A few years ago I wrote in this space, rather angrily, that college graduation day had been trumped in black America, at least symbolically, by NBA draft day. Why walk on stage in a cap and gown to accept a degree when you can walk on stage in a custom-fitted suit and accept congratulations from David Stern and presumably millions of dollars from the NBA?
Eight years ago, upon Allen Iverson's early departure from Georgetown, I wrote about the complex relationship between black men and big-time basketball, about the danger of putting too many of our eggs in that one basket even if that industry has embraced blacks in positions of power at every level.
Of course, that conflicted feeling was nothing to what's tearing at me now. A coach would get down on his knees and weep tears of joy if a kid as good as Iverson stopped off in college for two years before heading to the NBA.
The new millennium has brought something even more radical, more sinister. Have you seen how many kids are skipping college altogether to go to the NBA? It used to be front-page news when a kid did that, whether we were talking about Moses Malone in the mid-1970s or Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant in the mid-1990s. Now, it's a surprise when a great high school player doesn't go straight to the NBA.
A couple of days ago, Sebastian Telfair, a 6-foot guard out of New York City, announced he's going to the NBA and not to the University of Louisville, and he made this announcement against the backdrop of the logo of Adidas, the shoe and apparel company that is already set to pay him millions. Four kids have already declared their intentions to go straight from prom to the college draft, and that number could reach double digits for this draft alone.
Clearly, it's easy to make the case Telfair made the right decision because of his guaranteed millions. But it's not Telfair and LeBron James I'm primarily concerned with; it's not even Bill Willoughby and Korleone Young and Leon Smith and Ousmane Cisse, the kids who've come out of high school and bombed in the NBA, the ones you neither read nor care about. My concern is for the hundreds of boys in Southeast D.C., the Bronx and West Philly and the South Side of Chicago and in Detroit and East St. Louis and South Central L.A. who look at Telfair and immediately think, "Me, too."
My concern is a giant chunk of a fairly large culture is drunk with a risky obsession of one pursuit. See, the ripple effect is a killer when the rock skips through the wrong pond. The local newspaper and "SportsCenter" can't chronicle all the dudes who bail on everything else, including reading and writing, by the age of 16 because their mammas and their cousins, most of whom have their hands out, tell them they can make the NBA. It's worse than playing the lottery.
Again, let me state my position on skipping school altogether (or leaving preposterously early) to play professional sports: education is not an impediment to success. And anybody who says otherwise is both a liar and a fool. So yes, I'm for an age restriction, collectively bargained by management and labor, that would have kept Telfair and LeBron out of the NBA and put their butts in school. I read the Metro section; I know these same neighborhoods that produce the basketball phenoms are decimated with gun violence and drug trafficking and teenage pregnancy and illiteracy. And the fact is, NBA money can't fix that. I don't care about what might appear to be perceived as Telfair's right to work or my paternal tone. It is indeed paternal, and intensely personal, perhaps because I come from one of the places -- the South Side of Chicago, where basketball has made a lot of careers and left exponentially more 45-year-olds sitting in the same playgrounds we left them nearly 30 years ago, drinking a 40-ounce while wondering where the next meal is coming from.
Yes, there are basketball-related reasons for backing an age restriction. It's no coincidence the quality of play in the NBA has suffered. It's not just high school kids who are at fault; most of the young players coming into the league haven't served adequate apprenticeships. You think the NFL wasn't keenly aware of what was happening in the NBA when football's powers that be took on Maurice Clarett and his lawyers over the right to come into the league early?
Even worse than the issue of quality of play is how NBA teams use the draft. As Charles Barkley points out, the draft was created to give immediate relief to the teams that need it most. So when those bottom-feeding teams go out and take high school kids with their top picks, like the Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls have recently, they're cheating their season ticket holders who have to pay top dollar to watch kids we all know in most cases will not be ready to make a difference to a bad team for three or four seasons. But I'm not nearly as concerned for the state of basketball as I am for the state of black boys who see this as their only ticket while the rest of the world diversifies its pursuits. My close friend Larry Irving, a Stanford-educated lawyer and hoop head raised in New York, recently attended a diversity weekend at Stanford where a panel on sports, including former 49ers Coach Bill Walsh, discussed what to do about young black men failing to acquire the educational skills necessary to prepare themselves for the hundreds of jobs in and around the industry of sports. Jobs that could allow them to earn millions without ever having to worry about blowing out a knee. "The average young brother," Irving said, "would rather grow up to be Paul Pierce who makes $13 million a year, than Paul Allen who owns a team and is worth billions."
Or, for that matter, Ed Tapscott, who never played a day of pro ball but used his Tufts education and American University law degree to craft a distinguished career for himself that now includes running the day-to-day business of the expansion Charlotte Bobcats, this after being assistant GM of the Knicks for years.
Telfair may negotiate the industry of basketball well enough to understand there can be life, professional opportunities and riches beyond the court. I'm afraid for the thousands of others who can't.