USA Basketball trials spark confusion

When Ka'lia Johnson wasn't sent an invitation to the USA Basketball U17 trials this week, the 5-foot-9 point guard from Virginia, who participated in the 2009 trials, said she was devastated.

"I was definitely heartbroken -- I mean, it's USA Basketball," Johnson said. "You can be an All-American, you can have a [Division] I scholarship, but to represent your country, that's something special."

Johnson's dad, Kenneth, said that he, along with Ka'lia, were under the impression that everyone who participated in the 2009 trials would be back in 2010. But as evidenced by the 2010 trials roster, that is not the case.

In total, eight players who were invited to the U16 National Team trials a year ago were not invited back this year. In talking with some of those players and their parents -- representing seven of the eight players not included in this year's trials -- there was a common theme: confusion.

"If they woulda just come out and said last year that there was a possibility you might come back it would be different," Kenneth Johnson said. "But to have all the players and parents under the impression they'd be coming back, and then they don't give a reason why …"

Some of the players and parents who spoke to ESPN HoopGurlz either backed away from original comments or refused to be quoted out of fear that there would be negative consequences with regard to future USA Basketball participation. Some parents said they also did not press USA Basketball officials for reasons why their daughters were not invited back.

Carol Callan is the non-voting head of the Junior National Cadet (U16-U18) youth team selection. She is also very involved in the trials process including player orientation and the delivering of the news of who is in and who is cut. USA Basketball is conducting trials this week, June 8-11, for the teams that will represent the U.S. at the FIBA U17 world championships in France, the U18 Americas qualifying tournament in Colorado Springs, and the three-on-three competition at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore.

"There is no guarantee made," Callan said.

Nobody would deny that fielding teams at this young age group is difficult because so much changes.

"I don't think it would be prudent on our part because some kids we miss," Callan said, "and some kids get better."

On the other hand, responding to being cut is considered part of the Olympic development continuum.

Several parents and players were confused by the message they received. Though most could not remember a specific instance when they were told definitively they had an automatic invite to come back, all left with that impression. One parent, however, was very direct about when she and her daughter were told she would be back this year.

"It was said right at the end of the trials and they were handing out the packets to the girls," said Brenda McDonald, the mother of Breanna McDonald, who attended the U16 trials but was not invited back for the U17 trials.

McDonald cited a story that was told to the group about Seimone Augustus' path to Olympian status and her being cut twice as a reason for the players not being selected to keep working toward their goals. Several other parents concurred with the Augustus story but stopped short of saying they were guaranteed anything.

Whitney Knight, Johnson's club teammate from Boo Williams, also believed she'd be back in Colorado this week, as did her parents.

Knight said that when the final roster was announced last summer, Callan told everyone who participated that all players would be invited back in 2010.

"I was shocked because I thought everybody got to come back and then I was upset because I thought I deserved to come back," Knight said. "I kinda felt like they didn't keep their word, and I was sad and upset."

But Megan Buckland, who did not receive an invite back after injuring her knee in March, said she didn't think there was any guarantee made by USA Basketball. Buckland said her understanding is that once a name is in the USA Basketball system it stays there, but that nothing is guaranteed when it comes to tryouts or final teams.

"I think that some players were under the impression that just because they're invited one time they're gonna be invited every time," Buckland said. "I think that some of the players might not have been level-headed going into it."

Callan did agree that some of the terminology used could lead to some misunderstandings, something they will be more aware of with the younger groups going forward. Two key phrases are used to describe the players being in the "system." Sometimes it is referred to as the "USA developmental program" and the more accurate phrase is "developmental pipeline."

George Swain, the father of U16 Team trials invitee Kacy Swain, cited another phrase, that the players were in the "USA Basketball family," which left both he and his daughter with the feeling they would be invited back.

Callan and the rest of the selection committee, which is comprised of two AAU representatives, two high-school coaching representatives and a former player representative -- all of whom have votes on who will be invited and also who will make the team -- spent time this summer watching these players at various scholastic and non-scholastic events to determine which players to include. The target for each trial is 35 invitees, and despite the omission of these eight athletes, they have invited 37 players to this year's U17 trials.

Callan said the Federated approach to selection isn't perfect but is the best option they've found. To boot, last year was the first time FIBA had included the U16 age group so the process for this group, though just about identical to the Senior and Junior National Teams, was brand new.

"We're always trying to find the best process," Callan said.

Perhaps the misunderstanding or misinterpretations came in part because these athletes are the best in their respective regions, and most have never been cut.

One current Division I coach, who spent two years coaching with USA Basketball, said that the cut process is actually part of the development process for these athletes. The mental toughness and drive required to eventually be an Olympian requires players fighting through adversity.

Buckland is using the month of June to rehab a torn ACL, while Johnson is planning to turn the snub into extra motivation.

"I was more disappointed than frustrated," Johnson said. "But that's why I go out and play the way I play.

"People are just adding gasoline to the fire for me to play harder."

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Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. Hansen can be reached at chris.hansen@espn.com.

Lindsay Schnell is a staff writer for HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Oregon State University, she has been involved in the Oregon girls' basketball community for most her life as a player, high school coach, writer and fan. She also has been regular contributor to The Oregonian and won several awards for her writing. She can be reached at lindsay@hoopgurlz.com.