Mickey Walker recalls a time when scores of college recruiters huddled in Buffalo to catch a glimpse of Western New York prospects Cliff Robinson, Keith Robinson and Christian Laettner at an AAU basketball tournament.
That was nearly 30 years ago and Walker, still going strong with his Syracuse-based Upstate Basketball Club, misses the days when Buffalo had a steady stream of Division I prospects.
"You always saw the coaches there and that was the biggest thing," said Walker, whose list of former players includes NBA stars Elton Brand and John Wallace. "Back then there would be 60 or more Division I coaches at these tournaments. Now you don't get any of that."
Undeniably, the list of Division I talent around Western New York has become a short one in recent years with some pointing to the lack of a strong AAU program as one of the primary reasons.
It wasn't that long ago -- 2004-05 to be exact -- that the All-Western New York pool was so deep that future NBA lottery pick Jonny Flynn couldn't crack the first team of Paul Harris (Syracuse), Greg Gamble (Buffalo), Rob Garrison (Connecticut/Niagara), Rodney Pierce (Rider/UB) and Ray Blackburn (St. Bonaventure). One common theme from that group is they are former members of Jeff Bishop's G.C. Ballers program, the last to have a strong AAU presence in Western New York.
"I know how much AAU helped those guys," said Jason Rowe, the former Traditional guard who played for Walker and has enjoyed a lengthy pro career in Europe. "Look at them now."
Now fast forward to last spring, where the only potential Division I prospect among the 20-man All-WNY team was freshman guard Sterling Taplin from Williamsville North.
A perfect storm -- although some would consider it imperfect -- left AAU basketball in Western New York nearly barren when Bishop, Reggie Witherspoon and Fajri Ansari departed the scene. Witherspoon ran the Athletes Committed to Excellence program for eight years before taking the head coaching job at the University at Buffalo in 1999; Ansari, who along with Walker ran the Upstate Basketball Club, took a job at Buffalo State. Bishop left for a coaching job in North Carolina in 2007.
"When that ended, that was it," Walker said. "There were no more AAU programs and all you have are AAU teams."
The difference between those teams and a program like the Ballers is: The Ballers were a constant, playing and practicing all spring and summer year-in and year-out while the current teams play irregularly and often don't last from one year to the next.
Since the Ballers dissolved, Buffalo, the second-largest city in the state, has failed to develop the number of Division I college basketball players proportionate to its size. Nichols School's Will Regan signed with Virginia in 2010 and in April former McKinley star Mansa Habeeb announced he was headed to Idaho. Former Sweet Home standout Keron Briggs signed with South Carolina State.
"I know Reggie and the other Division I coaches in the area get a hard time about not recruiting players from the area," Ansari said. "But where are the players for them to recruit?"
Perhaps there is a dearth of talent but it isn't by happenstance that the limited number of Division I signees coincides with the departure of Bishop.
Not everyone is convinced Buffalo doesn't have the athletes. Flynn and Traditional's Lazar Haywood played in the NBA last season and Riverside's Mike Williams is a key member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In basketball, minus a strong AAU program in the area, skill development is wanting.
"The financial commitment parents have to make to the kids has to be for a tournament for them to play in, not skill development," said Rob Norris, the associate head coach at Canisius College and a former player under Walker. "The game has progressed in terms of athletic ability but I don't think the skill level is as close as it used to be."
There are many aspects of AAU basketball that deserve criticism. The ethos centers on unrestrained individual play over team play while skill development is lacking because playing games is overemphasized. Shoe companies have sponsored AAU teams as a way to cultivate early relationships with potential NBA prospects and some of the nation's top talent is bought and sold to the highest bidder.
But because Western New York has never been a recruiting hotbed, AAU provides an element that the area's top players need: exposure.
"Basically if you're in Buffalo and you're a Division I kid and you don't play AAU, the only way you would ever be seen is if by chance some [college] coach is driving down the Thruway, his car breaks down and he's a block away from your gym," Walker said. "He didn't have anything to do so he walked over to the gym. How often is that going to happen?"
Regan, for one, didn't stick around to find out. He elected to play for Albany City Rocks, whose alumni include Jimmer Fredette, who last month was drafted by the NBA's Sacramento Kings, and Tobias Harris, the No. 19 pick overall by Charlotte. After accepting a scholarship to Virginia, Regan has since transferred to UB.
"He played on an AAU team that traveled all over the country," Walker said. "Obviously he did well enough that the coach comes in from Virginia and takes him."
Playing against quality competition is critical, Walker said, because college coaches cannot afford too many missteps in recruiting.
"These are high-paying jobs and literally millions of guys want them," he said. "If a kid from Buffalo isn't Cliff Robinson good or Christian Laettner good, nobody is going to drive up to there to watch them. Without AAU, who's going to see these guys?"
Exposure to college recruiters and high-level competition certainly helped Rowe, who graduated from Traditional in 1995, and came from a class that produced future NBA All-Stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Stephon Marbury and Chauncey Billups.
"AAU ball helped me tremendously because I played against good competition consistently as opposed to a camp where you go against good competition for a couple of days," Rowe said. "One weekend I'm going up against Stephon Marbury and the next weekend I'm going against another point guard who is in the top five in the country."
Harris was the Ballers' centerpiece during its heyday and recruiters took notice of Hayward, Gamble, Flynn and the others. It was one thing to see Flynn go up against Lewiston-Porter but when he kept pace with Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo and others from the Class of 2007, it was clear Flynn was an All-American. AAU tournaments are a good measuring stick for recruiters as well.
"It makes it tough because if you see a player in high school and he's a really good player around here but if you're not able to see him play against other good players, it's tough to tell the difference sometimes," Norris said.
Droughts often run in cycles but there's a strong belief that players aren't as dedicated as they were during the days of Robinson and Laettner.
Ansari tells a funny story about overhearing a conversation about hoops between some youngsters at a local Red Lobster.
"My ego isn't big enough to say I know all the best players in the area but the way they were talking I thought they were great players," he said. "One said, 'Remember when I crossed you over and dunked on you?' The other one said, 'But remember when I gave you that three?' "
Ansari soon learned they were talking about playing an NBA 2K video game on Xbox 360 and were at Red Lobster for the -- get this -- postgame meal.
"That's what we're dealing with nowadays," Ansari said, laughing. "And people wonder why there isn't much talent around here."