GCHS’s Nickson, Howard spend summer on road with AAU

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 29, 2005

You’re Curtis Nickson and Howard Crawford. You’re the 6’9″/6’7″ center/power forward tag team that last spring led Greene County to its first ever state basketball championship. You’d think you’d earned a little bit of time off during the summer, right?

Hardly. For top college prospects like Nickson and Howard, summer can be just as intense as February or March. Why? Membership on one of Alabama’s elite Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) traveling teams. AAU teams are made up of only the state’s very best and brightest hoops prospects, and spend the summer touring the country to take on other AAU teams at tournaments attended by hundreds of scouts and college coaches.

Virtually every major college prospect in the country plays AAU ball over the summer, meaning that Nickson and Crawford have had the opportunity to go face-up with some of the country’s very best athletes. Crawford recently took the floor against Brandan Wright, the sixth-best prep player in the nation according to recruiting website rivals.com. Nickson got floor time going up against Greg Oden, the 7-foot Indianapolis center many are already pegging as the top overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft.

With competition like that, it’s little wonder Greene County head hoops coach Rodney Wesley is happy to have his players stretch their wings over the summer–and return next season more polished than ever.

“It’s a great experience for them,” he says. “It’ll be a good wake-up call for them if they’re not working hard enough. If you have two 6’8″ guys on the same team a the 4A level, they don’t have to work as hard–they don’t have to really battle night-in-night-out–the way they would at the next level. On the AAU circuit they’re playing against other guys who are just as good. They’ll have to put out more effort and understand that this is what going to college is like…there’s competition every single game.”

The competition is only one part of why Nickson, who plays with the AAU Birmingham Raptors, and Crawford, a member of Huntsville’s Alabama Lasers, each say they’re thankful for the opportunity to play AAU ball. For starters, there’s the also the travel: between the two of them, AAU has taken Crawford and Nickson to competitions in New Orleans, Orlando, Houston, Atlanta, Virginia, Memphis, and even Las Vegas.

But each agrees that the best part is the opportunity for the kind of exposure that they simply can’t get playing for Greene County alone.

“It’s been fun,” says Crawford, who said that basically “every college coach in America” was present at the Orlando tournament he participated in. “You’re getting a chance to play against the best teams and playing against the best people,” he says.

“It was very exciting,” says Nickson. “It feels good to be stepping into a gym that’s completely full of college coaches. Every game you play someone’s watching you. There’s nothing else like that.”

Wesley admits that for some high school coaches, that kind of attention and adulation can lead to attitude problems from his or her AAU players. There can be “differences in philosophy,” he says, between the coaching a player receives with his AAU team and the coaching he gets from his high school coach. But Wesley says that’s only a problem when the high school coach and his players aren’t on the same page to begin with. Thanks to a strong bond connecting him to his two AAU stars, Wesley is more than happy to “stay out of the way” when it comes to dealing with the AAU.

“They’re real disciplined kids,” Wesley says. “They’re honest with me, let me know what’s going on, when they did good or did bad…we’re not strangers to each other.”

It helps, too, that his players have remained humble about their AAU experience.

“I think it’s a privilege to play AAU basketball,” Nickson says. “AAU gives [coaches] the opportunity to see me play…If you can get involved, you shouldn’t take it for granted.”

Wesley probably also doesn’t mind that, after the rigors of AAU competition, Nickson and Crawford should be even better prepared physically for a run at a back-to-back championship. He admits that “focus” will be he and his coaching’s staff’s biggest hurdle in the upcoming season. Crawford, for one, agrees.

“[AAU experience] helps a lot. After playing against that level of competition,” he says, “when you’re playing against other schools, you should just run through ’em.”