Keeping Players in School: A Slam-Dunk Idea, by Michael King

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Viewers of collegiate basketball’s “March Madness” championship tournament are seeing players who may become the next Chris Webber or Alonzo Mourning. But no one saw Kobe Bryant playing in the Final Four. Bryant never played college ball — he was drafted from high school.

This ever-younger breed of player is making the upper echelons of the National Basketball Association review the league’s policies on drafting kids to play before they attend college.

This year the NBA dropped its All-Star Weekend “Stay in School Jam,” a concert featuring players and celebrities who encourage children to value education. Nonetheless, NBA Commissioner David Stern believes that the large number of high school players forgoing college for a shot at the “big time” in the NBA compels the league to review its policy on drafting of high schoolers.

Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant — each of whom came to the NBA straight out of high school — should be looked upon as talented exceptions, not the rule. Stern, realizing this, is asking the league to consider an age requirement.

In an All-Star Weekend roundtable, Stern, along with former Georgetown University coach John Thompson, said the most important issue facing the NBA today is encouraging high school players to attend college. A college education ensures that, if good high school players cannot achieve their dream of playing in the NBA, or if their careers are cut short, they are able to make a living outside of professional athletics.

Stern said the league should adopt a minimum employment age of 20, but NBA Players Association president Billy Hunter said the players’ union would strongly oppose such a measure. Hunter believes high school age players have the right to earn a living in the league regardless of their age.

Stern, in conjunction with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, also wants the NBA to provide annual grants of $20,000 to “in-need” collegiate athletes. Stern realizes that $20,000 does not compare to the lure of an $8 million contract, but it does go a long way to take care of immediate issues some collegiate athletes need to address.

Speaking to the Washington Post in February, Stern said that among collegiate athletes “…who’ve had four years of development, we get a player who is more mature, more marketable and probably a better basketball player.” Toward that end, the NBA is creating a minor league, the National Basketball Developmental League, set to begin play this fall. Several other basketball minor leagues, including the International Basketball League, also employ developing players who are not able to play in the NBA.

The National Football League has less of a problem with underaged athletes entering the pros because young, quality players like Daunte Culpepper, Steve McNair, Peyton Manning and others all completed their collegiate careers — and their early athletic development — prior to entering the NFL.

NFL franchises don’t concentrate on drafting underaged young men, and the men playing pro football go out of their way to encourage the college players to complete their education prior to entering the NFL draft.

Unfortunately, teams and players in the NBA don’t subscribe to this tactic. Team owners compete to get the youngest and most impressive talent they can, and it is not unusual for them to send scouts to high schools. The teams compete with collegiate programs for the same pool of talent. One team won’t stop grabbing the kids unless the others will – so the question becomes one of who stops first. Unless the players’ union weighs in on the side of education, no one will blink.

NBA Commissioner David Stern has the right idea. Now it’s just time for the remainder of the league to follow suit. Everyone will benefit: The fans will get a better quality of play, the team owners will get more seasoned players, the players union will better serve its members and high schoolers will get the academic foundation that they sorely need to survive both in the league and in life.


(Michael King is a member of the African-American leadership network Project 21 and an Internet and radio broadcaster in Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at [email protected] and

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