It’s no secret that David Stern wants to extend the NBA age limit rule, making high school players wait two years before they could enter the draft.
Despite detractors on both sides of the issue, extending the rule isn’t about the players, the college game or even the NBA.
It’s what’s best for the game of basketball itself. And that’s why Stern’s wish should come true.
Speaking on behalf of the players, Congressman Steve Cohen, who represents the recruiting hotbed of Memphis, gave a forceful interview with the New York Times about Stern’s proposal:
Cohen said that one of his primary arguments against the rule, which is part of the collective bargaining agreement between the league and union, was that soldiers can fight for their country at age 18 but not play in the N.B.A. He also noted that predominantly white sports like hockey, baseball and golf lack similar restrictions.
The age limits rule’s detractors aren’t just on the players side; former coaches like Indiana’s Bobby Knight have expressed concerns about forcing kids to take classes who don’t want to be there damages the integrity of the game.
The age limit rule was never about its stated intention—improving player development and getting high schoolers more ready for professional basketball.
Preps-to-pro players have been overwhelmingly successful in the NBA; the careers of future hall of famers like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant certainly weren’t affected by missing out on college. For physically mature players like LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire, there was hardly even a transition phase—both were rookies of the year.
The rules’ proponents often point to the many young high schoolers who never made it but just as many four-year seniors, if not more, bust out of the NBA every year.
In reality, the rule was designed to strengthen the college game and make NCAA basketball resemble NCAA football.
College sports play an important role for both the NFL and the NBA—the free promotion of the sport in more rural parts of the country and the construction of ready-made narratives for the league’s young players.
Tim Tebow, without playing a snap of pro football, already has one of the highest-selling jerseys.
In his one year at UT, Kevin Durant created countless fans willing to follow him on the next level, to the point where the Thunder have scheduled exhibition games in Austin. Even when his team struggled through a 3-29 start in his second year, Durant was still marked for stardom by national columnists like Bill Simmons because of his days at Texas.
If he had come straight out of high school and then played in relative obscurity for bad teams in a small market like Oklahoma City, no one would know who he was. But now, after one playoff series against the Lakers and starring in an international competition no one watched, Durant is one of the league’s biggest stars.
In David Stern’s ideal universe, LeBron would have spent two seasons winning collegiate player of the year awards at Ohio State, racking up comparisons to Kareem and Bill Walton. His image, instead of being defined by a shoe company, would have been defined by exploits in the (seemingly) pure NCAA Tournament.
The anticipation for his entrance to the NBA, while similar in intensity to the anticipation of his debut in Miami, would have been the complete opposite in terms of fan approval.
None of this makes it any fairer for truly hard-luck cases like Oklahoma City’s Byron Mullens, who grew up in dire poverty and whose family desperately needed the money he could have provided as an NBA first-round pick out of high school.
But what makes an extension of the age limit palatable, despite Cohen’s objections and stories like Mullens,’ are the growing number of options young basketball players have.
Brandon Jennings blazed the trail in terms of going to Europe and making money without sacrificing his NBA career, while Latavious Williams, a completely disinterested student, earned a living playing in the NBDL last year before being drafted by the Thunder.
What players have to remember is that their physical abilities can lead them to successful careers only because of the game of basketball itself.
Without basketball, Mullens would be a freak gawked at in public—too tall and uncoordinated to try any other professional sport. He owes the game something, and if that’s a two-year internship playing collegiate basketball, then so be it.
The game of basketball is better served in America by the NCAA being a functional minor-league system, promoting its star players in regions of the country—Tobacco Road, the Upper Northwest and the Great Plains—with few NBA teams.
It's not fair, especially considering the people benefiting off these young basketball players' labor—the wealthy boosters that run college athletic departments, non-scholarship players for sports like golf and tennis and the student bodies of elite schools, the majority of whom come from vastly different economic backgrounds.
But life isn’t fair either, and that’s maybe the most valuable lesson these players could learn at college anyway.
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