll’s camera often finds coaches such as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Arizona’s Sean Miller at the showcase events. (Other coaches like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Notre Dame’s Mike Brey can also be seen, though they’re not highlighted.)
But even if you’re not necessarily a college hoops fan, Nicoll has a sense for what makes a good story and which characters are worth following. I would argue that non-sports fans would also find this documentary compelling because of the pressure placed on everyone involved and the high skill level that develops as a result. You might want to give Parker Jackson-Cartwright the hug that his father appears to be withholding.
At All Costs is now available from XLrator Media through Video on Demand and iTunes.