If anyone is an expert on starting a successful summer basketball team, it's Jim Hart.
Hart has been a coach and president of the City Rocks summer basketball program, based in Albany, N.Y. What was once a small club team with five boys teams has grown into one of the elite summer programs in the United States. City Rocks is now sponsored by Nike and consists of 14 boys teams between the ages of 10-18 as well as two girls teams.
How did City Rocks get to this level? Hart moved to Albany from New York City and was looking to get involved in coaching back in 1993. After his first year coaching a 15-U club team, he assumed leadership of the club and slowly built it as the demand and talent level increased. City Rocks started seeing moderate success, then a little more, then even more before Nike signed them to a sponsorship contract around 2000. It's been one of the premier summer basketball teams in the country ever since.
"The program has continued to grow," Hart said. "Ours was an area that prior to us doing this, there would be one Division-I player in upstate New York every 3-4 years. Now we're getting five every year."
Hart is married with three children, and has a day job as a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley Financial. But he has seen City Rocks grow into one of the top clubs in the United States over the last 17 years. He sat down with iHoops.com to offer some advice to those who might see a market to start a summer basketball team in their hometown, as well as some insight as to how he runs his club.
What advice would you give to those who might be interested in starting a summer team in their area?
The AAU club registrations are $25. That's all it costs to register your club with AAU. Insurance is cheap, it's $12 per player, $18 a coach through AAU. It's very easy to start your own team. There's websites where you can look up your state and look up your age group and find tournaments. There are a few other websites that you can find tournaments to go to.
It's easier than ever with catalogs where you can buy some reversible mesh uniforms for cheap, get every player insured and register a club name. You can just start your own season. It's so much easier than people think. Even if you're a dad out there and your kid doesn't have a team to be on, you can start your own team. You can play with your high school guys.
What should coaches keep in mind when looking to start a team?
Some coaches just want to see their kids get better. I didn't start this with the intention to make it some national program. I started it because I like coaching and I like coaching local kids. Then we started going around and I started seeing these kids getting Division I scholarships, and our kids thought they were as good as or better than them. Upon further look, they were just getting more exposure.
Our program grew on the fact that we were getting kids a little more exposure. But now with websites and things, people are going to find you. You've got to be about teaching kids and giving them a safe environment and getting them better.
How does City Rocks treat younger players as opposed to the older, high school-aged players?
We usually encourage our younger guys who are 12 and under not to play just basketball. I told our 10-12 year old kids, if you have a little league baseball game to go to, go to that.
But once you hit 13, it's a year-round sport, just like if it's hockey or soccer. If you want to be good, you've got to play year-round.
How often are your 10-year old teams around your 17-year old teams, trying to learn from your older players?
We've got an interesting night that we do. Our first game is the Boo Williams Tournament. Our three oldest teams get on a charter bus and we leave at midnight and drive through the night. Before we leave on the bus we have a night where our 10-year old teams all the way up to the 17s show up. All the teams are there, we take team pictures, have a 3-point shooting contest, things like that.
During the year, we'll do clinics where the older kids will mentor the younger kids. I think the little kids love looking up to the older kids. It gives them something to be a part of.
What do you feel your responsibility is to the players in your program?
We try and teach our kids individual responsibility. Be responsible for your actions. We talk to them about NCAA Clearinghouse, what they're going to need to move on. We have former players coming back to speak to them.
Our responsibility to the younger kids is to help them develop and get better. To let them have a fun experience at the sport and to enjoy the game. If at the end of the season, they haven't enjoyed it, you've already failed the kids. We really do try and make it fun.
At the older levels, it's giving them as much structure as you possibly can. We practice 2-3 times a week, a little more than most. Give them enough structure and get them out there where they have a chance to showcase their skills against the best. My motto in life is that all you can really ask for in life is an opportunity that's equal to your ability. We think we can provide kids with opportunities equal to their abilities.
On a personal level, how do you find time for running a summer basketball club between your career and your family?
They always say if you want to get something done, give it to a busy man. I perform my best when I'm busy.