Pittsfield's Bryce Daley hopes high-level AAU basketball is ticket to success

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PITTSFIELD -- When talent collides with opportunity, a spontaneous combustion occurs that ignites dreams of a fruitful future. But that big bang doesn't come without a cost, and at the least may cast a die for a lifestyle that could shake the roots that otherwise balance the life of a normal teen of 15.

So, a family weighs risk and reward and moves forward. The teen, meanwhile, is somewhat oblivious to it all, only taking time to scan the calendar that tells him what gym in what city he will next be appearing. The rhythm of the bouncing ball is in harmony with his heart. It's really all he hears. It's all that matters, he believes.

Who will be victimized with his next three-point dagger and upon what soul will he enact his next five-star assist? In the stratified air of high-level AAU basketball, your next 12-hour bus ride and hardwood highlight is only a weekend away.

Bryce Daley has digested this menu and come to the conclusion that he wouldn't have it served any other way. "Feed me more" is the mantra for Daley, who in June finished his freshman year at Pittsfield High School.

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The Albany City Rocks have been around for two decades, and during that time have evolved into a well-respected national AAU program that is now sponsored by Nike. By the very nature and definition of that relationship, the teams in the program are expected to be successful.

Daley, a 6-foot guard, has been with the City Rocks for seven seasons. He began his tenure with the team at age 9, when he was offered a ticket into the program after trying out on a whim. Each age group through 17 is usually broken into three levels of talent, and Daley this year has been a starter on the top age-15 team.

The season runs from spring into mid-summer and the eventual goal of the City Rocks' staff is to place these elite players into college programs, hopefully Division I schools that can offer full scholarships.

Blending this keen type of individual talent while striving for a successful team strategy is the goal of AAU coaches at any level. It's what drives and inspires them, but it's also what keeps them up at night.

"The coaches do get tested," said Ralph Tucker, who is Daley's coach this year and the longest tenured City Rocks coach at 16 years. "You can get a quality kid or you can get a player who is not a good academic student and who hasn't had a good home life.

"And you have to remember that these kids are being tugged at from all sorts of directions. They are getting advice from their family, girlfriends, high school coaches and basketball peers."

About the Albany City Rocks

What:Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Formed in January 1888, as a nonprofit sports organization to promote the development of amateur sports. Designed to allow athletes the chance to compete at similar ages and developmental levels. Its motto is "Sports for All, Forever."

Who: Albany (N.Y.) City Rocks, AAU basketball program

Founded: Current City Rocks director Jim Hart and four other Albany-area high school coaches organized five AAU teams in 1993. The program is now considered to be among top 20 in the nation.

Achievements: Have helped more than 100 athletes receive full Division I basketball scholarships and placed 10 players on the roster of USA Basketball teams. City Rocks have had six members play in the NBA, including current players Jimmer Fredette of the Chicago Bulls and Andray Blatche of the Brooklyn Nets. Many Division II and III players have also come through the City Rocks' program.

Honesty, said Tucker, is the best policy in the AAU world.

"Our reputations are on the line," he said. "I don't want to add to the pressure on the players, but when we deal with college coaches we need to be honest in our assessment of the player.

"I don't mind endorsing a player who is age 15, although I make it clear that a lot can happen between that age and when they are ready to enter college. But if I think they will be a scholarship athlete, then I'll say so. It's also tough when you have to decide to ask a kid to leave the program. You hate to take something away from them."

Tucker lauded Daley's work ethic, adding that like many of his players the concept of sharing game minutes was at first against the grain for his young backcourt player.

"I tell the players that they will get minutes," Tucker said. "I also tell them to show me why I should give them a few minutes more."

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Dave Paulsen, the former Williams College head basketball coach who led the Ephs to a national Division III title in 2003 and a second-place finish in the tournament the subsequent year, has been the head coach at Division 1 Bucknell since 2008.

The AAU landscape, he said, has both strong and weak points for a college coach to consider.

"There's good AAU basketball and bad AAU basketball," Paulsen said. "But you can make the same case for high school basketball."

