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On the Fast Track

Young athletes must ponder both risks and rewards when leaving college early in hopes of a pro career.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Daniel Craig, November/December 2008

The 2008 NCAA men's basketball final was careening toward a historic, youth-will-be-served moment. It appeared the kids would rule. Nineteen-year-old freshman guard Derrick Rose was carrying Memphis toward its first title. Two nights before against UCLA he had darted up and down the court with abandon, weaving around defenders like Gale Sayers chasing daylight. Now, when he wasn't running around the Kansas defenders, he was shooting over them, putting his team up by nine with two minutes and 11 ticks left. Then it happened.

In a flash, Memphis's athletic brilliance morphed into youthful chaos. The unraveling was classic—missed free throws, a stolen inbounds pass and a missed defensive assignment to send the game into overtime. Some errors came courtesy of Rose but more of them by junior teammate Chris Douglas-Roberts. The unnerving of the Tigers was Exhibit A for old-school detractors who view young collegians as a bunch of unrefined, immature teenagers in shorts and wholly undeserving of early entry into the NBA. Kansas prevailed, but the larger story was that Memphis's inexperience—read: youth—did the Tigers in.

Not two weeks after the crushing defeat, Rose put collegiate memories behind him and declared his eligibility for the NBA draft. "My only regret is not winning a national title for the University of Memphis," the teenager said evenly, as if mouthing a press release. "I am, however, very excited about the prospect of playing in the NBA."

Despite the timing, his decision made sense—Rose was drafted first overall by Chicago two months later, then signed to a contract worth $10 million for two years, with a team option at $5.5 million for a third year. Had it not been for the NBA's minimum age rule (in place since 2005, and first used in the 2006 draft) that players must turn 19 during the calendar year of the draft and be a year removed from high school, Rose would likely have avoided college altogether, going to the pros without ever setting foot on a college campus. "The notoriety they get and the endorsement they get from the media—they really have to strike the iron when it is hot," says Jim Baron, head coach of the Rhode Island Rams. "You knew Rose would get drafted in the top three."

Departing early. Should top players leave college before graduating and declare their eligibility for the NBA draft? Or should they stay in school, increase their future value and fulfill some vague sense of loyalty to their colleges by finishing? It's a risk-reward analysis that basketball players—and, to a much lesser extent, baseball, football and hockey players—have been considering since 1969, when Spencer Haywood left the University of Detroit two years before graduating to sign with the American Basketball Association's Denver Rockets. Haywood's mother was raising 10 children by herself and his family needed the money. Thus the term "going hardship" was born.

Then, such giant steps were rare; now, they are commonplace. In 2008, a record 30 of the 60 players drafted in the NBA's first two rounds were underclassmen. "The NBA draft is now a draft based on player potential and not player readiness," said Stu Jackson, vice president of basketball operations for the NBA. Asked for his prognosis prior to the 2008 NBA draft, Jackson said: "I would say there will be no more than a handful of seniors chosen in the first round." Jackson's prediction was spot on: just five seniors were drafted in the opening round, while 10 freshmen and eight sophomores were selected. It was different when Jackson coached New York. Of the 15 players on the 1990 Knicks, which he piloted to a 45-37 record, not one had left college early. That's notable: four of his players, Patrick Ewing, Maurice Cheeks, Kiki Vandeweghe and Mark Jackson, played a combined 62 NBA seasons and 18 All-Star games—and had been plenty good enough as collegians to have declared early for the draft. It's unclear what they gained by staying in school for four years.

Mike Krzyzewski, the coach of Duke since the 1980—81 season, favors athletes staying in college but not just for one year. "I think the NBA [minimum age requirement] is a good thing, and I wish there was an extra year," Krzyzewski says. Baseball and football have gotten good results by requiring that college players stay for three years, but Krzyzewski thinks the NBA rule comes up short, wondering, "Who will check to see what kind of classes the players who plan to go only one year are taking?" His concerns are founded: some colleges allow their "one-and-done" players to take meaningless classes for one semester, just to maintain their eligibility. Some drop out of school after the season ends in March, or early April if their teams get deep into the NCAA or NIT tournament.

For future Hall of Famers such as Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, the jump from high school to college seemed as natural as a short juke to the basket and a quick stuff. But does college help lesser mortals? It could: a year or two at college quickens the social, physical and emotional maturity of athletes. College also helps to hone a player's basketball skills.

