About five minutes after Duke's Grant Hill was selected in last year's National Basketball Association draft, the hucksters slapped his name on a pair of $110 sneakers and sent along a check big enough to keep him in Armani suits, BMWs and swimming pools until the millennium.
However, it took until last Wednesday for Hill, who starts for the mediocre Detroit Pistons, to attain any real honors for actually playing pro basketball. He was voted NBA Rookie of the Year by a poll of sportswriters and broadcasters, but even at that, he had to share the award with young Jason Kidd, of the mediocre Dallas Mavericks.
Little matter. If Hill had broken his leg this season, or come down with pneumonia, or hijacked the team charter to Boston, he would still have his fat salary and his fat shoe contract.
That has not escaped the most talented college sophomores and juniors playing basketball without pay in America. That has not even escaped some of the most talented high school kids playing basketball without pay in America.
Suddenly, everybody wants to turn pro. Right now.
In fact, Hill was the only college senior among the first seven picks in the 1994 draft. Purdue's Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson and California's Kidd, both underclassmen, went ahead of Hill, and he was followed by four more college dropouts--Donyell Marshall of Connecticut, Juwan Howard of Michigan, Sharone Wright of Clemson and Kidd's Cal teammate, Lamond Murray.
That was quite a youth movement. But this year the NBA may have to hire babysitters on draft day.
Among the prominent underclassmen who have applied for early entry into the NBA are Maryland center Joe Smith; forward Jerry Stackhouse and center Rasheed Wallace, both of North Carolina; and a pair of Arkansas Razorbacks, forward Corliss Williamson and guard Scotty Thurman. Centers Antonio McDyess of Alabama and Rashard Griffith of Wisconsin are also on the block, along with forwards Gary Trent and Mario Bennett of Arizona State.
If this keeps up, there may not be anyone left on the nation's campuses next winter to order pizza at 2 a.m. or to flunk Sociology 201.
On the other hand, 6' 11", 217-pound Kevin Garnett may never even have to attend freshman orientation. A couple of weeks ago this high school senior applied directly for admission to the NBA draft. The probable reason? His standardized test scores were not good enough to qualify for an NCAA Division I basketball scholarship.
The rough spots in Garnett's academic performance, however, did not keep Chicago's Farragut High School from recruiting him from a thousand miles away when he was still a high school junior. Born and raised in a tiny South Carolina village, Garnett was swept away clean out of town by Farragut's high-profile prep scouts--with the blessings of his own family. Garnett now says he may take another round of college admission tests, but his letter of intent to the NBA has, apparently unbeknownst to the eighteen-year-old, already rendered him ineligible to play college ball. If he wants to go to college now--if he can qualify academically--he'll first have to appeal for reinstatement with the NCAA's eligibility committee.
What does it all mean, this lure of filthy lucre, this NBA cradle-robbing?
For Bobby Cremins, head coach at Georgia Tech, it means that college hoops had better change the rules before it's too late. Last week Cremins and Virginia's Jeff Jones were among half a dozen college coaches who called for a return to freshman basketball and other stopgaps calculated to keep the game in perspective.
Good luck. College basketball has sprung a leak, and it will turn into a fatal hemorrhage unless far more radical measures come into play. Like paying the players. As it is now, an undergraduate demonstrating family "hardship" in order to leave school early for the NBA need only say that he would rather drive a Rolls-Royce than walk. But if the NCAA, a governing body that manages to combine Victorian morality with yuppie greed, ever wakes up, it will see that its long-cherished myth of the "student athlete" is just that--a myth.
You can't blame a talented kid for resenting the big bucks the athletic department rakes in at his expense while he's coughing down dorm food every night. If the pooh-bahs of college sports would junk their hypocritical "student athlete" fiction and reward the jocks with something like "athlete employee" status--that is, share the profits, plain and simple--nineteen- and twenty-year-olds might have an incentive to stay in school, hone their sports skills and get an education in the bargain.
As things stand now, college basketball, in particular, could be in for a rude awakening. The two stars California lost to early drafthood last year and the two each Arkansas and North Carolina are giving up this season reveal the alarming spread of Wolverine Syndrome: As anyone who wears the Blue can tell you, the University of Michigan's outstanding recruiting class of 1991-92--quickly dubbed the Fab Five--not only never got to graduation day, 60 percent of it never reached junior year. Juwan Howard, Chris Weber and current Denver Nugget Jalen Rose all opted for early outs to the NBA, leaving only Jimmy King and Ray Jackson to carry the ball to term in Ann Arbor.
If this goes on, the college game will lose some of its energy and a lot of its meaning, but the most direct casualty will probably be the NCAA Basketball Tournament--March Madness--arguably the most popular and exciting sports event of any year. If the tournament's stars, and its star teams, continue to evaporate, the Big Dance could start looking like midnight at the Ramada in Fargo.
That brings us, of course, to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The great Bucks and Lakers center was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame last week, and the youngsters eager to fill Grant Hill's $110 sneakers next month might do well to take a look at highlights of this exemplary career.
As a high school player at New York's Power Memorial High School, the then-Lew Alcindor led his team to a 95-6 mark (including a 71-game winning streak) over four years. During Kareem's freshman year at UCLA, the great minds of the NCAA outlawed the slam dunk (how would that go over in '95?), so this inventive kid started working on his trademark--the skyhook. Worked, too: UCLA went 88-2 in his tenure and won three consecutive national championships, in 1967, 1968 and 1969. That feat will likely never be equaled. Nor will Kareem's three straight tournament most valuable player awards.
As a pro, all the man did was become the NBA's all-time scorer (38,387 regular season points), the leader in minutes played (57,446 regular season, 9,000 in the playoffs) and field goals (15,837) and third best in rebounding (17,440). He was the only NBA player to log twenty seasons and the only one to be named MVP six times. His teams won six NBA titles.
Perhaps more important, Kareem was the picture of dignity, strength and fairness on the court--a man for all seasons in a game to which he gave himself with honor.
The Dennis Rodmans of the world are a lost cause. Let us hope Kevin Garnett and Jerry Stackhouse and Corliss Williamson have the sense to look up to the Big Guy. Whatever year they join up, and for whatever reason.
When the green flag drops Sunday morning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the guy with the whitest knuckles is bound to be Michael Andretti.
Fourth quickest in time trials this year, he starts on the inside of the second row.
But he rarely finishes.
Truth be told, the Andretti Luck is now one of the 500's gloomiest legends. Michael's father, Mario, who won 53 Indy car events before retiring last year, took the checkered flag at the Brickyard only once--in 1969. Otherwise, crashes and failures were his lot. Son Michael is the current Indy circuit leader with 29 wins, but he's never won the 500. In 1992 he came close, leading all the way until his engine quit eleven laps from the finish.
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That opened the door for Al Unser Jr., who went on to beat Scott Goodyear by the narrowest margin in race history--half a car length. In fact, the Unser family history has been the mirror image of the Andrettis at Indianapolis. Al Jr.'s dad won the race four times. Uncle Bobby got his face on the trophy three times. Last May Little Al won his second Indy.
The most painful irony? In 1981 runner-up Mario Andretti was awarded first place when the apparent winner was penalized a lap for passing cars illegally under a caution flag. Four months later, the United States Auto Club reversed its decision, setting Andretti back down to second and fining the winner $40,000 instead of taking the title away.
That winner's name? Bobby Unser, of course.
This year, Michael drives the 500 alone. Dad is in the pits, and Little Al, shockingly, failed to qualify. For the first time in 33 years, there is no Unser in the race.