Even to a casual observer, the ever-growing popularity of the NBA and the wild enthusiasm that greets college basketball’s March Madness every year testify to the sport’s astronomical cultural and monetary influence in American culture, rivaling if not surpassing football and baseball. But even the most dedicated fans of the game are probably only vaguely aware of the role of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in the mix. Mike Nicoll’s documentary will certainly rectify that.
“At All Costs” is basically an account of how the AAU, originally begun as a “grassroots” organization promoting club teams to play outside the regular public school system, has become the major recruiting device for college basketball coaches, who by and large now observe prospective court stars not at high school games but AAU tournaments, which are regularly held during the summer months and sponsored by athletic shoe companies—Nike and Adidas—that also underwrite the expenses of teams they contract with, supplying gear and other considerations. Though high school and college players aren’t paid to play, as a result of the AAU dominance in recruiting the line between amateur and professional is becoming increasingly blurred, with kids in their mid-teens effectively playing and practicing year-round in hopes of completing the three-step ladder of AAU-college-NBA.
Nicoll makes the point without preaching. He simply follows the process unfolding over several years, inserting clips of interviews from a few select people, though others are included to a lesser degree along the way. (Not interviewed, however, are the college coaches, who are glimpsed watching AAU tournament play but remain tantalizingly out of reach. The film does, however, contain observations on how the process operates through comments by legendary player-coach Rudy Tomjanovich, as well as sports commentators and authors, many from ESPN, who are especially critical of the ranking systems that have sprung up to identify players with the greatest potential.)
Among those players the one who eventually becomes Nicoll’s focus is Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who currently plays on the Arizona Wildcats squad. Nicoll follows him during his years as point guard on the Loyola high school team in Los Angeles and the AAU California Supreme, watching him travel from tournament to tournament, giving virtually his all to basketball. But while clips of him on the court are numerous, he speaks directly to the camera only occasionally (as do a few other players); it’s his father Ramon who contributes most of the family interview segments. He’s a more than committed parent, pushing his son through the rough patches—including a couple of injuries that might have been career-ending—and unabashedly describing the AAU as a route to a college scholarship and perhaps an NBA draft pick. One gets the feeling that he’s living vicariously through his sons—not only Parker but his older brother Miles, also a court star but one who, Ramon seems to feel, didn’t get as far as he might have because they didn’t understand the ropes when he was a teen. Still, Nicoll doesn’t judge; he lets the man speak for himself.
On the other side of the coin we’re introduced to Etop Udo-Ema, the head honcho of the Compton Magic, one of the most successful of the AAU club teams. A loquacious, hard-driving fellow, he’s as insistent about his affection for his players (he’s shown advising erstwhile Arizona player Gabe York about his college choices) as he is about his skill at “networking,” which has not only enabled him to attract players from all over the region but to secure corporate sponsorship—something he needs victories to keep maintain in order, as he puts it, to maintain his “brand.”
Nicoll’s film isn’t the last word in polish, but with the footage edited smoothly by Evan Schrodek, it does the job of shining a light on the culture of the AAU as one cog in a basketball machine that’s increasingly focused at all levels on money, whether it be from the perspective of players (or players’ families) or that of the “establishment”—the AAU club operators, the college coaches, and the NBA scouts. And while “At All Costs” doesn’t present itself as a critical expose, particularly when it shows a tired, vaguely depressed Jackson-Cartwright talking about the schedule he’s trying to maintain, it inevitably leads to the conclusion that these young kids are being pressured to perform at unreasonable levels to serve others’ purposes rather than their own.
But perhaps that’s merely the way that the profit motive has come to dominate the game at all stages, a story of capitalism in action. “At All Costs” has a very different vibe from “Hoop Dreams,” the ultimate basketball documentary, which was released in 1994, a year before the Compton Magic was founded. As Nicoll’s film shows, it represented an era in high school athletics that has pretty much passed. Basketball is now a business that starts with five or six-year olds to produce the lucky few who will make it to the pros, and the AAU is an integral part of the process.
And simple love of the game? Well, you can’t have everything.