Money and timing must be factored in, too, and even unremarkable players can cash in. As Los Angeles Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said to his son Mike Jr. following his junior year at Duke, "If you don't leave now you will be leaving $15 million on the table." The son listened. The buzz around Dunleavy had peaked by 2002, when he entered the draft. Now with Indiana, he has earned a total of $30.2 million after six NBA seasons. On the other hand, 2008 College Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough did not enter the draft but instead returned to North Carolina for his senior year, hoping that his solid play and reputation would carry over to the 2009 draft. How can he know if he's made the right decision?

Most players fall short of the thoroughbred caliber of Rose, Michael Beasley and O. J. Mayo—the freshmen drafted one, two and three in 2008—and may be less prepared at age 19 than at 22. The landscape is littered with revved-up high-school-to-draft car wrecks such as Ousmane Cisse, Taj McDavid and Korleone Young. Cisse (drafted 47th overall by Denver in 2001) and McDavid (who entered the 1996 draft, but was not drafted) never made it to an NBA arena, and Young (the 40th pick overall by Detroit in 1998) played a grand total of three games, earned $287,500 and vanished, out of the league in a nanosecond, without a sniff of stardom. The lot of them might have been better served by graduating from college before taking a shot at the pros. "If they aren't drafted high, they go back home and all their dreams are crushed," says Richard Lapchick, president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. Lapchick's father was Joe Lapchick, the Original Celtic and legendary coach of the New York Knicks. "It's a dead end when they don't make it," Rhode Island's Baron agrees. "It's devastating."

But young athletes are true believers. They press on, despite the long odds. "People soup them up in the areas where they are from," Baron says. "These are influences that coaches don't have a lot of control over. 'You can make it, make it, make it,' people tell them. There are great opportunities to help their families out; some players come from economic situations that are hard-pressed and the individual is needed to make some money. But the reality is, this is the list and if the draft were to happen today, this is where you are projected. So you better get yourself ready for your other options."

Forty and 50 years ago, it was common to see college graduates running up and down the court during NBA games. George Mikan finished his four years at DePaul in 1946. Both Jerry West and Oscar Robertson finished school and were drafted in 1960. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) graduated from UCLA with a degree in history in 1969.

While Wilt Chamberlain didn't graduate, he didn't leave Kansas until 1958, after his junior year, and he signed with the Harlem Globetrotters before tearing up the NBA record book.

Even in recent years most drafted players have been upperclassmen. In the five NBA drafts from 2003 through 2007, 183 of the 297 players drafted (nearly 62 percent) were college seniors or international players. That left just high school seniors (22), college freshmen (15), sophomores (24), and juniors (53). In hockey and football, the leaving-college problem is much rarer. North American hockey players born between January 1, 1988, and September 15, 1990, were eligible for selection in the June 2008 NHL draft. Four of the top five players were 18 and the other was 17. Of the 750 players who played in the NHL during the 2007—08 seasons, only 252—roughly a third—came from the college ranks. The majority of the other players came from the three professional leagues that form the Canadian Hockey League. Because there are more younger players entering the draft than in other sports, predicting success is a dicey matter.

"I'm a better scout of 20-year-olds than I am of 18-year-olds," says E. J. McGuire, the NHL's director of central scouting. "It's like walking into a high school and predicting who the best surgeon is going to be. You don't know all the variables yet. There are fewer chances for mistakes in the NBA and the NFL." McGuire says there's no comparison between trying to predict the fortunes of one player who has played in Sarnia or Oshawa and whose next stop is Madison Square Garden, and a future NFLer who has already played three or four college seasons and competed in a Rose Bowl.

Enough said. The National Football League requires that players be three years out of high school. Of the 252 players selected in the April 2008 NFL draft, 53 met the three-year eligibility rule. Since 1990, 814 players have been granted special eligibility, which requires that a player renounce the remainder of his college football eligibility.

There is one notable instance where a player challenged the NFL on its three-year edict. Maurice Clarett was 20 years old with one famous college season behind him when he tried to enter the 2004 NFL draft. Up till then, he had enjoyed the best and the worst of college football. In 2002, he rushed for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns in 11 games at Ohio State. Clarett capped off the season by busting off tackle for five yards to propel Ohio State to a 31-24 victory over Miami in two overtimes, giving the Buckeyes a 14-0 record—the first team ever to do so—and the national championship. The fab freshman followed that feat by being suspended for the entire 2003 season after being charged with filing a false police report and later pleading guilty to a lesser charge of failing to aid a law enforcement official.

