Thursday, August 04, 2005

How to make basketball better

In the last two or three years, the rookie of the year has been a high school player. There were seven high school players in the All-Star Game, so why we even talking an age limit?...As a black guy, you kind of think [race is] the reason why it's coming up. You don't hear about it in baseball or hockey...If I can go to the U.S. Army and fight the war at 18, why can’t you play basketball for 48 minutes and then go home?
- Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana Pacers’ forward
When the new NBA and players union decided to include an age limit (19, or one year after their high school class gradudates) in their new collective bargaining agreement there was widespread celebration from NBA and college coaches. The NBA coaches are happy, because they expect to get more experienced and mature players, and college coaches will no longer have to contend with NBA recruiters.

Unfortunately, this deal is not as good as these coaches have made it out to be.

First, for every Carmelo Anthony, delivering a national title to their team, there are twenty versions of Stephon Marbury and Tim Thomas: players who leave after one season, sending programs into downward spirals and costing coaches their jobs.
What if Lebron James was not allowed to play [in the NBA], would he still have gotten his Nike contract? I think he would have. So I don’t think he is going to college. So what does he do?
- Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski
In the future, players like James have only two legitimate options for that one year. They can go to Europe and get paid while competing against lesser talent, or (more likely) they can play in the NBA Developmental League, which will be the NBA’s version of a minor league. If the very best players go to the Developmental League, then the second and third-tier players coming out of high school — guys with a very realistic chance of making the NBA eventually — will begin to follow and fortify the league. As the NBADL rises, Division I college basketball will fall.

What solution is there for college basketball? Some (of the few who have acknowledged a problem) have suggested paying college athletes. College basketball, however, can never provide the basketball development experience that full-time play in a minor league could, and will never be as attractive to players anticipating a professional career.

The solution can be found in every NCAA advertisment: put the student back in "student-athlete". Recognize that someone desiring to become a professional athlete can be better served by a development league than by a university, and focus on those who simply play the game for fun before beginning their real career. Require college basketball players to pass the same admission standards and the same academic requirements as other students.

This is unlikely to happen because large universities, alumni, and the NCAA are too wedded to the current system (a minor league in denial about its nature). Alumni care more about their alma mater's win-loss record than its academic reputation, and universities (and hence the NCAA) are at the mercy of alumni money.

But wouldn't it be great to have real amature basketball, with athletes playing for fun and for respect in their spare time? Basketball players desiring to go pro could do so out of high school (through minor leagues) rather than faking interest in a degree. Universities and coaches would not be concerned with their players transferring because the players would be there for a degree first and the game second. We can always dream.

Note: Lest readers think that this is a "sour grapes" column, I am an alumnus the University of Kentucky (the winningest program in college basketball), lived for the past several years in metropolitan Detroit (home of the Pistons, NBA champions in 2004 and runners-up in 2005), and am currently a graduate student at Michigan State University. And when I was there, my high school had an outstanding program which produced several NCAA stars and NBA players. So I have nothing to be bitter about!

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