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Stern Should Listen to Abdul-Jabbar

In March 1971, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of basketball superstar Spencer Haywood in his suit against the NBA. The league had threatened to take punitive action against Haywood and his team, the Seattle SuperSonics, as Haywood had violated league policy that a player must wait until four years after high school to play in the NBA.

The court upheld an earlier injunction by the U.S. District Court for Central California that stated, in part, "If Haywood is unable to continue to play professional basketball for Seattle, he will suffer irreparable injury in that a substantial part of his playing career will have been dissipated, his physical condition, skills and coordination will deteriorate from lack of high- level competition, his public acceptance as a superstar will diminish to the detriment of his career, his self-esteem and his pride will have been injured and a great injustice will be perpetrated on him."

Because of the rule regarding eligibility in the NBA, Haywood opted for the ABA after his second season at the University of Detroit. Haywood made an immediate impact with the Denver Rockets, becoming the youngest recipient of the MVP award in 1970, when he was 21. He then decided to play for Seattle, and the legal battles ensued.

Intended or not, the court's ruling paved the way for players with little or no college experience to enter the draft, especially after the league abandoned its rigid rules and allowed for early entry starting in 1976 (which followed the merge of the rule-bending ABA with the NBA).

This led to straight-out-of-high-school players such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James forgoing any college experience so they could reap the tremendous financial rewards from playing in the league. This trio was, arguably, ready for the physical and mental rigors of the league.

Then just a few years ago, NBA Commissioner David Stern decided to implement a new rule that a player cannot leap straight from high school to the NBA, requiring at least one year of college or other developmental experience.

But what of the hundreds of other players who leave college early - often after just a year - to pursue their NBA dreams only to never succeed? The numbers of players who declare their eligibility before finishing college are increasing rapidly. On this year's draft day, June 24, there will be a record 74 players who did not finish college, a substantial increase from the previous high of 57 back in 2005.

And consider that no less than five Kentucky players, four freshmen and one junior, will most likely be drafted among the first 25. Last year 17 of the 49 early-entry athletes went undrafted and were left to play elsewhere, many in Europe, or not play at all.

This is most decidedly not a healthy trend. It's hard to deny supremely gifted athletes blessed with extraordinary abilities the right to pursue their dreams and choose to play whenever they deem ready. After all, to deny a talented individual, no matter what age, the chance to reap tremendous economic benefit from his skills is downright un-American, right?

But the sport would be better off to raise the minimum age to 21 to allow for an extra couple of years of educational, emotional and social development. Perhaps the extra year or two of college ball also would reinforce how ready or, more importantly, perhaps not ready a player is for the NBA.

The idea of most colleges actually caring about the educational development of star athletes has been rightfully ridiculed for some time. For most big-time programs (yes, there are definite exceptions, notably Duke), like present-day Kentucky, the basketball program is like a gushing oil well of cash. And players leaving after only a year or two becomes irrelevant if succeeding recruiting classes are as deep.

Should the hypocrisy stop and college players be paid, especially considering how much money they bring to these colleges and universities? Yes. While it would be an infinitesimal fraction of the money first-year NBA players make, it nonetheless would make real and tangible the arrangement that has been in place for so long - that these athletes were brought to the university for one reason alone.

And if not, then make it mandatory for players to finish four years before entering the league. Straddling the morally questionable center line on this issue is unhealthy.

A couple of weeks ago, in a speech that got scant attention, former college graduate and NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke of these issues at a B'nai B'rith sports banquet in Omaha. The former Lakers great believes the minimum age should be raised to 21.

"When I played, the players had to go to college and earn their way onto the court, meaning that there were upperclassmen ahead of them," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Players who had to go through that and had to go to class, when they got to be professional athletes, they were a lot better qualified.

"They get precocious kids from high school who think they're rock stars - ‘Where's my $30 million?' The attitudes have changed, and the game has suffered because of that, and it has certainly hurt the college game. ... Coach John Wooden encouraged me to be more than just a jock. He said if I let my intellectual life suffer because I was so into being an athlete that I would be less than I could be. I would tell all students to pursue your dreams, but don't let your education suffer."

This is a thoughtful analysis devoid of bitterness or envy toward the younger generation from one of the most successful athletes in history. And Stern would be wise to seek counsel from Abdul-Jabbar and others on this issue.

As I've written on prior occasions regarding other sports, half of a commissioner's job should be to uphold the moral integrity of the sport, especially if the on-court game - indeed, the manner in which the sport is played - is threatened, as Abdul-Jabbar implies. This is too often overlooked as the financial health and popularizing of a sport always takes precedence. Basketball has done amazing things with spreading the game worldwide in recent decades. But perhaps it is time now to focus on such matters as the age limit.

Sure, there would likely be legal challenges in the spirit of the aforementioned Haywood case, but there are remedies. Maybe have an early draft for players a year away from eligibility so they're guaranteed a spot after they finish their college career. Think of it as early acceptance for college in reverse.

To be fair, these select superstars are entitled from a very young age, not just because they don't attend or finish college. Most have been pampered since their middle school years.

It's also a trend that has seemingly overtaken many aspects of society, this profound sense of entitlement. Anecdotal evidence would indicate that many young people across all industries are imbued with this same notion of attainment without work, of not advancing by incremental levels but rather entering on a higher plane.

And some would say: Why should we care about a few dozen athletes as opposed to the millions of similar age who weren't gifted with such talent?

Well, since we as a society place so much importance on sports, then sports can serve as a prime example to foster a more rounded, educated and sophisticated populace. They can be the object lesson. And while making money is indeed the American way, so are the virtues of wait-your-turn, hard work and community.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports. His work has also appeared in Yahoo.com, MSNBC.com, and Tennis Week. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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