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Interview with Ed Sockwell

Sockwell, Ed
Weisbrunch, Linda
Felkner, Peter
Date of Interview: 
youth basketball; competitive pressure; academics and sports; amateur athletics; sports leagues; coaching; race and sports; race relations; parental involvement in sports; high school basketball; funding and volunteer support for recreational leagues; Title IX.
Ed Sockwell, a former college basketball player and parent, discusses the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and recreational youth basketball in Charlotte. The first team of the Charlotte Sonics, a recreational team formed by Sockwell and two friends, began with the purpose of improving coaching and augmenting playing opportunities for their sons. This small traveling team, composed of the founders' children and their friends, eventually affiliated with the AAU and by 1993, became a racially integrated organization that offered playing opportunities for children of various ages from throughout Charlotte. Sockwell, the part-time volunteer Executive Director of the AAU in Charlotte, talks about requirements of the AAU to operate effectively, including funding, community volunteers and parental support. He discusses the ups and downs of preparing to play basketball at the college level; the competitive pressures, academic requirements, and parents who live vicariously through their children's athletic experiences. He also discusses the AAU's successes and role as a positive influence in the community.
Charlotte, North Carolina; 1978-1993
Interview Setting: 
In Ed Sockwell's office, Charlotte, NC
Levine Museum of the New South, Basketball Series
Interview Audio: 
ES (Ed Sockwell): There was women's basketball but it was played down in a little teeny gym at the end of the campus, and nobody knew who was on the team and nobody cared. While in the, in the county level the girls' games were before boys' games, and they were important. So the same thing was true in Greensboro. That is, that apparently it was here in Charlotte. And now girls' basketball is big again.
PF (Peter Felkner): Yeah, well it's going to undergo a lot of changes with this Title IX stuff that's coming in. So, like it's a big issue right now. Women's athletics is a, is kind of a hot topic in historical circles as well as in NCAA circles so.
ES: Uh-hum.
PF: And African American athletics is a hot topic. And not only that there are so many African Americans playing but stereotypes are revolving around especially basketball players you know. That African Americans could only be athletes and not scholars or something like that.
ES: Uh-hum.
PF: So that's an issue that we need, that we want to address and challenge.
ES: Well.
PF: Also--.
ES: How much do you know about what's going on in AAU do you know anything?
PF: I don't know much so I need a background.
ES: OK. I mean I'm not the final authority but I can, I can probably talk I guess as knowledgably as anybody around here about it. Let, let's, let me talk about the Sonics because that's the AAU organization that I'm involved in and, and, and we can get some AAU history obviously out of it. I guess there's been an AAU for a long, long time. I mean there was a AAU basketball when I was growing up. It was big guys who were out of college and were playing AAU ball rather than playing professional ball. And certainly AAU has been involved in track and field and boxing and things like that for years and years and years. I think in terms of the youth part of AAU, I believe that started in the early 80s. I mean we're not far off. The first time it appeared in Charlotte was in 1983. I might be off a year but that's close. The tricky thing about dealing with AAU is that there's not a really an AAU in the sky anywhere in the sense that you might think there is. There is what's called AAU house in Indianapolis, which is as best as I can tell a relatively small office. They have a an executive director and a staff of probably six or eight people and it could be smaller than that. It's, it's a relatively small organization with I assume a relatively small budget. The way AAU at least on the, the part that I'm familiar with it functions is communities have a club. They put together their, in our case the Mecklenburg Youth Sports Club which sponsors the Charlotte Sonics. A group of individuals get together and they form a club and then you make application to the AAU in North Carolina which is again a volunteer person who does this because he's interested in sports and he sanctions you, it's just a sheet of paper and he signs it and you send him fifteen dollars and you're in AAU. And then you put together your team and there is a state championship in AAU and if you win at the state level then you go play in a national tournament. But again there's very, very little structure. There are, there are broad guidelines about participation in terms of age and, and various things. But I guess the easiest way to say is that if a state has a good person, an interested person and an enthusiastic person in charge of the sanctioning and he puts out a lot of propaganda and gets a lot of teams