When a group of parents tried to convince Dickey Simpkins in 2006 to form an AAU team, he was skeptical. The AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) circuit, held in the spring and summer for high school basketball players to improve skill and increase exposure for college recruiters, was not something Simpkins wanted to get into.
Many of the programs he had seen, both in his playing days in Washington D.C. and as a development coach in Chicago, were run half-heartedly. Many programs acted more as individual showcases for star players rather than teaching athletes team unity and basketball fundamentals. Players would compete only when they wanted to, and there was little, if any, structure to many of the games.
But at the eleventh hour, Simpkins, who used three AAU area championships to earn and accept a scholarship to Providence College in 1990, had a change of heart and accepted the parents offer to start a team of his own from scratch. Six years later, National Level Performance is one of the most competitive and well-run AAU programs in Illinois.
I said the only reason Im doing this is to show how its supposed to be done, Simpkins said of his first team. I played AAU, and I took philosophies of doing things the right way and to work hard and applied it to our teams. The biggest thing was to get the right kids and show them how to play the right way.
Simpkins pieced together his first under-17 team using any and all resources, eventually placing 15, 16 and 17-year-olds together to compete that summer against Chicagos best AAU programs.
So it was only fitting that, six years later, NLPs most recent team started a 15-year-old, two 16-year-olds and two 17-year-olds on their way to a second place finish in the U17 National Championship in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
The Arkansas Wings defeated Next Level Performance-TL 53-29 on Monday in the finals.
But Simpkins noticed that team, and the other eight NLP teams that are now running, were not brought up and coached like many of the programs they defeated on their way to the championship game.
NLP functions much like a college program would, one aspect Simpkins instilled early on to prepare high school athletes for the next stage of their careers. Film sessions, individual skill development, nutritional advice and mentoring on more than just basketball has made NLP more than a team playing in tournaments across the country for national exposure.
We watch them during the high school season and see if theyre a fit for what were trying to do, that they fit the system. And what their personality looks like, if he could buy into what we do, Simpkins said. Ultimately we try to find hidden gems in the rough, which shows true development and structure of the program.
There are no lucrative shoe deals. Structured offenses include all five players and coaches form relationships with their players that last long after their time at NLP is finished. Simpkins wanted his program to be more than a stepping stone from high school to college.
When they finish I want to make sure I see theyve improved on the court and off it, that theyve grown into a young man and matured with skill development, Simpkins said. And the other part is seeing them buy in to what we try to do to help us win.
And win they have.
Teaching defense first, then transition offense and structured half-court sets, NLP has placed six times in national tournaments and produced more than 30 college players in the six years since Simpkins founded the program. Brandon Paul, a former Mr. Basketball in Illinois and current shooting guard at the University of Illinois, was part of Simpkins first team as a 15-year-old sophomore.
And this years championship runner-up team should add to that list of college athletes.
6-foot junior point guard Jordan Johnson (Waukegan H.S.) has strong interest from Bowling Green, Eastern Illinois and Loyola.6-foot-1 sophomore shooting guard Jevon Carter (Proviso East H.S.) has scholarship offers from Illinois State, Kent State and Mercer.Sophomore power forward Evan Boudreaux (Lake Forest H.S.) has offers from Northwestern and Boston College.Small forward Kurt Hall (Proviso East H.S.) has interest from Oregon State, Iowa, Boise State and Virginia Tech.The six-year NBA veteran from 1994 to 2000 is involved with the recruiting process, giving college coaches insight and scouting reports to potential recruits. That, for Simpkins, is the end result of the additional work he and his staff put in during practice and off the court during springs and summers.
The end result, the icing on the cake is the scholarship offer, Simpkins said. At the end of the day this is why Im helping these kids. And it pays off.
The philosophies Simpkins has brought to Next Level Performance have been instrumental in building a strong foundation to the program. Those ideas stem from his AAU playing days in Washington, D.C., and from his mentor and coach, Tony Watkins, who stressed team unity amongst all players and coaches.
After games, Simpkins said, When we bring it in we say, we win as a family, we lose family, and at the end of the day we are a family.