by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Here’s the scene: The door opens and a recruiter walks in. He sits down with the high school basketball star. Says he wants the kid to play for his team. Says the kid might only have to stay a year or two before he’s ready for the NBA. And don’t worry about attending math class, it won’t be necessary.

Then the recruiter reaches into his bag and takes out … a checkbook.

At this point, you’re thinking the NCAA bursts down the door with its surveillance camera and yells, “FREEZE!”

But you’d be wrong. This is perfectly legal. This is how the CBA wants to recruit new players, offering high school stars salaries from $20,000 to

And I, for one, think it’s about time.

Oh, I know college coaches don’t like the idea — mostly because they would surrender some prize recruits. But let’s face it. College basketball could stand some downsizing. It has lost its way. In its zest for the biggest and best, it no longer looks for the brightest. In some cases, it doesn’t care if the kid has any desire to go to class at all.

And if the kid is only going to practice and play games, he might as well do it where he gets paid and developed for the pros — at a reasonable rate. This is better than college basketball’s growing trend toward mutual exploitation, when the school milks the player for a few years, riding his talents to championships and TV contracts, and the player uses the school to showcase himself until he can jump to the NBA for the big cash.

It also addresses the problem of when the kid finally does go pro and his first paycheck is a $2-million bonus. Having had no experience with money — thanks partly to NCAA rules prohibiting on-campus jobs — he often goes crazy, blows it on luxuries, acquires the kinds of glitzy leeches big bankrolls attract.

Next thing you know, he’s arrested for something.

Alternative for poor students

How much better if there were an in-between step — not for everyone, certainly not for players who truly want to get an education — but for the kid who has no real intention of studying, or staying in school any longer than it takes to become an NBA draft pick.

Take the case of Lamar Odom, a 6-foot-10 high school star out of New Britain, Conn. The kid can play. Colleges would love to have him. But academics were a problem. Odom eventually chose Nevada-Las Vegas — a team with a dubious history of bending the rules — and he took his ACT test. He scored a 22, which was high.

But when the NCAA said it wanted to investigate that score, Odom balked and said he wanted out of his scholarship. I’ll leave you to figure out what’s going on there.

In the meantime, along comes the CBA, and offers Odom a $100,000 contract for one year. Not NBA money, but pretty darn good. Most of us would have taken a
$100,000-a-year job out of high school, right?

And if a guy like Odom isn’t up to snuff academically, and is just going to skate by when he gets to college — or be sneaked through by his coaches — isn’t this a better alternative? Get paid while he prepares for the big leagues?

And please, don’t tell me about how much smarter he might get simply by living on a college campus. That’s a noble idea — one I used to believe, too. But if today’s college basketball teams are so concerned about players’ experiencing campus life, why do they schedule weeklong tournaments in Puerto Rico and Hawaii, or midweek games that take two days of travel, away from classes and social events? And why do so many schools put athletes together in one dorm? Throwing jock parties and hanging out with jock friends is not sampling the college experience. It’s preparation for joining the Dallas Cowboys.

Sure, coaches are angry that the CBA will offer contracts to high school stars. The joke is they’re angry about having to raise their rates.

But college coaches spend an inordinate amount of time trying to keep in line
— and in class — players who don’t really want to be there, and, in some cases, don’t belong there. How much more could a coach concentrate on his real job if he knew the players he had were going to be around for a few years? And he didn’t have to break their arms to go to class? And he didn’t have to worry about NCAA violations every other minute?

A coach who actually just …coaches?

It boggles the mind.

Not really a radical idea

Now, this CBA thing is not a radical idea. Baseball and hockey both have minor league systems that pay their players; the only difference is the players there have already been drafted. Still, you’ll notice there are fewer NCAA scandals in hockey and baseball. Do you think that’s a coincidence?

As for college hoop junkies who worry that the best talent will be siphoned off, further diluting the college product? Come on. The product is already diluted when guys like Stephon Marbury stay in school for only one year. It’s diluted when a player fails to make his grades and has to sit out. It’s diluted when a school goes on NCAA probation for slipping a few bucks to a kid for a hamburger.

If anything, this CBA move might nudge college basketball back toward college students rather than stars-in-transit. And if it shrinks the game a bit, well, that might be a good thing.

Think about it. Maybe the only reason the folks running college basketball don’t want the CBA serving as the NBA’s minor league is because they’re doing it themselves.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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