Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Too Young To Be a Baller?



David Stern is pushing hard to raise the age limit for entrance into the National Basketball Association. Under current NBA rules, a U.S. player's high school class must have graduated in order for him to become eligible for the draft, while international players must turn 18 before the draft in order to be eligible. If Stern gets his way, and he often does in basketball matters, being old enough to vote or get drafted into military service won't be sufficient. He would prefer that NBA ballers be at least 20 years of age rather than going pro directly after the prom. In his vision of a Utopian basketball world, freakishly talented young men who don't yet need to shave regularly will either go to college or else enter the National Basketball Development League, using it as more of a traditional minor league system.

There are vocal critics of Commissioner Stern's proposal, such as Jermaine O'Neal of the Indiana Pacers who made the leap from high school to the NBA a few years ago. He points to his own success in the league as just one example of the relatively smooth transition from boy with a basketball and a dream to man with a mansion and millions in the bank. Last year, eight high school seniors were among the first 19 picks, including the number one overall selection. The last two NBA Rookie of the Year winners, LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire, were drafted straight out of high school. This year's All-Star game featured seven players - Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, Rashard Lewis, O'Neal, Stoudemire and James - who made the jump directly from the preps to the pros. Convincing evidence indeed that there's no time like the present to exchange a varsity jacket for a pro uniform. Many lawyers would agree with O'Neal's contention that a raised age limit would be unconstitutional. Does he make a valid point in suggesting that Stern's age limit proposal hints of racism, since the NBA is so heavily comprised of African-Americans, unlike sports such as baseball and hockey that do not have similar age restrictions? Or does Stern have a better argument in claiming that his plan is necessary because too many young urban Americans are looking at the NBA as a viable avenue to financial security for their families and a quick path to stardom for themselves, and the vast majority of them end up chasing a dream that will not be caught? It used to be that basketball players routinely graduated college before turning pro. Then they began entering the NBA draft after their junior year of college, then after their sophomore year, then after only one year of collegiate experience, and now increasingly more of these young men aren't even bothering to take advantage of athletic scholarships being offered to them. Why pursue higher education at no cost when Escalade ownership and several pounds of bling to accentuate arms full of tattoos is only a contract offer away?

Maurice Clarett, who recently brought a lawsuit against the NFL challenging the league's age requirement policy while sitting out his sophomore season due to ineligibility, no doubt agrees with O'Neal and others who feel that if an athlete is skilled enough for a pro team to offer him a contract here and now, he should have the right to sign it whether or not he's done going through puberty. I myself never thought to sue anybody for not offering me a job when I was 18. Avoiding any kind of real responsibility and making most of my decisions based on raging hormones was all the work I cared to have at that point in time. Then again, if there was a chance of being offered millions of dollars to play a game I gladly would have played for free, two years would have seemed like an awfully long time to wait for the opportunity.

The most recent trends in the NBA have been towards youth, locating talent in foreign lands where the fundamentals of the game are still stressed, and the emergence of mobile giants who appeal to an enormous Asian fan base. These trends have each netted success stories. The NBA machine does not appear to be broken in any way, yet David Stern still wishes to tinker with it. I guess he isn't too worried that thousands of young men in urban areas of this country will grow frustrated that their dreams of NBA stardom have been deferred, and opt to put down their basketballs in favor of hockey sticks. Mr. Stern was patient enough to earn a college degree, followed by a law degree, and then marched steadily up the ranks of his chosen profession until becoming the commissioner of the NBA and proceeding to revitalize the league. The reward for his due diligence is that he now gets to make and enforce the rules, whether the Jermaine O'Neals and Maurice Claretts of the world like it or not. The wisdom David Stern has accumulated over the years has perhaps enabled him to realize that while a handful of young phenoms such as Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony can infuse a jolt of energy to the NBA, more harm than good may be done if the amount of professional teen ballers is allowed to increase to too high a percentage. One senses that Stern fears letting the NBA turn into Daddy Daycare at best, League Gone Wild at worst.

Patience, like a back breaking crossover dribble, is a virtue. So my cliché filled advice to all young men with hoop dreams is to bide your time and enjoy the early days of your lives to the fullest extent. The future isn't going anywhere, and gaining more experience at your chosen craft never hurts, no matter how unnecessary it seems. Gaining a little maturity never hurt anyone either. Don't fixate on your destination to the point that you barely notice the ride. Youth may not be wasted on those who possess it, but it certainly isn't appreciated enough until it is gone. And unlike Michael Jordan, once it has left, it never comes back. As for racism, that never quite goes away.


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