together, you might have a strong AAU program as states like Indiana and Louisiana and, and the area around Memphis has very, very strong AAU people. In North Carolina it's been very fragmented. There is, there are a right many clubs in this general part of the world most of whom grew out of the fact that we started here, when we started there was only I think in the first state tournament there were only three teams. And it seems to me there was a team from Charlotte and one from Statesville and one from Concord and that was it. So, but by virtue of, of the Sonics kind of having a program and building it, other teams have sprouted up and now there were a hundred sixty or seventy teams that participated in AAU basketball in North Carolina this year. But I, I give you that background just, you know you have the picture of, oh well it's like the NCAA and there's a big guy in Kansas City that runs all this and he's got a big salary and a big budget and lots of staff, that's not the case. It's really a do it yourself kind of a situation. About the only contact we ever have with the national is that if we wanted to have a tournament we have to get sanctioning from them, which again is just a few little goodies you have to do and send them a hundred and fifty dollars. We also buy our insurance for the kids through the national which I assume is the way they, they charge us twelve dollars I suspect it's a six dollar thing and they scrape six dollars off the top and that's how they get their budget. I mean that's, that's the only contact we ever have with the national. Other than in the summer if we go to the national tournament they quote run it, but really they don't run it. They will sell the rights of that to Charlotte, North Carolina, to some group of people. They will put the whole tournament on. The AAU will have a representative there and so again I, I just give you that background because most people always ask me, well, what is AAU? Well I, it's hard for me to tell you what AAU is. It's, it's a, it sounds like a big deal but it, it, it really is not. I mean we go to national tournaments and various parts of the country have great strong feels and strong teams and a lot of interest. Texas for example practically never even sends a team to the nationals. I mean if they do they're horrible. I mean they've got five little white kids and one set of uniforms and no balls and they just wanted to go to Seattle for the summer or something, so that's where that's the deal. But as far as the Sonics which is not the only AAU club now in Charlotte. You should, you should also know that over the years there have been a couple of other little clubs. One called the Shockers that's kind of kids out around South Park. There's an organization here called the Royals that has teams in most age groups. Concord has a program, there's one out in Davidson around the YMCA out there but I, I think in terms of a program that, that covers all of the community and has a couple of hundred kids in it, ours is probably the only one, certainly the only one with that many teams. And certainly the one that's been in existence the longest.
PF: The Sonics.
ES: Right the Sonics. Sponsored by the Mecklenburg Youth Sports Club. We started in 1982 and it was the typical way these things start I'm sure. Well, let me back up we started really in 1978 when three fellows a guy named Olin Broadway, who's the fellow who started Broadway and Seymour here, and a guy named Dwight Westler who is a partner in a, in a manufacturers rep. firm called Brown and Morrison and I all had kids that were playing Y basketball. And they were getting ready they were coming of the age. They were then nine and ten, you were, they were the fourth or fifth grade and beginning to look towards junior high school. And we realized that the, being a junior high coach or for that matter a high school coach in North Carolina is not a very prestigious job. They have a very difficult time finding junior high school coaches. If you ask any principal they don't pay them, there's not much of a supplement. It's a pain in the ass job, you're there three or four extra hours every day. It goes on for three or four months and they pay them 600, 800 dollars. I mean if you put them on an hour basis it's not, it's no way it's worth doing it. But, so consequently the people that coached junior high basketball were frequently math teachers or history majors or whatever, people that might not have ever played basketball, or for that matter any sport, occasionally. As opposed to Indiana where junior high basketball coaching is very important because it's the stepping stone to be a high school basketball coach which is a fifty, sixty, seventy thousand dollar job in Indiana. I mean it is a big job and a very prestigious job everybody in the community you know basketball is big. So when we started looking at the people that were coaching basketball and high school and all three of these fathers had played college basketball. We thought gosh, our sons aren't going to have very good instruction, what to do? So our thought was well, we'll put together a little traveling team and we'll play some