Editor's note: Little Ballersdebuts Wednesday, February 25, at 9 p.m. during the NickSports block on Nicktoons.
The new documentary Little Ballers follows a New York team as it competes at the AAU National Championships. Along the way we meet the talented fifth graders on the squad and hear pros like the Thunder's Russell Westbrook, Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, and Tyson Chandler of the Mavericks talk about their days playing AAU ball.
Little Ballers will premiere on the NickSports Block on Nicktoons during the All-Star Break. But for our November NBA Preview issue, SI KIDS spoke with Chandler about the movie and his AAU experience.
How did you get involved with this documentary?
It was presented to me when I was in New York, and I watched a little of it and I thought it was an incredible idea to spotlight youth sports and especially the AAU world.
Why did you think AAU was something important to be spotlighted?
There's a lot of positives surrounding it, and there can also be some negatives. And I felt that, especially watching the team and watching youngsters go through the struggles and the ups and downs and everything that's involved with it, I thought it would be a great education for parents who were thinking about putting their child in AAU or any other sport.
Did watching it bring up any memories of when you played as a kid?
Yeah, absolutely. Dealing with the practices, the competition, traveling, everybody getting in that van and going to fast food restaurants and stuff like that in between games and playing three, four games a day, definitely sparked a lot of memories.
Do you have a favorite memory from your days playing AAU ball?
I think just the camaraderie. Being that age, being so innocent, strictly being about basketball, being able to travel with your teammates. It was my first time ever getting on a plane. My AAU team kind of broke down a lot of barriers for me.
How did you change as a player and as a person going through the AAU experience?
I think I realized the game and basketball world was much bigger than what I envisioned, especially at that age where it was just the local talent and you played at the local rec center. And then all of a sudden playing on the AAU team where all of a sudden I was playing against top players in Florida and Chicago and in New York and hearing about all these other incredible teams. So it really opened my eyes.
How has AAU changed or grown since you played? It seems like it's gotten pretty big.
Yeah, I was going to say, it's just so big now. There's AAU teams all over the place. There's so many kids and so much talent. I think the biggest way it's changed is just it's huge now. It seems like it's grown so much.
Do you think it's a good thing or a bad thing that kids who are maybe, like, 10, 11 years old are facing such a competitive environment at an age when they should maybe be focused on developing their game?
You know, I think with anything, you've got to weigh the pros and the cons. I think that goes for anything in life. And it's all about just the structure. And, you know, development of the child. I think it's really important that parents are involved. I don't think you can just place your child in a situation like that and just let them be. I think it's very important that you gauge and pay attention to your child's mental growth as well as how they're dealing with playing competitive sports. Is this a positive or a negative? I think every child is different. So I think it's up to the parent to pay attention to that.
Something you say in the film is that it's important for kids to enjoy the game and not let it become a job. How can kids do that when there's so much pressure on them to focus so intensely on just one thing like basketball?
I think that's when parents and the adults surrounding kids come into play. A lot of times we can be the ones who are putting so much pressure on the child, putting that into the child's mind. I was speaking to children when I was doing that interview because I wanted them to really take that in and understand that. But I think the bigger picture is for the adults that are around to make sure and understand that these kids are not professionals. So they shouldn't feel the pressure of feeling like it's do or die or win or lose and that's it. At the end of the day, it's a game and it's an enjoyable game and that's what it should be for them. And although I feel like it's healthy for a child to experience competitive nature and sports and sports camaraderie and all the positives you can learn from that, I think it's also important for adults that we share with them that it is a game and it is a fun-loving game and it can be used as a tool for all of those positive things.
What advice would you give to a kid who maybe has a parent or a coach who's a little too intense and wants to sort of push back a little bit but not end up having a bad rep as a result?
I think, and I tell my children this all time, if they're playing a sport, it's about them. It's not about me. And so, you know, when they're playing, I want them to always enjoy it for themselves. And if they're never not enjoying it, then they shouldn't be doing it. I think it's important for a child to understand that. He's playing this game for his enjoyment, not anybody else's. That's really difficult for a child, especially to communicate that to an adult. But I think the biggest thing is that they're playing for themselves and not for anybody else.
As a pro, how do you make sure you keep enjoying it and don't lose sight of that?
Instead of concentrating on all the surrounding distractions, I concentrate on the game. I fell in love with the game at an early age because of the competitive nature of the game and the camaraderie. And just something that you can work on as an individual to build your skill set. And I fell in love with that. Being able to wake up every day and find a way to get better, no matter how that is. So, day-to-day I focus on that rather than everything that comes along with success as a professional, whether it's the criticism or the glory. I focus on the day-to-day.
Photos: courtesy FYI Brand Communications (Little Ballers), LM Otero/AP Photo (Chandler)