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By far the best quote regarding this year’s NBA draft came from Andrew Wiggins of Kansas even before he became the No. 1 pick. While announcing that he was opting for the pros after only one year as an undergraduate, Wiggins said, “It wasn’t an easy decision. I wish I had more time. College just goes by so fast.”
Is surely does, especially if you stay only nine months before bolting to get your hands on the millions waiting for you in the NBA draft. These superstars have come to be known as “one-and-done” players who leave college after only a year due to the NBA’s rule of not drafting prospects until they’re 19 years old.
For Wiggins, Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and the other one-and-done prodigies, draft night was a celebration of dreams come true. It was a triumph of…what? Not education, certainly. That’s probably why no university president dared show up to join in the hugging and back-slapping.
I don’t play blame the players. They’re not the ones who have reduced academics to little more than an annoyance at some elite programs. I blame the university presidents, more than anyone, for taking the college out of the phrase, “big-time college basketball.” Some programs are far closer to the NBA in every respect that they are to their brethren in NCAA Division I.
My life would be a lot simpler if I could just go with the flow. Big-time college basketball is never going to be as innocent or enjoyable as I remember it from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. I’ve tried to sell myself on the idea that since I can’t do anything about the way the game has been corrupted by agents, shoe companies, and TV, I should just relax and get what enjoyment I can from it.
But I can’t help myself. I just can’t rid myself of the quaint notion that college basketball should be played by students who have a sincere interest in getting the education they need to become more than just highly-paid entertainers. Our society can survive without entertainers. We can’t survive without doctors, lawyers, teachers, ministers, scientists, and, yes, journalists.
Of all the players who were paraded across the stage in the NBA Draft, the one who caught my attention most was Isaiah Austin, the 7-foot sophomore from Baylor. At the end of last season, it was learned that Austin had been playing with a prosthetic right eye. Then, just before the draft, he announced that his basketball career was over due to Marfan’s Syndrome, a rare disease that affects the heart, lungs, and circulatory system.
In a nice move, the NBA brought him on stage, where he received a hug from commissioner Adam Silver, a baseball cap with the NBA logo, and a standing ovation from the crowd. Even nicer, the television guys reported that Baylor coach Scott Drew had offered him a job on his staff while he completed work for his degree.
A degree from Baylor is a pretty nice consolation prize. Of course, it won’t replace the instant money and fame he would have gotten from the NBA. But in the long run, if Austin handles his adversity with courage and intelligence, he’ll have every bit as good a chance, maybe even better, as any of the draftees to make a significant contribution to society.
As I watched the proceedings in Brooklyn, I saw a lot of athletically gifted young men who had traded their baggy shorts for what used to be known as “zoot suits” in another era. Each was surrounded by a posse of relatives, friends, hangers-on, and agents. Some college coaches were front-and-center, most notably John Calipari of Kentucky and Mark Gofffried of N.C. State.
One after another, the new millionaires trooped on stage, put on a baseball cap with the insignia of the team that had selected them, and exchanged hugs and handshakes with Silver, who’s so stiff and reserved that he makes David Stern look like a Kramer of the Seinfeld show.
It’s good for the one-and-done guys that federal law guarantees privacy regarding the courses they take, their classroom attendance, and their grades. In a recent interview with ESPN, Rashad McCants, a starter on North Carolina’s 2005 NCAA title team, matter-of-factly stated that he and his teammates rarely went to class – and that Coach Roy Williams knew about it. The interview led the NCAA to re-open its investigation of Williams’ program.
And let’s never forget the cautionary tale of Derrick Rose, the one-and-done star who led Memphis to the 2008 national title game. After the season, an NCAA investigation revealed that somebody had taken Rose’s college entrance exam for him. The university got probation and “vacated” in the record book instead of credit for finishing second. Rose, the No. 1 pick in the draft, got millions.
The gap between the marquee athletes – the ones good enough to have their jerseys marketed by the school and the NCAA in the days before the O’Bannon lawsuit – and ordinary students is larger than it has ever been.
While they’re on campus, guys like Wiggins received perks that would make a CEO blush. They get the best in housing, tutoring, and transportation. And despite what UConn’s Shabazz Napier said about going hungry at night – I still find that to be an incredible stretch – they eat rather well at no cost to them.
They are treated far better, in other words, than their classmates who are there to get an education. These youngsters and their families have to deal with rising tuition costs in a weak economy. Often parents and the kids themselves have to get second or third jobs to pay for tuition and books. Many are forced to borrow money, leaving them burdened with exorbitant debt even before they get their first job.
Yet you don’t find students rebelling against the inequities of the system. The feeling seems to be that since they’re powerless to do anything about it, why bother?
Besides, they like it when their team is in the hunt for the NCAA title. That’s one of the reasons they go to schools like Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, and Indiana, who all had “one-and-done” players picked in the draft’s first round.
Sometimes I wonder if big-time college basketball still has a conscience, and, if so, where it is. You can’t find it at the NCAA or in the coaches association. It’s not hanging out at ESPN, Nike, Adidas, or the summer camps. It used to have a home in the media, but today’s journalists don’t seem much concerned about issues that don’t involve who has the inside track on a recruit.
I’m sure college does go by very quickly when you’re having fun and millions of dollars are waiting for you after only nine months on campus. I don’t begrudge Wiggins his money. I just wish he could have gotten it without going through the charade of being a student.
Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby.