The NBA’s interest in making sure basketball prospects spend at least some time in college has been a constant subject of debate since the league instituted a minimum age to enter the league. That age restriction gets sillier every year considering some of the league’s biggest current stars — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Amar’e Stoudemire — skipped college and went straight to the league. Even a crop of next-tier type players like Josh Smith, Jermaine O’Neal, Tyson Chandler, Kendrick Perkins, Monta Ellis and others made the transition from high school to successful pro. Sure, there were busts along the way, but isn’t that the case with college stars as well? When the NBA had so much success drawing from the high school ranks and finding players who became competent rotation players or better, why was it necessary to try and funnel players into going to college?
When March Went Mad by Seth Davis is a good historical starting point for why the NBA would have a vested interest in seeing kids spend at least some time in college. Of the players listed above, I would say that only James came into the league as an established star. The problem with drafting high school players is that, except in rare cases like James’, most fans have seen very little of that high school player. The upside of drafting college players, as shown in Davis’ book, is that with the audience the NCAA has, players can potentially come into the league as established off-court stars, generating buzz and interest in the NBA as a result of college success. Davis chronicles the lead-up to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team meeting Larry Bird’s Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA Championship game, looking at not only the massive coverage and interest in the game itself, but the divergent paths Johnson and Bird took to becoming major stars.
Some have argued over the years that Johnson and Bird entering the NBA saved the struggling league. They were charismatic, proven winners in an era when some of the league’s marquee names — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving, for example — were aging. The NBA had image problems as a result of rampant drug abuse in the 1970s. Ratings were up and down. On the strength of their title runs, Johnson came into the league as a rookie and led the Lakers to a championship. Just one year later, Bird entered the league and vaulted the Celtics back into title contention. Neither team had to spend much time on player development. Neither player needed coaching on how to deal with big media coverage. The expensive work of narrative-building had been taken care when both guys were in college and the NBA reaped the rewards immediately. Even if this generation’s high school-to-NBA players have even greater career accomplishments than Magic or Bird, it took time in each player’s case to get to even an All-Star level, let alone elite status as one of the top players in the game. It took time for fans nationally to connect with them. Even if players like Bryant or James had spent just one year in college, its likely both would’ve helped big-name college teams (Bryant has said in the past that he likely would’ve played at Duke, James has said he probably would’ve committed to Ohio State) to NCAA tournament success, success that would’ve led to greater exposure for the individual players and greater benefits to the NBA when they entered the draft as more famous commodities.
The other interesting theme throughout Davis’ book is the divergent paths Johnson and Bird took to superstardom. Johnson was the guy who loved the spotlight, who the media couldn’t help but cover because his game was so flashy and noticeable and his personality off the court was so big that it drew them in. Bird, on the other hand, was insanely talented and extremely reclusive and uncomfortable with the spotlight. He obviously grew more comfortable with this as he became a pro, but he didn’t deal well with the pressure of playing at his state’s flagship basketball program, Indiana University, which is why he went to Indiana State. Whereas the media was drawn to Johnson naturally, it was almost as if they worked really hard to cultivate the narratives and mythology about Bird.
Anyway, there’s not any kind of Pistons connection to the book, but I loved reading it not only because the Bird-Magic NCAA title game is one of the best moments in college basketball history, but because it’s full of great information on Johnson’s high school career at Lansing Everett. Anyone who has followed some of the state’s powerhouse high school programs over the years will certainly appreciate some of the names Davis caught up with and talked to in the book.
Next up: Forty Minutes of Hell by Rus Bradburd
Tags: Tracy McGrady