games that supplement the Y program. We'll go, there were, there were traveling teams in Greensboro and Martinsville and Beckley and other places that we had heard about and so we began to, to take our kids to play on in these little weekend games and other cities. And we did that through 1978, '79, '80 and '81. And then the AAU thing, somehow along the way we heard about it. So again, it may have been started in other states before '81. But as far as I know in North Carolina it was '81. So we entered our team in the AAU tournament and as I said there were two or three other teams and you know we quote were the state champions and, and so it really was fathers and their kids and friends of those kids. The next year we actually sent one of those teams to the nationals and we quickly learned that we were baby food. I mean that there were, there were people out there that were recruiting kids from throughout the community and maybe even throughout the state and they were--. I mean the first time we went we, I forget we lost the first game by 50 or 60 points. I mean it was disaster. Well, what we did go to South Bend at Notre Dame was where it was held and it was a lot of teams there and it was a real eye opener. So, we came back and gradually over a couple of year period we widened the outreach from just our sons to kids that were playing junior highball all through Charlotte. And we may have gone from, as our kids got to be thirteen or fourteen, one father would stay down with the thirteens and the next team would go to fourteens and then the next year, so we kind of grew from one to two to three teams. And somewhere in the process, at that point you could say the only reason for having the Sonics was for the benefit of our kids having a chance to play more basketball. But, at some point we I think realized that gosh, there, there had to be more to this than, than just our own kids and, and we had gotten more kids and we had to reach out to get better players to, to be competitive. We hit upon the idea that we needed to tie this basketball thing to, to academics. There needed to be an academic component. So we put in a policy, which said that you couldn't be a Sonic unless you had a 2.0. And there was no 2.0 thing at that time for colleges. It was just a number we picked. I mean it was a C average is what we called it then. And so again, through the passage of time we went from one team to three teams to the point now where we have twelve teams. And they compete. We have kids try out as young as seven or eight. The first time that you can really be on a team is when you're ten. We have teams in eleven, twelve, thirteen all the way up to nineteen and under. Essentially our youngest kids are fifth graders and our oldest kids are seniors in high school. And each age group has one or two teams. In the younger age groups, we normally keep two teams because we may have as many as a hundred kids will come to try out for this quote one team. So, the last couple of years we started keeping two groups usually fifteen on each team so we're, we have positions for approximately thirty kids out of the eighty to a hundred that will try out. We do that in elevens, twelves, thirteens and fourteens. When they get up to fifteen, now you're talking about kids who are ninth graders mostly getting ready to go to high school. And by that time there's more emphasis on, on being really competitive at the national level. Plus you also it's easier to tell who the really best twelve players in Charlotte are. It's not so easy when they are ten because a kid may improve in three weeks so much that he could go from being the fifteenth player to the best player. So we've, we've evolved to the point where there are a couple of hundred kids involved. Each team will have two or three coaches. None of them are fathers, that's a prohibition. You can't be a father. You must be gainfully employed outside of basketball. You don't have to have played college basketball, but most of our coaches have played a lot of basketball, if not at the college level they've played a lot in high school and have continued to play recreational and are interested in the game. The mix of our kids is, I mean we don't keep exact numbers and I guess maybe we ought to but, but just by visually looking I would say we probably, seventy percent of our kids are black and thirty percent are white and that's a rough number. Some teams are about fifty-fifty other teams are ninety-five, five so it, we don't have any racial quotas. We'd, we'd like, we'd like to have a, a mix on each team, because we've found that it's--. We think that it's great for these kids to do things together and I think the parents that have been involved would tell you it's a benefit for the, these kids mixing up and traveling together and--, but the fact is that the black kids are better basketball players at an early age than the white kids. And they're, they're stronger. They're physically more aggressive and they're bigger. They get hair under their arm earlier. I mean that's an observation. I can't prove that, but they just seem to mature a little earlier. So what happens is the younger