Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Not Crazy About AAU, Bedford Academy's Phelps Preaches Team Concept

Few things, very few things, seem to irk Rob Phelps.

Forever synonymous with NYC's early 1990s period of prosperity for high school basketball , re-scripting the scoring record books alongside then-nemesis and current friend Kenny Anderson, Phelps was known for his mettle.

A calm demeanor always slays heightened pressure. Having navigated constant double and triple teams while steering New York's searing prep hoops pressure cooker, Phelps learned this from experience.

Serenity during the high-stakes moments helped Phelps etch a legacy. And while refs and players may have taxed his patience over the years, the man rarely gets irked.

Few of Phelps' current players at Brooklyn-based and academics-obsessed Bedford Academy know of his exploits as a player.

The students are too young to have witnessed Phelps go into kill mode, scorching UCONN on 10-for-11 shooting in the Big East tournament and routinely authoring 35+ point explosions at Nazareth High in Brooklyn.

A few Youtube clips and archived NY Times articles will surely provide an accurate depiction.

Under Rick Barnes at Providence, Phelps was a consistent double-digit scorer alongside former Chicago Bull Dickey Simpkins.

 Though he didn't shoulder the same high-scorer's role that catapulted him into the city scoring king lore, chasing the records of historical New York names such as Albert King (Fort Hamilton), Greg "Boo" Harvey (Andrew Jackson), and Lew Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar (Power Memorial), Phelps had his share of dagger man moments.

Phelps may have been a few points, a few assists, and perhaps even a few inches (programs listed him at 6-foot-5, but he may  have been 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 and some change) short of making the Michael Finley and Shawn Bradley-led Dallas Mavericks team of the late-90s.

 He forgot about it several days later. Again, few things irk Rob Phelps.

Rather than following the long green paper trail to the colossal NBA arenas, Phelps embarked on an over-the-waters professional career.

He helped plant a basketball seed in the soccer hotbed of England. A shooter capable of controlling the game with or without the rock in his hands, Phelps played in Japan before back issues negated his production rate.

A dean at aforementioned Bedford, where the power within the No.2 pencils and term papers outweighs all, Phelps has guided the PSAL Class A Panthers to six consecutive Final Fours.

 He demands no lower than an 80 average from his players.

 This mentality has helped shape players such as Darren Thomas, a four-year point guard now entertaining Ivy League interest.

Relaxed and personable off the court, Phelps is a stern disciplinarian (defense and relentlessness enforced through all 32 minutes) who spares absolutely no player of a good tongue lashing.

While Phelps can be as intense as an Army recruiter, keeping his team in the locker room with long-winded speeches, you'd be hard-pressed to find an issue that lingers within him.

Again, few things, very few things, are capable of irking Rob Phelps.

The AAU scene, at least some pressing issues entailed, happens to be one of those things.

"One of my biggest issues is I think AAU is more of a business these days," said Phelps, devouring a plate of seafood at a restaurant near his Queens home.

"It's more of a business now than it is actually a program that teaches these kids. It really concerns me because I don't really want them playing AAU, mainly because I don't feel its really teaching them anything. I think as far as the exposure, it's a good thing for kids out there to get seen. But I would think, you would get yourself a lot more exposure if you work on your game and put the time in."

Phelps has always maintained that if you are good enough, the exposure will come to you. If you can play at the college level and your game appeals to scouts, the self-promotion is unnecessary.

 The notion of trying to dazzle NCAA coaches at slapdash AAU tournaments, while flanked by high-caliber players from different programs, it doesn't wash well with Phelps.

Especially, as he notes, when there are countless opportunities during the workaday grind of the winter season.

Phelps exemplifies players such as Brent Jones, a 5-foot-10 guard who played alongside Anthony Mason Jr. during Phelps' first few seasons at Bedford, as kids who don't need AAU to survive.

Jones never played AAU after his sophomore year.

Jones became one of the Northeast Conference's top passers at nearby St. Francis NY.

He's quick to cite senior guard Matt Scott, a 28.4 PPG scorer at Bedford rival Brooklyn Law & Tech.

Scott, who fielded interest from St. Francis (NY) to Manhattan to Quinnipiac to schools in Texas with his scoring pace and production across the stat sheet (11.8 boards and 6.2 assists per game), earned a scholarship to Niagara this past winter.

Scott never played one game of AAU.

"I just think AAU is more of a business now, almost to the point where its exploiting the kids," Phelps explained.

 "If it was a lot better, I would support it. It's almost ruining the game, because its more flash. It's more 1-on-1, everybody's being selfish."

During Phelps' unrivaled high school era, busloads of  polished NCAA-bound players were spread across all five boroughs.

At the time, both Phelps and Kenny Anderson were the only four-year starters in the city. There were Division-I players popping off the bench as sixth, seventh, eighth, and even ninth and 10th men.

"Kenny (Anderson) would average 55 points a game if he played during this era," Phelps said. 

 You don't have to be a longtime basketball guru to acknowledge the talent level, notably the talent in numbers, is not the same.

"The scouts would come to you back then," Phelps explained.

"That was the best way for them to evaluate you--to come to your high school games. If we did go to the AAU circuit, that's when Five Star was really big. BC camp was really big, I'm really showing my age, but BC camp was big. Scouts used to be out there and the coaches were actually working with you hand-in-hand. I wish AAU could get back to those days."

Cognizant that times and the culture have undergone titanic changes, Phelps still preaches the principles ingrained in him.

The Panthers hold several mini-camps throughout the off-season, with passing and shooting camps that work specifically on a skill and collectively break those skills down.

He emphasizes team camps such as Dean Street. Phelps ensures that his players stay together and play alongside each other in the summer.

"Dean Street is excellent because you are with your high school kids,  with your team. You're here to get your teams better. My thing is keeping the kids together. When you think about it, when guys go away for AAU tournaments, they're with different players. Everything is different. But when you stay together as a team for the summer, that's key because that's who you're going to be playing with in the winter. Let's stay together, let's work together. Because when we get together in September, we already know what we 've got to do."

Sure, not much can hamper his head.

Players leaving for AAU tournaments and returning with bad habits, however, is enough to drive Phelps to blurs of rage.

Phelps has said time and time again that he does not recruit any of his players.

He acknowledges that Bedford Academy is not tailor-cut to snag the city's most acclaimed players.

"But for some reason, we always find ourselves in the semifinals or in the city championship," he stated.

"Why? Not because I have the best talent, but because I'm teaching our kids and our kids want to be taught. So, they are getting better just by us teaching those skill-sets. Better passing, footwork, shooting, defense--very important. We'll have camps where they don't even touch the basketball and we're just working on strength and conditioning. That's what's emphasized. That's what's missing."

Phelps is already scheduling team tournaments for the summer. He opens up his gym up to his players and "anyone who wants to get better" throughout the spring and summer.

He wants his team to grow and continue to work at a furious pace, without expressing a need to play AAU or traverse the country for an uptick in exposure.

Does Phelps really detest the circuit?

Not exactly, but the Brooklyn legend is clearly outspoken about the lack of fundamentals and corruption and the sense-of-entitlement that pollutes this landscape.

Phelps cited not only AAU but the frequency of players buddying up on social media as a source softening the city's heated rivalries.

"In high school, I didn't want to play with Kenny (Anderson), though we did play together at one point," he said.

 "Not because I didn't like Kenny, but because you wanted to play against the best. When you played against the best, back when I was playing, that's when you proved something. You prove something when you go out and beat the best. That's the biggest issue today, everybody's friends with the Twitter, the Instagram. Those competitive juices, that's missing in today's game and today's kids."