In a move that could clean up some of the problems with grassroots basketball while still taking the sneaker wars to a new level, Nike is bringing in five summer camp counselors. You may know them. They go by the names of LeBron James, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Amare Stoudemire and Vince Carter.
Beginning next June, each of the latter four players will host elite skills camps for the top 20 high school male players at each position. With Nike, Nash will run a camp for point guards in New Jersey, while Bryant will do the same for shooting guards in Los Angeles. Nike also has Stoudemire helping big men in Phoenix and Carter the wing players in Florida.
Then in July, those 80 players will gather in Akron, Ohio, to learn five-on-five concepts under the academy direction of King James, the crown jewel in Nike's endorsement crown.
The four-day skills camps are part of a larger Nike plan to revamp the summer basketball scene, which is flush with sneaker money but has been blamed for failing to teach young players the fundamentals that aid success on the college, NBA and international levels.
"It affords young people the chance to sit at the knees of the very best players and hear authentic stories on how they built their games and their careers," said George Raveling, Nike's director of grassroots basketball. "We won't just try to improve them from a physical standpoint but help them, especially the point guards, understand the game from a broader perspective."
That James is just 21 and still learning the game isn't lost on adidas, which until now has been more of a dominant force on the summer landscape.
"Nothing against LeBron," adidas spokesman Travis Gonzalez said, "but he's a naturally gifted athlete. Does he really know all these skills that need to be taught and has he learned how to communicate them? The best coaches are those who weren't the best players. Avery Johnson is turning into a great NBA coach but he wasn't a great player. Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas were great players but weren't all that successful as coaches. The novelty of getting an invitation letter from LeBron is great but if I were a kid I would get more out of spending time with [a seasoned coach]."
Adidas plans to release its new model for summer basketball by the end of the year, Gonzalez said. He declined to offer details other than to say it will be a year-round concept -- not limited to the summer -- that won't include position-specific skills camps.
The shoe companies have been under pressure over the past year to change the summer scene. Raveling, NBA commissioner David Stern, NCAA president Myles Brand and representatives from the AAU, high schools and other groups have met behind closed doors to consider alternatives to the current model.
Nike and adidas previously had agreed to drop their July showcase camps, which had outlived their usefulness. With the growth of exposure events and Internet scouting services, college coaches already were familiar with top high school prospects.
But the new direction does not turn down the volume on the summer scene, in which shoe companies in the $16 billion athletic footwear industry try to create relationships with teenagers they may want to sign when they leave college. On the contrary, the shoe companies have pledged to continue to fund travel teams that sponsor the top players, while working harder to educate their coaches on teaching methods.
The players invited to the camps will be chosen by an informal panel of coaches and Nike representatives, with input from scouting services, Raveling said in announcing the plan Wednesday. He predicted that the players from adidas or Reebok-sponsored clubs would want to come to the Nike camp, given the allure of the NBA stars who will direct a support staff of coaches.
"I haven't talked to the other shoe companies, but if I'm a kid and I got an invitation from Steve Nash to attend his camp, I'd be quickly figuring out how to get there," Raveling said. "That's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to receive instruction from a two-time MVP. I don't know why anyone would advise these players not to go."
Gonzalez said adidas would not keep its players from attending the Nike events, but he said he hoped Nike would allow its players to go to the adidas and Reebok events. Nike in the past has restricted its players from attending camps run by other companies, though it didn't stop adidas and Reebok from drawing better players, he said.
"We need to put aside our brand differences," he said. "If we're smart, we'll all work together to make sure these kids can take advantage of everything available to them."
A Nike spokesman was asked if the company plans to do as Gonzalez suggested, but he did not know the answer and said he would attempt to get one.
Potentially the biggest feature of the new Nike summer program is the creation of an international tournament, "The Global Challenge," that will be held late in July. The 80 players invited to the skills camps will be broken up into four teams and compete against four foreign teams. The tournament, which Raveling wants to eventually have televised, could include national teams from China, Australia and elsewhere.
The youngest players eligible for the Nike program will be those entering their sophomore year. Raveling has said the NCAA has told Nike that it can pay the travel costs of the invited players to its various events without sacrificing their amateur status, but whether the company makes such an offer has yet to be determined. He said he'd prefer that the young players "invest in their future."
During July, Nike will also host a national high school team camp, as well as its traditional Peach Jam tournament for non-school travel teams. There also has been talk of creating a national training academy where elite players would live during the year -- an idea promoted by Reebok's Sonny Vaccaro -- but Raveling said any decision on that idea by the Stern-Brand-Nike group would not be made for a year or two.
"It's hard to say if we would do that because there are a whole sundry of questions to answer, like: What are we trying to achieve? Who would finance it? Will parents leave their children there? Would it strictly be about basketball or would there be an educational component?" Raveling said. "We really feel like the model that we're going to utilize [next summer] will address a lot of the concerns. It'll be a lot less costly [than an academy] and it won't interrupt the day-to-day lives of these young people. For the time being, I don't see Nike moving away from this concept."
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.