teams particularly tend to be a little bit harder for a white kid to make it and I think the same thing, I don't know this happens in junior high school. And so a lot of the white kids get pushed out of the program when they're younger. As they catch up in maturity which I, which I think happens when they're fifteen or sixteen years old. Lots of times the white kids are already playing soccer or something else. So, at least in our program the mix has gone from being a hundred percent white to now it's, it's now probably as I said about a seventy, thirty. But anyway, each team has two or three coaches. Each team has an academic coordinator that person's only responsibility is to work with the kids, to collect their report cards, to be in touch with their guidance counselor, to work with if, if the child is having a problem, to be involved with his teacher, principal. To coordinate getting tutors and, and like anything it's the old eighty-twenty rule. You've got eighty percent of the kids doing fine and if they are not A students or B students they have a good solid B, C and you'll usually have about two or three on each team who have problems and who need a lot of care and feeding. And as you might also guess these kids tend to live in Dalton Village, or Earle Village or Boulevard Homes. There's no father in the home. I'm talking about the at-risk kids. There's no father in the home and lots of times the mother has got so many things going on to keep her head above water that she's either doesn't care or doesn't, is not very interested. And so we spend a lot of time with a few kids on each team. And our, I guess what's happened over the years is that probably academics has gotten to be, and, and all that goes with that, deportment and learning how to communicate and how to dress and how to be on time and how to grow up and be a young man has gotten to be the primary focus of what we do. We still have to have good uniforms and good teams or kids won't want to be on the Sonics. It's kind of, we say we use basketball as a hook. If, if we were lousy and lost every year none of the kids would want to be on the Sonics. Or if we had awful uniforms, or if we didn't take nice trips and do fun things we couldn't get the kids hooked. But, what we're really trying to do is to graduate at least ten or twelve kids every year out of our program and into college. And we've had at least nine kids go to college each of the last four years. We've got sixty-three kids right now that are in college somewhere in a one to five year program because sometimes they end up being there five years. Our first couple of Sonics, the three kids who originally started Broadway, Westler and Sockwell all graduated this past June. And two of them are, one of them is teaching, one of them is in a bank training program and one of them is doing an internship here. So our very first three kids have come out of the program they're of course they're not very good examples but we have the, the first group of kids that are drawn from a more wider cross section of Charlotte are now seniors in college and will all be graduating this June. And there are, I think there are five of those and then. Gradually, as you go back to the freshman class this past fall, we had eleven years go and the year before we had ten. So what we're, what we're about is trying to get these kids prepared athletically so that they're good enough to play at the college level. Now all these kids don't go on basketball scholarships. Lots of them are going on other scholarships. And some of them their parents are helping them pay. But what we are trying to say to these, and we start talking about it when they're ten years old, is that chances are you're not going to play in the NBA I don't care how good you are. Chances are you're going to need to get a job somebody. And in order to do that in this day and time you need to get a college education. And the way you get a college education is you get your grades in shape, you do well on the SAT's which we have tutorials for, and you get your life together. You develop study habits and you learn how to communicate with people, and you be respectful, and you keep your nose clean, and I mean that's, that's kind of what this has, has ended being as far as the Sonics. Now if you asked the typical kid that, he's going to tell you it's basketball, and--.
LW (Linda Weisbrunch): Are you the turkey person?
PF: Yeah.
LW: I know Ed's the tuna person.
ES: Yeah I'm the tuna person. And what do we have in the way of beverages?
LW: Well you're going to have apple juice right?
ES: Correct.
LW: And you want it to be room temperature.
ES: I don't care it doesn't matter.
LW: Because you can have either one.
ES: I'll have that.
LW: We have ice if you want to--.
ES: I'll have it just room temperature. And Peter this is Linda Weisbrunch.
LW: Hello, Peter.
LW: Peter Felkner.
PF: It's nice to meet you.
ES: Peter Felkner.
LW: It's nice to meet you too.
ES: Peter's going to have a coke if we have one.
LW: OK, I'll be right back.
ES: She's got it.
LW: OK, that's that and that's you. Regular coke or diet coke.
PF: Regular, if you have it.
LW: OK, we do.
