Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Basketball babies

Stefan Fatsis, a well-respected sportswriter, writes this month in The Atlantic about "Million Dollar Basketball Babies." His focus is on Lance Stephenson, a 6-5 shooting guard out of Brooklyn's Lincoln High School, who is being pursued by Kansas, St. Johns and Maryland. Stephenson is generally acknowledged as a top 5-10 recruit out of the high school class of 2009. Zagsblog this week reported that it is expected that Stephenson will announce his intentions to attend Kansas when he makes his commitment public on March 31. But, St. Johns and Maryland are pursuing Stephenson hard in an attempt to use him as the catalyst for turning around their respective programs.

What makes this story interesting, beyond the usual intrigue of which colleges will sign the best players, is that the article suggests that Stephenson could possibly follow in the footsteps of Brandon Jennings, another talented high schooler who opted to play in Europe after his senior season last year rather than go to college. Jennings' decision was a result of the NBA's recent rule that high schoolers can no longer jump directly from the hardwood at their secondary education venue to "the league"--they must spend at least one year at a college/university or junior college. For his decision, Jennings is receiving the tidy sum of $1.65 million to play in the Italian pro league.

What is even more sobering beyond this story is the one documented in Sunday's New York Times Magazine of 13-year old Allonzo Trier. A sixth-grader from the Seattle area, Trier spends at least four hours a day practicing and working on his game--whether in supervised workouts with his mother, individual sessions with his trainer, or team practices. And, this daily time commitment does not even include games plus travel.

The NBA felt like they were helping the college game, and those athletes who felt physically ready for the pros, by requiring the one year commitment to college. The intent was that the year would help the teenager to mature, learn some social skills and be better prepared for the grind that is the business of the NBA. The reality is that a kid who plans to be a "one and done" can attend class the fall semester of his freshman year, begin basketball practice, and by second semester forget about classes and studying--why bother going when you have no intention of staying beyond the one year commitment?

The stories of Stephenson, Trier, Jennings and now the kids who are getting recruited by colleges at younger and younger ages are tales of lost youth. I know it's easy for a middle-class, white, suburban blogger to opine about the mistakes these kids--and in many cases their "handlers"--are making, but it does seem that they are in danger of losing some of the most enjoyable and memorable years of one's life.

Do I have a solution? No--just a concern as I see these talented kids being shaped by greedy hangers-on with their own agendas, and by schools and professional entities who need these phenoms for their programs and teams. It's a disturbing situation.

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