Still, the concept of bringing a ton of talent to one place at one time is something most college coaches are going to endorse.

"I'm in the same gym from 8 in the morning until 11 at night," said Paulsen, who played for Williams during the mid-1980s. "It's a narrow three-week window where we can actually go out and evaluate players. And these AAU tournaments give us a chance to see a player in which we have interest. We can see them play against some top competition.

"I can see Albany against Boston, Oklahoma against West Virginia, Ohio against Washington, D.C., and on and on. But the down side to all this is what I call the all-star mentality. The athletes think they have to score a lot of points to be noticed and recruited."

Jim Hart, who founded and coaches with the City Rocks, agreed that getting the players to understand the bigger picture is indeed a tough sell.

"You can average six points per game in AAU and still earn a Division I scholarship," Hart said. "You can play eight minutes per game and go to the University of North Carolina."

The on-court and off-the-court demeanor of a player, Hart said, plays a pivotal role in the recruiting process.

"College coaches are looking at these kids and asking themselves if the athlete is one they want to coach," Hart said. "If the player can clear that hurdle, then that's when the evaluation of the basketball talent begins."

Paulsen was on board with that thought. "I'm looking for those little things like defense and passing. Stuff like that can be in short supply."

Whatever the link is between recruiting and the AAU experience, it seems to be working.

"It's crazy," said Hart. "The 10th men on our elite teams are getting Division I scholarships."

Added Paulsen, "The players, though, need to remember not to lose sight of the bigger picture. The idea is to find a school that is academically and socially a good fit."

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Mike Culpo is one of the best Pittsfield roundballers you might never have seen play. The city native opted to live with a family in Albany following his freshman year at St. Joseph so that he could compete at a higher level and be part of the City Rocks' program without the added burden of travel.

It worked out just fine for Culpo, who graduated from Long Island University this past spring and was a starting guard on two successive teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament. His name may not resonate amid Berkshire County lore, but his decision paid for his college education and earned him a couple of national television appearances.

"The AAU experience opens a lot of doors," said Culpo, who played professional ball briefly with the Mississauga (Ont.) Power of the Canadian League. "I had been playing in multiple leagues in Pittsfield and Dalton when I got tuned into the City Rocks in the sixth grade. When I made the decision to live in Albany and be away from my friends and family here, it wasn't easy. But it was a family decision."

Culpo has mentored Daley on occasion, the pair swapping AAU tales of past and present.

"Bryce has put himself out there," Culpo said. "He's talented enough. That's what he should be doing."

"Mike could have been a big dog in Pittsfield," said John Scott, a City Rocks coach and former teammate of Culpo's on both the LIU and City Rocks' teams. "But he chose another route and succeeded. He had a very supportive family."

Scott, who coached Daley last year, called the AAU experience "a beautiful thing."

It can also be "an eye-opener," he added. "Especially when all of a sudden you are playing against kids your age who are doing things you still can't do."

Scott grew up in New York City and has been on the court for pickup games with the likes of current NBA stars J.R. Smith and Lance Stephenson. But unless you carry around a "stone-cold killer of a shot," the path to basketball success, he said, is going to be dedication.

"Hard work will beat talent when talent doesn't work," Scott said.

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Bryce Daley doesn't fit the typical AAU basketball profile. He's a player from a small city in rural Massachusetts. And unlike other AAU players his age, he doesn't have an entourage of physical trainers and athletic assistants.

But inside his small circle is Dave Harte Jr., who is operations manager at the Boys & Girls Club of Pittsfield. Harte Jr. is a 1990 graduate of St. Joseph, where he played basketball. His father, Dave Harte, formerly coached the Pittsfield High School team.

"I've watched Bryce grow up at the Boys Club," the younger Harte said. "I've been trying to teach him to have some fun along the way, and I think he's starting to get the message."

There was a time, Harte added, when Daley thought he could improve his game by simply engaging in pickup games, sometimes against older and better players.

"Now I'm giving him some individualized college workouts," Harte Jr. said. "I think Bryce is in a good place both mentally and physically."

Brian Sullivan can be reached at mariavicsullivan@yahoo.com.


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