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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Jermaine O'Neal, David Stern And The NBA

Jermaine O'Neal has generated significant attention with his comment that the NBA's quest to put an age limit on eligibility for the NBA draft is "racist." Many of the responses have been negative, including one that I heard on ESPN Radio this morning from ESPN's (and the Philadelphia Inquirer's) Stephen A. Smith.

It's hard to argue that the NBA is racist when so many players (and most, if not all, of its stars) are African-Americans or men of color. The days of small forwards named John Wetzel and John Tshogl (which prompted GM Pat Williams to promote a "Wetzel Pretzel/Tschogl Bagel" Night) are long gone. Echoing the comments of others, so long as a player helps the NBA make money, it is color-blind. (It had to be during various stages of Dennis Rodman's attempts at haute couture and haute coiffure). The money is great, and players of color make most of it.

That said, I think that Jermaine O'Neal might have a point. He's viewed to be a thoughtful and smart guy, the unfortunate episode in Detroit that happened at the season's outset notwithstanding. It may be that he just didn't articulate it well.

I don't think that there's outright racism involved, but there is a level of paternalism that's being applied here that, if you scratch beneath the surface, could be labeled as either visionary or subtly racist, depending on which end of the spectrum you sit. At the former, the NBA could use other sports as examples of letting "kids" play too early, such as tennis (men's and women's), women's golf, ice hockey and baseball (where "kids" are eligible to be drafted upon graduation from HS, although virtually no one ascends immediately to the majors). At the latter, why the big deal about HS kids in basketball when country club kids or Bollettieri baseliners turn pro as early as 15 in tennis? Where HS kids tee it up on the LPGA tour? When a teenager sometimes laces it up for an NHL team? Are those other sports truly different, or is this paternalism being displayed because the hoopsters by and large are black and the others are white? Perhaps that's what Jermaine O'Neal is getting at.

I, for one, have always laughed at the criticism of AAU hoops teams for both boys and girls. The criticism is that the AAU coaches have more influence with the kids than their HS coaches, and that comment could be right. But what's the difference between inter-city kids who play for HS and AAU teams and HS kids who play both for their HS teams and in USTA tennis events, because college coaches value USTA rankings much more than HS accomplishments? And, heck, sometimes the tennis players don't even play for their HS teams; they concentrate on the USTA events. How many inter-city kids could get away with only playing for an AAU team and not playing on a HS team? (One disclaimer: the AAU and HS basketball seasons don't overlap; AAU is an off-season phenomenon, to my knowledge, where the tennis seasons, to my knowledge, do overlap)? Is if that we're giving predominantly teenaged white tennis players a break, that we don't care enough about tennis to complain, or that we're holding the inter-city hoopsters to a higher standard because we like their game more and don't understand what could be more compelling than playing for one's HS team?

I have written before on why the NBA really should care about having age limits on the draft. Sure, there are kids who declare early, don't get taken or get taken on the second round and get cut who totally screw up their chances at getting a free education, among other things. A one-time big-time college recruit named Ousmane Cisse comes to mind. Other kids leave too early, giving up their free rides and then never making it. Case in point: Duke's Will Avery, who left after one year. Lastly, an age limit could protect teams from themselves. Example: The Detroit Pistons, who eschewed taking either Carmelo Anthony or Dwayne Wade two years ago and took Darko Milicic. All aren't bad reasons. As is the reason that some kids just aren't ready.

Except for three things.

One, if the NBA had a meaningful minor league system, the way baseball does, then this issue would go away. There are thirty NBA teams, so why not have a ten-team minor league to which each team has the right to contribute four players. Naturally, the structure of the league would be to have primary prospects (who get most of the playing time) and secondary ones (who fill in, say, the ninth through twelfth spots). In this fashion, each team could be assured that two prospects get meaningful playing time in, say, a minor-league season that has about fifty games and a playoff system. There also could be a rule that a player cannot make it to the NBA unless he's played a full minor-league season or by the time he's twenty, whichever is earlier. In this fashion, if a first-round pick excels in the minors at the age of 18, showing he's ready for the NBA, his team should have the option to elevate him to the NBA roster or to keep him in the minors. A meaningful minor-league system would solve a lot of problems.

Two, LeBron James. Perhaps the timing is right because the NBA's collective bargaining agreement is coming up for negotiation, but it is rather convenient for the NBA to promote this idea now that it has secured the services of the next greatest player, LeBron James. Would Commissioner Stern have floated this idea and pushed hard for it if it meant that James would have spent, say, three years at Ohio State than filling arenas all over the United States and selling tons of merchandise? He's a good guy, the commissioner, but I'm sure he's happier that James is in the NBA and not the NCAA.

