Last night I had the opportunity to show my fiance one of my favorite basketball movies, Blue Chips. In this movie Nick Nolte plays the head coach of a fictitious university that, after several years of losing, decides to break the rules and pay recruits to come play for them. The movie features an alarming number of professional players (Shaq, Penny Hardaway, LARRY BIRD!) and college coaches (Dick Vitale, Bobby Knight, Jim Boeheim) for the subject matter. The plot of the movie is pretty much what you expect. Nolte has to sell his soul to get the players he wants, but after instant success with the bought recruits, and learning of a point shaving incident that one of his former players was involved with, he decides to walk away from a profession that he no longer believes in. In the movies defining scene, Nolte gives a press conference in which he outs college basketball, and to a larger extent the exploiting of talented young basketball players by family, friends and youth coaches. It’s one of my favorite scenes in any sports movie.
This is a movie that came out in 1994, mind you, but it still feels vital today. It’s fitting that Blue Chips come on just after I finish reading Jonathan Abrams fantastic new book, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. I first started reading Abrams when he was with the Grantland. His oral histories are the stuff of legend, see: his oral histories on the 1990’s Magic and the 2002 Kings. When I learned that Abrams was stretching out one of these oral histories into a book I couldn’t have been more excited.
In Boys Among Men Abrams painstakingly covers the entirety of the NBA’s prep-to-pro era, which spanned almost half a century and came to define the NBA in the early 2000’s. Growing up watching the entire careers of Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant has made my generation experts on the prep-to-pro movement, but what Abrams does better than other writers I’ve read on the subject is point a non flinching, non judging spotlight on both the success stories and the failures of the era.
If you follow basketball even a little then you are probably aware of the AAU scene in which talented young players travel around the country during the summer and play other talented squads. These days most NBA level players are playing each other when they are as young as 11 and 12 years old. These AAU teams are often play in tournaments sponsored by shoe companies and attract pro scouts and college coaches by the hundreds. Back when it was in the rules for players to skip college, young players had to deal with pitches from AAU coaches, high school coaches, college recruits, pro scouts, as well as representatives from a number of shoe companies hoping to lock them up while they are young and bargain priced.
Given that many of the players who skipped college to go to the pros came from very humble beginnings, often from broken homes, it’s incredible how many were able to make the jump to the professional game and have successful careers. In fact a vast majority of the players who skipped university had some form of success in the pro game, and many have parlayed their success in basketball into fulfilling lives outside of the game. For every bust like Korleone Young there is a success story like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. In many cases the differences in being a good pro and and a failure had little to do with playing an extra year or two at a school and more to do with the players inner drive and the kind of professional tutelage they received from their peers.
It’s been over a decade since the NBA required that players be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school before they can declare for the NBA draft. The intent of the rule is to have players be more prepared for the pro game when they are drafted, but what has happened in these ten years is almost comical. Some players have chosen to take the year between high school and the pros to play overseas, but for the most part this path has led to little success as players have to try to adapt to living in a different country as well as the physicality of playing with men. Many of the pros drafted since the rule change have only played in college for a single season, and while this is great for the NCAA in terms of profit from cable packages and ticket sales, the idea that these kids are getting a real education is mostly laughable.
I’ve never been a fan of watching college sports because I can not get over the hypocrisy of schools making millions of dollars off of the work of young men and women without properly compensating the athletes. When people get all worked up about coaches like John Calipari I just shrug because at least some of these guys are up front with their intentions. They offer great high school students the chance to play for a school that is going to fully showcase their talents for pro teams in order to get drafted. Calipari seems to revel in the sliminess of his profession, and I can at least respect that.
I’ve followed the NBA closely for almost two decades now, and what most impresses me about the players is just how many of them turn out to be well spoken, genuinely great people given the immense pressures that they are under from the time they hit puberty all the way into middle age. To be a gifted basketball player often means carrying the burdens of your entire family and circle of friends as well as have to deal with agents, sponsorships, coaches and fans on a daily basis. Not too mention the business of being in the top .001 percent of your profession. It takes a special kind of person to be able to hold up to all of these expectations, and their certainly is no school I’ve ever heard of that teaches one how to live up to impossible levels of hype.
There will never be a good answer to getting a young athlete ready to play a sport professionally. You can force a kid to play in college in four years, but I think that does a disservice to both the player as well as the teachers of the school. The only people that really benefit are the ones who cash the paychecks. There has long been talk about creating a minor league for the NBA, or at least dumping more resources into the the development league that already exists, but that would require teams to have the patience to actually allow their players to develop for multiple years in a lower league while their pro team struggles. You could also make an argument that these young players will not develop fast enough against lower levels of competition to make a minor league truly worth it.
The system that we have in place right now for drafting kids into the NBA is a sham. If an 18 man wants to start his career instead of spending a a year or two pretending to go to school while working full time for no salary at a school, he should be able to do so. It should be the responsibility of the teams to do their due diligence in scouting and developing players out of high school. Let’s get rid of of this dumb rule and make the business of professional basketball more transparent and fair for the athletes.