NBA Exec: Youth Guidelines Changing the Game

David Krichavsky 1 (Vice President of Youth Basketball Development, NBA).jpg

Basketball was invented as a tool of public health, by James Naismith on the instructions of his boss at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Mass., more than 125 years ago. Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick, head of the physical education department, sought an activity that was easy to learn and easy to play indoors, so it could be played in winter in cold-weather areas.

The game that emerged was highly useful, due to its adaptability. It’s one that can be played not just in gyms but also parks and driveways. It can be enjoyed with or without referees, in formats ranging from 5-on-5 to 3-on-3 to 1-on-1, by young and old, males and females, the tall and small. In most forms, it remains affordable; it requires a ball, and only one participant needs to bring one.

No wonder that basketball is the most popular game among youth in the United States, played by 18.9 percent of children ages 6 to 12 and 20.2 percent of adolescents ages 13 to 17 last year, according to Sports & Fitness Industry Association data. Further, 14.1 percent and 17 percent, respectively, play on a regular basis. Among team sports, basketball has held that top position for years.

Among the chief beneficiaries of all those early touchpoints with Gulick and Naismith’s game is the National Basketball Association, whose players and teams capture imaginations across the globe. The NBA is now a $8 billion industry and the sport’s dominant organization – with an ability to help shepherd of its future.

So, what to do with all that cultural clout? Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, talked with David Krichavsky, the NBA’s vice president of youth basketball development, about the league’s growing efforts to improve the experience available to young people, and the league’s role within Project Play 2020, the collective impact effort of which the NBA is a member. An edited version of their conversation is below.

Tom Farrey: David, what do you see as the greatest challenges facing youth sports today?

David Krichavsky: There are a number of challenges, starting with cost and access in various communities. Declining participation is a challenge as well. Another one is negative parental and coach behavior. There are some challenges all of us in youth sports face. But, coming off the Jr. NBA World Championship tournament we launched this summer, I also was reminded of all the things that make sports great, including health and wellness and the values that kids learn. Sports bring people together across race, gender, language and geographic barriers.

Farrey: What are the issues facing basketball, in particular?

Krichavsky: The trend toward single-sport participation and year-round play, which is why it was so important that we partner with USA Basketball to create youth guidelines. The guidelines promote multisport participation, with no specialization recommended until age 14 at the earliest. Kids today sometimes play six or seven games in a weekend and a lot of data suggests that is not the best way for health or development. We’ve been able to utilize those guidelines in our programming, including at Jr. NBA World Championship. Parents, coaches and kids said they liked not playing 3-4 games a day. They played only one or two, depending on the schedule. We also took an off day and had our NBA Cares day of service. Everyone built a playground in Orlando, which was really important.

Farrey: How have the guidelines taken in the grassroots?

Krichavsky: The first set of guidelines focused on health and wellness and were released in 2016, then we followed up in March of this year with age-appropriate youth standards. You’ve talked with Kobe (Bryant) about age-appropriate play – that how a kid plays a sport is different than how a 16-year-old does. In terms of their adoption, the guidelines have been incredibly well-received by the basketball community. The amount of feedback we’ve received from parents and coaches is significant, and we have 15 best-in-class basketball organizations reaching one million kids that have aligned with the guidelines.

Farrey: What’s been the secret in the sauce?

Krichavsky: Two things. Youth basketball has historically lacked governance, so there has been a great reception to the NBA and USA Basketball taking a leadership position. That’s something we have been pleased to see, and we leaned into that. We have a commissioner (Adam Silver) who wants us to be more involved in youth basketball. The second piece is, having an aspirational property like the Jr. NBA World Championship is a huge draw. We can control the ecosystem in this tournament and kids play in a way that promotes positive development. We saw an opportunity to create a model youth tournament that emphasized our values and do so on a global scale. We have Jr. NBA programs all over the world – last year, 26 million kids participated. But we had never done anything that unified all of these programs and allowed them to compete nationally and internationally.

Farrey: One potential hazard with any televised tournament like this, of course, is turning kids into content. How do you do that in a responsible manner?

Krichavsky: One, was our partnership with Fox. One of the things that drew us to Fox from the beginning was their interest in highlighting everything we are doing off the court. We saw the Jr. NBA World Championship as an opportunity to tell a complete story about the program. It was not about developing the next generation of NBA or WNBA players but of kids coming together to meet new friends, participate in community service, and engage with NBA and WNBA players. The second piece is, kids today at this age, increasingly, are used to seeing themselves on digital platforms.

Farrey: The tournament was for kids 14 and under. Any plans to take it down to 12 and under?

Krichavsky: We’re thrilled with year one and we will do a full debrief. We will explore all opportunities to expand the event. We’ll look at older and younger age groups. But no definitive decision has been made at this point.

Farrey: What have you learned about raising the quality of coaching in basketball, given that you’re entering a space where most are untrained?

Krichavsky: Coaching education is critical to strong programs. We work closely with USA Basketball on their coach licensing program. We mandate coach licenses for many of our programs, including Jr. NBA Flagship programs and the Jr. NBA World Championship.

Farrey: What do you see as the role of Project Play 2020 in advancing opportunities?

Krichavsky: There’s huge value in collaboration and Project Play 2020 has done a tremendous job in bringing the sports community together, with a commitment to positive change. For one organization like the NBA to address the issues in youth sports is challenging. Take single-sport specialization. We at the NBA recommend multisport play. But to align with Major League Baseball, NHL, Target, ESPN, Nike and the other organizations and have a consensus statement – that’s really powerful and a place where we can have a lot of collective impact.

The coalition is doing a great job and we at the NBA will look to accelerate progress, whether it be around the single sport issue or engaging parents, as we’ve done by distributing the Project Play Parent Checklists. Moving forward, we’ll find more of those opportunities to amplify the group’s efforts.

Farrey: How optimistic are you that progress can be made?

Krichavsky: I’m very optimistic because we all know what’s at stake.

Learn more about Project Play and Project Play 2020.