Three, the concept that the best players should be playing, period. The pro argument is that James deserves to be in the NBA, period, and that a rule that bans every player who is under 20 would hurt both James and the NBA. The con argument is that for every James and Anthony there are 20 Donnell Harveys, Kwame Browns, Bill Willoughbys, etc., who would benefit from several seasons of development and meaningful playing time in college or a minor league instead of either sitting on the deep bench for three seasons, bouncing around the CBA or playing in places like Argentina and Malaysia, where almost nothing is guaranteed.

The latter, of course, is the NBA's strongest argument for the age limit. The real question, though, is whether adopting such a rule is wise for the NBA, which is battling with an almost-schizophrenic image problem. On the one hand, it benefits from the hip-hop, youthful, MTV music-course it has taken and sells a lot of tickets and merchandise because of it. On the other hand, many of the games are unwatchable, as fundamentals have been sacrificed at the altar of ESPN's SportsCenter, which favors lob passes and spectacular jams over precision passing and a well-run fast break.

The NBA's product just isn't that good, even if its packaging is spectacular.

Adopting an age limit will tone down the packaging and focus more attention on the product. But adopting an age limit will not necessarily improve the product.

Not so long as so many teams make the playoffs. Not so long as the salary structure is such that some of the most heralded franchises -- those in Boston, New York and Philadelphia -- can remain mediocre for years (although I confess that management has had something to do with that too). Not so long as no one can hit a mid-range jumper with regularity or so long as so few teams run motion offenses and rely on clearouts (which have many players standing around) instead.

Raising the eligibility limit to 20, then, is an attempt to protect the league from itself and young players from themselves (assuming that the latter need protecting in the first place, and not all do). Which is all well and good, except what both the league and the players need to do, together, is to improve the product and make it worthy of the packaging it now enjoys. The NBA has benefitted from its outstanding packaging for a long time, but one day the fans will wake up to realize that what's inside the box and the wrapping is an old model that just doesn't work very well.


Blogger Lee J. Cockrell said...

I agree that the NBA is a flawed league, but they already have a development league that doesn't work all that well. Part of the problem is the large disparity of talent even at the NBA level. Of the top 60 players drafted in 2003 (for example), the top player is potentially one of the ten best players of all time, and last American player taken (Brandon Hunter) will be lucky to have a three year career as a benchwarmer. If Hunter had five more years dedicated to development, he almost certainly still wouldn't be a lottery pick.

Compound this with the fact that all of the first round picks will sign and be guaranteed enough money that they never have to work again in their lives.

Another part of the problem is free agency. Many players (and fans) do not identify with their team because of constant roster rollover.

I don't like today's NBA game much, but I don't have an easy solution. They're making a mint, in their eyes why should they change?

3:17 PM  
Anonymous Colin said...

great site. wanted to post a bit of what I wrote over at the accbasketblog:

Jermain O'Neal's assertion strikes me as absolutely silly. His "support" for the conclusion that an age limit is "racist" is that the NBA is largely black, while other leagues that allow young pros (most notably baseball and hockey) have more whites. What is this supposed to prove? the circumstances of each sport are differnet and largely incomparable.

At the end of the day, the effect of an age limit would be to preserve the jobs of veteran black players at the expense of younger black players. How is this racist? To put it in lawyer terms, O'Neal hasn't even stated a prima facie case of race discrimination. He's claiming an unfair restriction keeps black men from having a specific job, when the people who are holding the jobs are - drum roll, please - other black men.

I guess of you are 18, black, and talented you could look at the entire sports landscape and say that the leagues that have age limits (the NFL and (perhaps soon) the NBA) are mostly black, while the leagues that don't have 'em are mostly white (or, in the case of baseball, white and Latino), and that these age limits must therefore be about keeping young black men from maming millions. But that's silly. The age limits in pro sports are about money. There are very lucrative college football and college basketball system, which makes money for the schools and provide a free minor league system for the NFL and NBA. So, in those sports, age limits benefit everyone in power, keeping the college game lucrative and reducing overhead for the pro leagues. These age restrictions have nothing to do with race and everything to do with money.

But becasue college hockey and baseball aren't revenue producing (meaning that they are not-that-widely watched, although that sems to be changing), nobody cries when those players turn pro early. Further, there's no economic incentive (i.e., the maintenance of a free minor league) for those sports to restrict young players from going pro.

It's all about the Benjamins, baby.

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