ES: High octane.
LW: Now did you want ice?
ES: That's fine, this is great just the way it is. Thanks very much.
LW: Now do you want a little glass for it?
ES: No, we're fine. So anyway, the kids would tell you that it's basketball. [Sound of canned drink opening]. But the kids who are in college now and who are doing well, which most of them are thankfully, I think would tell you, it's a lot more than that. I mean I think they realize it once they get away from it, and that's OK. So that so--.
PF: What, what do you do for the, do have some sort of training program for the coaches or the economic facilitators or--?
ES: No, the only training that they have is really on the job training. We typically have them serve a year or two as assistants. I'm talking about the coaches now. And that's basically it.
PF: And how do you choose those people?
ES: Well, you choose them by just constantly asking people who they know that are interested in the game or who are still playing or followed it or who played in college and if you talk to people like Jeff Mullins and, and Bob McKillop and as their people graduate and stay in the community you seek them out. You track people like Bruce Buckley who come here from Carolina or Ernie Regal from Davidson or any time there's a, you just network and when you find out there's a such a person then I call them up and take them to lunch. And start beating on them.
PF: Um-hum.
ES: So, as far as the academic coordinators the, again the only training we have is that we have a meeting in the beginning of the year and they have a little set of guidelines that they, they go by in working with the children. And they get, they tell you probably more than they want. They get about a memorandum every other week to me about this is the time that we need to be doing this or this is the time we need to be doing that. But there's no--. Academic coordinators are harder to get than basketball coaches. Because everybody, not everybody but many people would like to coach at this level because the kids are so good. And they're we have a good program and blah, blah, blah. The, the academic coordinator thing, coordinator thing is not nearly as sexy. I mean that's call, checking report cards and talking to teachers and working after hours and while there are a lot of people in the community that want to give their time to that, they, they would, they don't mind tutoring an hour a week, but do they want to take on fifteen kids and that be their responsibility and not know exactly how many good ones and how many bad ones and so, anybody whose temperature is 98.6 whose college educated and who's interested in kids and who will go to lunch with me and I feel good about them they get hired. But, the good news is that those people once they get into the program we've had a very high incidence of people remaining academic coordinators because they, they kind of get involved with the teams and they get to know the coaches and they get to know the kids, and, and they tend to go up with them. We leave the coaches where they are, so each year they have a brand new set of kids. And the advantage we think of that is, you don't play favorites, you don't have a kid that you--. Each kid gets by the time he's through nine different coaches. And so, we each year you change coaches. The academic coordinators on the other hand we think there's great value to once you have the rapport and the kid knows his academic coordinator and she knows the kid's tendencies, she stays with him. So, she will join say at thirteen maybe and she'll go right up with him until he's nineteen and then she'll circle back and and pick up eleven year old group and just so we, the academic coordinators we, we leave them with the kids. But there's no, there's no formal training program. I mean, I mean I have it's something we--, would be nice to do and maybe if we get unlimited funds someday and we can have a full time Sonic Executive Director instead of a part time search consultant doing it.
PF: How do you fund it?
ES: Mostly by begging. We have two teams that are going to the nationals. One is going to Seattle and one is going to Salt Lake City and each of those trips are ten to twelve thousand dollars. And so, what those coaches will do is they will get a parent off their squad to be the fund raiser and they will beg and borrow and do car washes and, and however. I do some fund raising about this time of the year, every year of which I will typically raise five to ten thousand dollars which is all saved for tutors and SAT prep and all the academic stuff. So, that's, and it's back in the envelope.
PF: So AAU programs are always in the summer though?
ES: Well--.
PF: They start about now and go into the summer.
ES: They, they start after the rec leagues and the high school programs are over. I mean what they, they don't want to be competing with high schools. So there is actually a rule that says we can't have tryouts until the junior high, and high school season is over. So once they're over you have a tryout and then you have a state tournament normally in April and that's just completed. Then, you take off a couple of months and then in July they go to these national tournaments. So it's kind of a, two months in the spring and one month in the summer. Now, what we have tried to do is to turn our program into a year round program in the sense that our academic coordinators are in touch with their kids year round. The coaches will do some things even if their kids are not going to the nationals like our little team the one that I coached this year we're going to go play in a tournament in North Carolina in June. So it will give us reason to kind of stay in touch and have a few little practices between now and then. But it's you could say it's a three month kind of program, two months in April and one month in July.