Clarett then sued for the right to be included in the 2004 draft. After a victory in his favor in federal court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned the decision. The NFL won because federal labor law and court precedents allow the league to set minimum eligibility requirements in collaboration with the players union. The following year Clarett competed in an NFL Combine, but was logging times as slow as 4.82 seconds in the 40-yard dash. The media called him "Slow-Mo." A runner who once combined speed and power unlike any other in recent memory, Clarett's chances at NFL stardom were finished.

In baseball, players who have completed high school are eligible to play in the major leagues, as are players at four-year colleges who have completed their junior years or have turned 21. Unlike NBA and NFL players, though, drafted baseball players rarely make an immediate impact, but instead report to the minors to polish their skills. It is unusual that major leaguers would be 19 or even 20. Gone are the more innocent days of Bob Feller and Joe Nuxhall. Feller was just 17 in 1936 when he pitched for Cleveland and struck out 15 in his major league start and 17 three weeks later. Then the right-hander went home to finish high school. Joe Nuxhall was 15 in 1944 when he hurled two-thirds of an inning for the Cincinnati Reds.

Whatever the wisdom of leaving college for the pros early, the practice is anything but new in basketball. In 1968, forward Spencer Haywood had played a year at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado before leading the U.S. Olympic team in scoring and to a gold medal in Mexico City. He played another season of college ball at the University of Detroit before signing with the ABA's Denver Rockets. He did it to make money for his family.

Born in Silver City, Mississippi, in 1949, Haywood grew up without a father, who died before he was born. His mother raised six sons and four daughters in a six-room abode on the $10 a week she earned scrubbing floors and a $10 monthly relief stipend. Spencer, like the other children, began working early—mowing lawns, cutting hair and picking cotton at the rate of $6 per 300 pounds.

The trouble started for Haywood after he voided a $1.9 million contract over six years with Denver, claiming the Rockets had misrepresented the deal's real value, which was actually worth only a fifth of that. Haywood then signed with the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics. But the NBA objected, citing sections 2.05 and 6.03 of its bylaws. The provisions—sometimes termed "the four-year rule"—stated that a player who had started college but had dropped out could not be drafted or play in the NBA until his college class had graduated. For Haywood, this meant that he would not be allowed to play until the 1971—72 season, for he would have graduated from the University of Detroit in 1971 had he stayed.

NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy had refused to approve Haywood's contract with the SuperSonics. Seattle's opponents even filed protests of each game in which Haywood appeared in a Sonics uniform. Haywood went to court, claiming that the NBA bylaw sections 2.05 and 6.03 violated Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act (enacted in 1890), which declares illegal "every contract, combination . . . or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce." The NBA replied with an altruistic justification: it wanted to encourage basketball players to finish college, thus preparing for a career outside basketball. Haywood disagreed, asserting that the league had other self-interested reasons for the four-year rule: college basketball was an efficient and almost costless means of developing young talent for the NBA. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NBA did not have to subsidize minor-league teams to give younger players a place to hone their skills. The federal judge who heard Haywood's application said that sections 2.05 and 6.03 were "absolute" and "overly broad." The court ordered the NBA not to take any action that prevented or interfered with Haywood playing for the SuperSonics. He had upset the NCAA's sacrosanct "four-year rule."

Haywood's pioneering efforts cleared the path for others over the next 40 years. In 1974, Moses Malone became the first high school player to go straight to the pros when the Utah Stars chose the center in the third round of the ABA draft. (The team sold his contract to the Spirits of St. Louis the following year.) A pair of 18-year-olds, Bill Willoughby and Darryl Dawkins, went straight from high school to the NBA in the 1975 draft. Dawkins, who was four months older, went earlier in the draft (fifth overall, versus nineteenth) Willoughby became the first to see NBA action, debuting with Atlanta on October 23, 1975.

Malone was the only special crop in this early harvest of high school talent. He won six rebounding titles and three MVP awards, one of them in 1983, when he led Philadelphia to its first championship in 16 years. Aside from being an irrepressible inside force, he scored 29,580 combined points in the NBA and ABA.

Dawkins had an unspectacular NBA career. One of the most physical centers of his time at 6-11 and 251 pounds, Dawkins played 14 pro seasons after graduating from Maynard Evans High in Orlando, Florida. But the nuances of Dawkins' game seemed always to lag behind his physical prowess. He played with four different teams, though rarely full-time, and was best known for colorful nicknames such as Chocolate Thunder and for turning backboards into shards of glass with ferocious dunks.

