During the week of high school basketball tryouts, I was browsing through a Maine basketball website, MBR.org., and came across posts about numbers being down for tryouts at many schools, especially Class AA and A South schools.
Bangor High School had 45 players try out for its varsity boys, junior varsity and freshman teams, according to athletic director Steve Vanidestine.
Only 30 players tried out for Bangor High’s girls teams, 13 of which were freshmen, according to Vanidestine, who said that meant the Bangor girls will just have varsity and junior varsity teams.
Last year was the first time since 1984 that Bangor did not have a freshman girls team because of lack of numbers.
As a former Bangor High player, coach and athletic director, I was surprised at the low numbers.
In the 1950s, when I played at Bangor, more than 100 players tried out for the varsity and junior varsity teams. Freshmen were not then at the high school.
When I was coaching the varsity boys team at Bangor from 1969-77, there were still more than 100 players trying out for the two teams.
In the years since, there has been a steady decrease in the number of players on North basketball teams and many have dropped their freshman teams.
Here are the reasons for this decline:
— Travel programs where kids try out and some are cut, especially when these programs start at the third-grade level. Some of those players who are cut don’t return to the game.
— Playing another sport year-round.
— There are more sports being offered at the high-school level.
In the 1950s to the early 1970s, the only winter sports at most schools were basketball and cheering. Most schools now also offer indoor track, swimming, skiing, wrestling and hockey.
— Some kids start basketball too early. If kids who start playing in kindergarten or first grade have a negative basketball experience, then many never return to the game.
Some of my best players were what I called late bloomers as they didn’t start basketball until the seventh grade.
When starting the game at a young age, youth players too often play full-court. Many may become just moving spectators watching the higher skilled players.
If those responsible for starting kids at young ages would put them into half-court games of 1 on 1, 2 on 2 and 3 on 3 — with an adult being a combined coach, referee, and passer — they could have 24 kids playing at four baskets, six at each basket, instead of 10 playing at two baskets full-court.
The game can be modified by having each player touch the ball once before their team shoots unless the shot is a layup. This keeps all players involved.
Adjusting the game to the kids is better than having them adjust to the game.
Playing at one basket in the backyard was how we all started playing basketball in my day. We started when we felt we were ready not when the adults thought we should.
I started playing basketball at age 7 in the second grade by watching fifth- and sixth-graders playing at recess and at noon. Basketball fascinated me especially because you could practice all the offensive skills — shooting, dribbling, rebounding and passing (by bouncing the ball against a wall) — with just yourself, a ball and a hoop.
Given the number of other winter sports and other opportunities for young athletes today, it’s unrealistic to expect that the participation numbers return to those in my day, but providing more positive experiences could keep more kids involved in the game of basketball.