PF: Is there, is there a danger of kids, kids focusing too much on basketball? I mean if they're--. Or is this something that they would be doing anyhow and does the AAU provide them with a more beneficial structure?
ES: Well I mean I don't, I don't know the answer. My opinion is that most of these kids are, we find they play two or three sports. They're the best athletes in their class and if they weren't playing it in the Sonics and we, we don't practice a whole bunch. We have usually two practices a week, occasionally three and they are never more than two hours. So he's putting in six hours a week on Sonics basketball at most. I think if they weren't playing it on the Sonics they'd be at their rec. center and doing it in a less structured, maybe a little more helter-skelter environment. I don't know.
PF: Without the pressures of people saying you got to have your grades up and if you're going to play you've got to do these things first.
ES: And, and we also, we like to think we don't put a great amount of emphasis on winning. Now, when you get to the state tournament I mean kids are going to be kids. I mean they're playing in to win the state championship but we, we talk a lot about hey, our objective is to learn to play man-to-man defense and learn to do this that and the other and we talk very little about winning. I mean I just, I think at this age they've got enough pressures and they're going to put plenty of pressure on themselves so. But I mean now your question is, is this too much for these kids? I don't know if it is I hope that we're not a party to that. I mean we're, we're providing them a vehicle. We have open tryouts. Anybody can come that wants to. Nobody's forced to come. And certainly we occasionally have parents--. We try to tell everybody in written format how long the season's going to last, how many games they'll play, how many practices they'll have and what it will cost which is--. They have a thirty dollar registration fee which I didn't mention that goes towards their insurance and towards their AAU registration and towards they get a little shooting shirt they can take with them that says Sonics, has their name on the back of it or whatever. But we, we tell the parents exactly what's involved before it starts so and we occasionally have parents who come and say gosh, Johnny wants to play baseball and this is going to conflict baseball and we say yeah it is and so he may go and play baseball instead of playing this. Most of them try to do both, to be honest with you.
PF: I talked with Bobby Johnson and I asked him about the pressures of kids you know competing in state, state tournaments into Double A finals like that and he said that he thought that kids didn't feel the pressure. At these big state tournaments and NCAA finals as much as, because they don't have the history that people that have watched these things before. And they don't have historical pressure on them. Do you think that that's true for these kids or did they feel the pressure, did they get caught up in it?
ES: I think where they feel the pressure is primarily from their parents who are reliving their athletics lives or lack thereof. Through their children. I think the kids mostly enjoy playing. I don't think if their parents weren't, weren't so wired about it I think they would feel relatively little pressure. We are very strict as I said about not having parents coaching and we go a step further than that. We, we keep the parents at a distance. They can certainly come to practice we don't encourage it. We like them to have them come to the games. But we're very careful to keep kids and their parents separate during the games. The parents we keep them away from behind the bench. I mean these parents are, it's the worst part of what we do.
PF: The parents.
ES: The parents. By, by no doubt--.
PF: Are, are they pressuring the kids just because they want to see them perform well and they take that pride in them or is it because they want them to get that college scholarship?
ES: I think it's more the former. I mean they certainly later on want their child to get a college scholarship but I don't think they typically think in that way until they get into high school.
PF: So it's the pride in seeing their child achieve.
ES: It's the pride. And I think it's also this thing about wanting the child to be happy. Because if he looses he's unhappy. I mean these children forget a loss, they forget a loss in ten minutes. They enjoy playing; they would rather win than loose. But they'll be right outside drinking milkshake or having a drink and mom, the mom and dad may still be in a pout, but the child has forgotten about it.
PF: Well I, I, I'll go ahead and turn this off now.