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Bob Bigelow Talks Travel Teams and Cutting Players

Part three of a series on Bigelow's visit.

In parts one and two of my series on Bob Bigelow’s youth sports seminar in Farmington, I covered his thoughts on winning, parents, and coaching.

Bob Bigelow is not a man who snatches thoughts or statements out of thin air. He is not afraid to smash in the walls of the establishment.

Bigelow began the segment with a quick overview of puberty.

“Girls, on average, hit puberty at 11-11 ½, boys about a year and a half later – 13. However girls can get there at 9 and boys at 16,” he says.

One of his favorite statements of all-time comes from an old friend who is a middle school principal – 6th, 7th, and 8th-graders. “Bob,” he told him, "I am in charge of a school of 6 foot girls and 4 foot boys. I have 8th grade girls who look like college freshman and 6th-grade boys who look like 2nd grade boys and everywhere in between. Go to their dances, it’s hilarious."

Bigelow laughs at the disparity and says, “That’s the way it is and someone thinks that they know good athletes – RIGHT NOW with these kids. And they’re like all sizes and it’s all hilarious.”

Almost as if to cover every possible situation, Bigelow acknowledges the sports where talent can be discovered pre-pubescent: female figure skaters and gymnasts fall into that small percentage of athletes.

He explains how football is the latest blooming sport of all as speed and size are two of the factors needed and often we cannot tell if players will be successful until way into their teen years.

Bob mentions his sport, basketball, as another late blooming sport because it “tends to be populated by tall people.” He notes that, “Middle school basketball is almost always a small kid’s sport – soccer kids. They are built low to the ground, they change direction better, they dribble – and no one jumps in middle school anyways. It’s not a big kids sport.” He says that big kids take over a little later when they get some coordination. “I know better than anyone. I didn’t get mine until well into high school.”

Bigelow reiterates there are lots of late blooming sports out there. And then he looks over the crowd and says, “Now ask yourself a question: Why are we in such a darn hurry to figure out who our better athletes are when they are ten years old – or eight? All we can do is somehow look at them and we can rank current relative ability of 4’7”, 80 lbs. kids. That’s all it is. It means nothing for the future. They’ve got so far to grow physically.”

Bill Russell, one of the most successful and perhaps the greatest basketball player ever was 5’10” as a 15-year-old high school sophomore. He was the 16th kid on a 15-man JV team. He made the team only because the coach liked him. He never played that year. Two years later he was 6’8”, 165 lbs. After four years of college he’d won 60 straight games and 2 NCAA titles. Now he was 6’10” and on his way to winning an Olympic gold medal and then played for the Celtics winning 11 NBA championships in 13 years.

Now for the first spear – it’s in the form of an interesting thought: Bigelow ponders the possibility that a 5’10” sophomore, Bill Russell and a 5’9”, 155 lbs. sophomore, Michael Jordon could have walked into a local varsity high school tryout and neither would have made 85-90% of the teams in this country. “And these are the two best ever,” he says.

“So then why are we so worried about the athletic future of our 13, 11, and 7-year-olds? We shouldn’t be because they have so far to go… so far to go. Our systems legislate against later blooming kids because we are too darn interested in the early bloomers.”

And then Bigelow was ready for the climax of his talk, “The single most combustible, reprehensible concept in all of organized youth sports – defined as follows: The segmentation, the classification, the ranking, the evaluation of children’s athletic abilities at ages in sports. It goes by concepts – most of you have already heard them by now: travel teams; select teams; all-star teams; 1-2-3s; A-B-Cs; intergalactic; whatever.  

The Opus: He got a call one night to ref a game between the kids in his hometown who had made the travel teams. There were 30 sixth-grade boys. Bigelow asked how many tried out. He was told 37, seven were cut. He asked what the seven who were cut were told. They were told which skills that they could improve upon and to come back next year as 7th-graders and tryout again.

“They could play in the recreational league once a week as opposed to the travelers who were playing 18 games a week for eighteen weeks. A fair and equitable system,” Bob smirks.

During the game, he thought mostly of the seven kids who got cut. Afterwards he asked the coaches if they knew of his background. They knew he was a former NBA player and current NBA scout. He told them to forget about all of that. Did any of them have any idea how much time he’d spent in the gym with 6th-graders over the past 20-plus years of his life. “Way too much time,” he told them. “Even after two days of watching them; the best I could tell you was the 5, 6 or 7 least-worst players on the floor.

Bigelow: “Guys, I can watch these players for the next 2-3 hours – maybe the next 2-3 days and I couldn’t tell the difference between any of them – you know why – because they all stink. How did you cut seven of those kids who stink? What possible criteria could you have used to lop them off your precious travel teams? Guys, I do know this, every one of your sons made the team."

He looks his audience over, “You want your kid to make the Travel Team? Coach the team. You’re not going to cut your kid or your three best friend’s kids – either. Politics – politics – politics.”

Bigelow: Addressing the coaches again – “It’s 1992; 27 years ago I would have been one of these kids out here, a sixth-grader. I thank the lucky stars that in 1965 there was not this… garbage travel crap.”

The audience was silent. "If, in 1965, I had been evaluated by a Real Estate Agent/Lawyer/Accountant/I have no idea what you do for a living; it’s very possible that you would have cut me. And do you know who you would have cut? The single greatest basketball player in the history of this town, by far – one of 12 first round NBA draft choices in the history of the state of Massachusetts – and one of fewer than 1000 in the history of the world. And in 1965 as a 6th grader, I would have been cut by a Real Estate Agent." 

Next week in the final installment: Now what?

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