If Malone was wildly successful, and Dawkins inconsistent, then Bill Willoughby's NBA sojourn was a cautionary tale. Willoughby was hounded by colleges across the country in 1975, but he opted for the NBA. "When I was 18, I didn't have nothing," Willoughby explained. "If you go to college, you're like everybody else. You don't turn down $1 million coming out of high school when you're 18 years old and you don't have no money." He signed for what was then a small fortune: $1.1 million over five years. He never got settled in with one style of coaching, playing for six different teams over eight years in the NBA. His financial bottom line turned out to be way better than his career bottom line of six points, 3.9 rebounds and 17.7 minutes per game.

By the age of 27, Willoughby's career was over and he was broke. He gave his agents power of attorney and they took everything. Before long he sold his large home, moved back in with his parents and took a $10-an-hour job at a recreation center. Willoughby hit bottom with his depression, before an NBA official and former player, Mel Davis, told him to share his story with NBA rookies during a seminar designed to help incoming players understand what to expect from life as a pro. With further encouragement Willoughby decided to enroll at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, with the NBA Retired Players Association paying his entire tuition, which had never been done for any player. Ken Vehrkens, the dean of continuing studies at FDU, claimed that Willoughby worked very hard and ended up on the dean's list. Because Willoughby was just 18 when he entered the NBA, competing with stronger and more seasoned men in their mid-20s to mid-30s, "there was a social adjustment," Vehrkens said. "College might have helped him in that maturation process."

By the end of the 1970s, some famous underclassmen took flight, shooting straight for the stratosphere. Fresh off a national title at Michigan State, Earvin "Magic" Johnson declared for the 1979 draft after his sophomore year and was chosen first pick overall by the Los Angeles Lakers. Isiah Thomas followed the same script in 1981. He led the Hoosiers to an NCAA championship and was selected second overall by the Detroit Pistons in 1981. Chosen first that year was Thomas's future teammate Mark Aguirre, who left DePaul after his junior season. Michael Jordan departed North Carolina and entered the draft following his junior season in 1984, and Shaquille O'Neal gladly left Louisiana State and hack-a-Shaq defenses behind in 1992, after his third year.

By 1995, several high schoolers took the "underclassmen" label even further, disregarding college entirely as an unnecessary speed bump on the highway to greatness. The next 10 years witnessed a series of successes and flops unlike that of any prior time. Kevin Garnett (drafted in 1995), Kobe Bryant (1996), Tracy McGrady (1997) and LeBron James (2003) have touched down on college campuses as often as they have on Mars. Yet most—and possibly all—of them are building Hall of Fame careers. Two other active stars who leapt over the leafy groves of academe are Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudamire. Each has attained renown and the mega-contracts that go with it.

Less known, however, are those high school stars who failed. These include players such as Korleone Young and Taj McDavid. Young, a 6-7 forward from Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia, wanted to turn pro right away. At 19, he declared for the 1998 draft and was picked 40th overall. In the three games he played in the strike-shortened season of 1998—99, he scored a whopping 13 points before being released.

McDavid is another who preferred a meteoric rise to a slow and steady climb. A 6-6 forward and a potent scorer from Palmetto High School in South Carolina, he declared for the draft in 1996, the same year as Bryant and center Jermaine O'Neal. But compared to those two, McDavid was unknown. According to one analyst, McDavid was not even among the top 200 kids in the country. His name is now synonymous with unchecked ambition: he was the first of a handful of high school players to declare for the NBA draft without being selected. As a consequence, he lost his NCAA eligibility. He fought to have it restored, but ended up leaving Anderson College after one semester. Afterward, he worked at a shoe store in a South Carolina mall.

"A lot of it is bad decision making," said Baron, the Rhode Island coach. "Immature decisions or emotional decisions—I don't think there is anything wrong with individuals being able to have the opportunity, as a lot of individuals in other sports, but it is a very small percentile who succeed. So what happens to the rest of the guys that are chasing the rainbow and all of a sudden the rainbow disappears?"

The public has a selective memory, tending to recall only the success stories. Carmelo Anthony's mandatory year turned out to be a dream rendezvous. In 2003, he led Syracuse to its only national title. Anthony said that attending college was "the first time in my life I had to manage things on my own. It really helped me out a lot." Dwayne Wade, who left Marquette after his sophomore year in 2003, led the Miami Heat to their first world championship in 2006.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for college underclassmen to adopt. In some cases the right move is to take the money on the table now that won't always be there, but for others prudence should lead them to finish college, get their degree and put themselves in a better draft position after developing their skills. For every Moses Malone or Dwayne Wade who left early and reaped the benefits, there are far more onetime superstars who took the leap and paid the price.

Kenneth Shouler is the author of Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia and is a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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