Andrew Grinaker wanted to create a place where local kids could shoot some hoops.
What followed was a rapidly growing AAU program that has become one of the go-to places for top players in the Wesco and Cascade conferences to hone their skills in the offseason, while forming a brotherhood that extends well beyond the court.
North City AAU, which started with one eighth grade team in 2010, now boasts 13 teams for fourth grade up to 11th. Grinaker, who works at a digital advertising agency in downtown Seattle and currently coaches one of the 16U teams, recently returned from taking his squad to a prestigious tournament in Las Vegas and believes the program is going to continue to rise in the AAU ranks.
“We decided there was a chance to really start something in the area,” Grinaker said. “When we knew we actually wanted to build a program we did it because there weren’t a lot of options for kids in District 1.”
Grinaker said that while North City has had kids as far north as Mount Vernon, Bellingham and Blaine join the program, 75 percent of the players in his program play high school for Wesco teams. That number goes up to 80 percent if you include the Cascade Conference and 90 percent including Kingco, with several players coming from the Bothell-Woodinville area.
“Over the years there have been a ton of programs that popped up and the last couple years we’ve really confined ourselves to Wesco kids which has been great,” Grinaker said. “It’s been a lot of fun to watch kids grow and develop over the years.”
Notable alumni of North City include Travis Bakken (Edmonds-Woodway), Bradey Brummel (Arlington), Zach Lawson (Shorecrest), Brian Zehr (Jackson), Noah Jones (Arlington), Josh Bevan (Marysville Pilchuck) and Derek Anyimah (Mountlake Terrace).
The team trains out of Jackson High School and the Alderwood Boys and Girls Club. Grinaker said that, although “AAU gets a bad rap sometimes,” he works to ensure that North City’s AAU schedule will not conflict with high school schedules. North City takes the month of June off so that its players can compete in summer leagues with their respective high school teams. Grinaker said several local coaches endorse North City, which features instructors who coach at various Wesco high schools including the junior varsity coaches from Shorecrest and Cascade.
“We don’t try to take away their time from the high school,” Grinaker said. “We actually tell our players that high school should be the priority if there’s ever a conflict.”
Colby Kyle, a star at Monroe who plays on the 16U team with Isaiah Cole and several of his Bearcat teammates, said he enjoys North City AAU because of the bonds he forms with the other guys on the North City squad.
“Over the summer, those are the guys you’re hanging out with,” Kyle said. “You spend so much time because those are the guys you’re going to dinner with and tournaments.”
It also makes the high school season more fun when Kyle gets to go up against his AAU teammates, including Mountlake Terrace junior Khyree Armstead.
“It’s definitely fun,” Kyle said. “We all know each other. Last year we got to play against Khyree and see him. That aspect is pretty cool.”
“Last year it was really fun going against these guys,” Armstead said. “We have a good friendship but on the court we know each other’s moves and what they’re going to do.”
Armstead offered a scouting report on Daniel Barhoum, his North City teammate who plays at Meadowdale and faces Armstead’s Mountlake Terrace team two times a season.
“He likes to do a lot of backdoor cuts to get layups,” Armstead said. “He’s a really good defender.”
Barhoum returned the favor, dishing out intel on Armstead.
“Khyree is a very good overall player,” Barhoum said. “I think his strongest asset is getting to the basket and dishing out the ball. … I love playing against the guys like Khyree. They bring something to the court that makes it more fun. Those guys are like my brothers.”
Armstead said having a Wesco-dominated team has proven to be successful in AAU tournaments.
“Wesco is really defensive-minded. We battle,” Armstead said. “People don’t really like that in AAU. Other AAU teams are people from everywhere. This team, we’re all getting better for Wesco.”
Other current players in the North City program include Drew Bryson (Arlington), Kole Bride (Snohomish) and Josiah Gould (Marysville Pilchuck), as well as players from Everett, Squalicum, Jackson, Cascade, Wenatchee and Woodinville high schools.
Grinaker knows the stigmas of AAU ball — that some see it as a place where there’s not a lot of defense played and hastily run offenses. He’s heard about how kids play so many games nowadays that they may even “devalue winning because there’s so many games and they can move on to the next tournament.”
But Grinaker maintains that there are many benefits to playing on the AAU circuit, such as players being able to step into different roles and try different positions than what’s required on their high school team.
“The other big difference is, if you do it right and enter teams in tournaments, you’re also able to see a wider array of competition in the state – and even the country — that you’re probably not going to see in Wesco,” Grinaker said.
Recently, Grinaker took a team to the Las Vegas Classic which featured 200 teams from 25 states and “an unreal amount of talent,” Grinaker said. North City’s 16U team, comprised of players entering their junior year of high school, went 4-2 and got to take in a USA basketball exhibition game against Argentina while in Las Vegas.
North City’s AAU season is over but the bonds formed still allow players to reach out to each other to see if anybody wants to hit the gym.
“Even now I could call up any of those guys and we can go play a game together,” said Daniel Barhoum, who plays his high school ball at Meadowdale. “That’s what Andrew’s goal was: to create this tight group of guys who live in the same area and get better for the high school season. I would encourage every basketball player who plays in Wesco to come give it a shot. North City has changed my life because of the brotherhood and the people I’ve met.”