They played another game without Sean Higgins Saturday night. His Michigan teammates were shooting and slapping high- fives and he was not around. He won’t be for the rest of the season. “What a shame,” some say. “What a waste,” others say. When a basketball player fails to meet academic requirements these days, there isn’t a whole lot of sympathy.
Who’s to blame for Sean Higgins’ predicament? Here is a kid who was chased like a biscuit by the dogs of college sports — they were after him by his 14th birthday — and when the big moment came, he was so confused he signed first with UCLA, then reneged. A judge ruled he had signed “under coercion” by his stepfather, and Higgins chose U-M instead. Before he arrived, he was a front-page controversy.
And now this. He fails to meet the standard, a 2.0 grade- point average. And by most accounts, Higgins is not a stupid kid. His low grades have been blamed on absence from class. A freshman didn’t go to class? How simple can that be? Who’s to blame for Sean Higgins? Really?
Bill Frieder is the Michigan coach. He is relentless when stalking a recruit. He will drive 100 miles in the snow just to stand outside a high school locker room. The rules say he can’t speak to the prospect — but the kid sees him there and knows he’s interested.
Frieder is hardly the only coach who does this. Hardly the only coach who writes letters to recruits as early as the eighth grade, or makes phone calls from airports, hotel rooms, gyms: “How ya doin’? Just want you to know we won tonight. Hope you’re still considering our school.”
Recruiting is a gold rush. But the effort to recruit should be matched by the effort to educate. Shouldn’t it? Frieder says he knew Higgins “was close” to missing the requirement. He says Higgins told him he was going to class.
Can’t Frieder monitor whether he’s going?
“We did,” he says. “I knew he missed some classes when the team went to Alaska (for the Great Alaska Shootout tournament). And I knew he missed a few others and that hurt him. . . . He just came up short.”
Since the announcement Wednesday, Frieder has shielded Higgins from the news media. He says a freshman shouldn’t be grilled about academic performance. He says Higgins feels bad enough already. “Geez. He’s just 18 and he’s front-page news,” laments the coach. “It’s enough.”
A commendable sentiment.
A little late, don’t you think?
Earle Higgins is Sean’s father. He played basketball at Eastern Michigan. When he finished, he went to the ABA, the Indiana Pacers, where he figured
“to play 10 or 15 years, like everybody else.”
It didn’t happen. It rarely does. Earle Higgins played one season with Indiana and was cut, tried once more, and was cut again. “The coach at that time gave me some advice. He said: ‘Don’t become a gypsy, going from team to team.’ “
Higgins listened. He turned to the working world. And suddenly he felt terribly inadequate. What could he do? What was he qualified for? All through college, he had figured on a pro career. He had never studied harder than he had to. In the ABA, he was earning $110,000 a year. When he left, he took a job on the Chrysler assembly line.
For $156 a week.
“Believe me, I am hurting inside just as much as Sean is,” says Higgins, 40, now a Chrysler executive. “Especially because of what I went through.
“I tried to check up on him every two weeks. He told me he was going to class. Just like every 18-year-old, I guess. You say, ‘How’s it goin’?’ He says, ‘No problem. I’m in good shape.’ His grades themselves were OK. He was marked down for attendance.”
Why didn’t he attend?
“I guess he just felt it wasn’t that important.”
Earle Higgins winces when he says that. Bad enough he had to learn the hard way. But his son, too? The irony is that Earle devotes much of his time to ALERT, a group dedicated to teaching high school athletes the need to study. “I showed Sean all the statistics, told him how kids are passed through the system because they have athletic talent, and when their eligibility is up, they’re discarded.”
“I guess I didn’t spend as much time as I should have with him.”
Sean Higgins stands 6-feet-9 — long arms, long legs and excellent basketball skills. Already — before he is old enough to drink in some states
— he is averaging nearly 10 points a game for Michigan, a team ranked high in the national polls. He is, in college sports circles, a prize.
But at what cost? Higgins said he was offered cash and a car to attend UCLA. He claims his stepfather threatened him with a baseball bat if he didn’t sign with the Bruins. Does that sound crazy? Not in college basketball.
Here is a world where people will stop at nothing, coaches go to the ends of the earth for recruits — to West Germany, Greece, Yugoslavia. Consider 7-foot-6 Manute Bol. He was brought to Cleveland State from the Sudan. He barely spoke English.
Did anyone care? Bol played a year of college ball, at Bridgeport, then bolted to the pros. The message is clear: College is a stepping-stone. So players take the easiest of subjects, they seek lenient professors, they believe all will be taken care of by a pro career. They ignore the statistics, which show that only two out of 100 ever make it in the NBA. And their coaches are more concerned with basketball than education. As long as the player keeps his grades up, the coach is satisfied.
Yet even this is made difficult. Once, college basketball teams used to play solely on weekends, so classes wouldn’t be missed. Now, with the influx of television dollars, there are midweek games, tournaments in faraway places. No matter how diligent they are about studies, players are forced to miss classes.
Because of all this, Frieder says freshmen should be ineligible to play. They should be forced to absorb college for a year. Learn the ropes.
“If you truly felt that way,” he is asked, “then why didn’t you redshirt Higgins? Sit him out? You would have accomplished all those things.”
“Because,” says Frieder, after a pause, “if I did that, he wouldn’t have chosen Michigan.”
Julius Erving, the former NBA superstar and a successful businessman, once told a story about trying to hire an ex-NBA player as a receptionist.
Erving told him: “This job involves answering the phone, filing and a little typing. What do you think a job like that should pay?”
The ex-pro said: “$100,000.”
He was not kidding.
Perception becomes reality. What we are told over and over, we start to believe. All along this crazy ride, Sean Higgins was told that basketball was it — the do-all, end-all — that the pros will be there, and all he need do was squeak along academically until they called. He saw his decision to attend U-M reported on network TV. He read about himself in the newspapers. And soon the simplest of things, going to class, he somehow determined less than necessary. Is he selfish? Naive? Misled? Pitiful? And what are they telling him now?
“I told him to hang in there,” says Frieder. “He’ll be back next year.”
“I told him this is a lesson that he had to learn,” says Higgins’ father.
“And he’s learning it.”
And they played another game without Sean Higgins Saturday night. In the end, he has only himself to blame. Himself, and everybody else. CUTLINE The message to Sean Higgins was that college was a stepping- stone to the pros.