Sean Higgins belongs in the NBA next season like Popeye belongs in the Marines. But Higgins may decide to go. And the NBA will not refuse him. Never mind that he is just a few months past his 21st birthday. Never mind that he lacks the maturity for pro basketball. Hey, he lacks the maturity for college basketball. But that hasn’t stopped him.

As I write this, Higgins — who did not get on the plane to Ann Arbor with the Wolverines Sunday after their defeat in the NCAA tournament — is somewhere in Los Angeles, at his mother’s or his cousin’s or his other cousin’s. I tried making the phone calls. No one knows where he is. They do insist he is thinking very carefully. Should he stay at Michigan or should he turn pro? I doubt Higgins needs this much time. You ask me, he’s gone.

And that should surprise nobody.

They come for the spotlight, they leave for the money. That’s the sad truth about many star players in college athletics. Oh, there are a notable few who march in graduation, who cherish the degree, who stay in touch with the old freshman dorm. But more see college as Pro Prep, a spring training for the NBA or NFL.

Higgins, always an impatient sort, seems to feel he is ready now for the big green money dip, as a junior, despite a career dotted with absences and suspensions, despite a reputation as a mad bomber. Never mind that the NBA may not exactly be awaiting his arrival. Never mind that despite how special he feels his shooting talent is, there are plenty of guys riding the bench in the pros who can shoot that well. Never mind. He thinks he’s ready.

After all, not long ago, Higgins told a writer: “The reason I came to Michigan was to get this (championship) ring. And I got it.”

Funny. You didn’t hear the word “education” in there, did you? Which way to the NBA?

But then, what did you expect? Isn’t this the same Sean Higgins who, three years ago, fresh out of high school, signed with UCLA, then switched to Michigan, claiming his stepfather coerced his first decision with, among other things, a baseball bat?

Forgive me for being brash, but I don’t think they were arguing over the English Lit program. There were charges of improper payments, special favors. So before he even graduated from high school, Higgins was in the real world, cold and hard. He told people he wanted a program that would prepare him fast for the NBA. He preferred Michigan and Bill Frieder. When Frieder left last year, Higgins threatened to transfer or go pro. Just a few months ago, he pondered his future once Rumeal Robinson, Terry Mills, Loy Vaught and Mike Griffin graduated. His concern: “I’ll be triple-teamed a lot.”

Didn’t hear anything about leading the team as a senior. Didn’t hear anything about giving his alma mater his best year. Didn’t hear it. Don’t expect to.

I saw Steve Fisher, the coach of the Wolverines, Sunday night in the hotel, three hours after his group was blown out by Loyola Marymount. He looked dazed. I’ll bet he had just found out Higgins wasn’t coming back on the plane. Fisher, like a lot of us, still believes in college sports, the joy, the camaraderie. Now next year’s star player, the supposed senior leader, had told him, Coach, I gotta think about my own future, I’ll get back to you.

That’s the problem with having a heart, Steve.

Kids will break it. But who can blame him?

But, having said that, let me say this: You can hardly blame them. Guys like Higgins and Leroy Hoard — another Wolverines junior who is turning pro, even though the NFL is full of people who say, “Leroy, don’t do it” — are taking their cues from the real world. They see their own universities reeling in millions from their talents. They see TV networks getting huge ratings because they are in the running for a Heisman Trophy or an NCAA scoring title.

They see other kids in college saying, “We’re just here to get a good job to make lots of money.” What do you expect? They want a slice. As soon as possible. A kid like Higgins looks at the NBA, he sees guys out there night after night, spinning, jumping, talking trash, and he says to himself: “You don’t need 64 credits of political science to do that.”

And he is right. But he is missing the point.

Sure, some guys make it with a quick bolt: Magic Johnson, Moses Malone. But others have tried and struggled, like Chris Washburn and Pearl Washington. Others just disappear, they’re in Italy, or the CBA, or in some textile factory.

Meanwhile, what is lost in all this is a very simple idea: that college is worthwhile in and of itself. That the atmosphere of a campus will never come again. What’s lost, in a word, is youth. Everything is money, adult money, gimme mine, I’m ready. Gone is even the whiff of amateurism, young men playing sports for the sheer joy of competition. Who does that now but the scrubs and the small schools? The other guys are worried about breaking a leg before draft day.

They come for the spotlight, they leave for the money. It will be no surprise if Higgins says, “I’m outta here.” And by the time he realizes there are no academic counselors in the NBA, no training tables, nobody to give you an “incomplete” if you screw up, it will be too late. He’ll have a paycheck — a smaller one than he might have gotten after next season — and all the headaches that come with it. We can only shake our heads and wish him luck.

He’s gonna need it.

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