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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

(continued from page 2)

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.

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