NEW YORK — It was still an hour before the summer sun dropped from the New York sky, and outside the crowded Madison Square Garden Theatre, fans sat on steps, sweating through tank tops. Inside, however, it was dark and cool, all long sleeves, custom suits and silk ties. This was pro basketball’s version of prom night. The NBA Draft.

This one would change the landscape forever.

Three young men, each of whom was at least 6-foot-11, none of whom was more than a few weeks out of high school, sat at separate tables in a blocked-off VIP area by the stage. They were surrounded by their mothers, brothers, fathers, cousins, buddies, girlfriends and, oh, yes, their agents, the ones with the cell phones to their ears. Teenagers were for sale tonight — a record six high schoolers had declared for the draft — and surprisingly, they, not the older, more accomplished college players, were the coveted items.

NBA Commissioner David Stern, the ring master of this event, went from table to table, shaking hands with players’s fathers and uncles, many of whom looked young enough to be playing in the league. Across the floor, a live TV broadcast was being sent around the world, and former NBA personalities Charles Barkley and Rick Pitino were talking about players as if they weren’t in the room.

“Kwami Brown is gonna go first,” Barkey announced.

A bounce pass away, Brown, the seventh of eight children, sat at his table, wearing a custom-tailored light yellow suit. He didn’t look at Barkley. He looked at the big screen braodcast of Barkley. He heard the prediction and the crowd roared. Kwami smiled.

High-schoolers go first

At the table in front of Brown sat Shane Battier and his family. Battier, at 22, was the old man of the night. A few months ago, he led Duke to an NCAA championship. He was National College Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, a winner in every category, and, not to mention, a freshly minted college graduate. A few years back, that would have put him at the top of the heap.

Not anymore.

“With the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Stern bellowed, “the Washington Wizards select …Kwami Brown, Glynn Academy …

“With the No. 2 pick in the draft, the Los Angeles Clippers select …Tyson Chandler, Dominguez High School …

“With the No. 4 pick in the draft, the Chicago Bulls select…. Eddie Curry, Thornwood High School …”

There it was. Shriley Temple Night for the American Sports Dream. Three of the first four NBA picks were high school seniors — the first time a prep star has been No. 1 — and the only pick in between, No. 3 overall, was a tall Spaniard named Pau Gasol, who was all of 19.

Battier, meanwhile, mature, skilled, and proven, would not go until the No. 6 pick, the Vancouver Grizzlies. By the time he sauntered onto the stage to pull on the Vancouver cap, Brown, Chandler and Curry were already on the other side of the building, being interviewed by CNN, ESPN, CBS. ABC and NBC.

“Us high school guys are representin’,” Brown said, smiling, “We’re gonna silence the critics.”

Us high school guys?

Hoop dreams forever altered

Well, Brown, Curry and Chandler are indeed “representin’ ” but what they represent is up for debate. This much is not: the dream has been altered. No longer will young kids on asphalt courts dribble until it’s dark outside while whispering to themselves, “One day, I’m gonna get a college scholarship and go to the NBA.” The dream will now exclude that middle step.

In Brown’s case, it already has. Someone asked him if, when he was younger, he ever dreamed of going the traditional college-to-pros route.

“Never,” he said blankly.

“But your older brother, Tabari, is on scholarship at Jacksonville University,” someone said. “Did he ever suggest you do the same?”

“No, cause I can beat him,” Brown said. “He can’t say nothing to me.”

Talent talks, college walks. Promise has become more tempting than proof, and NBA teams are now more worried about passing up the next Kobe Bryant than picking the next Korleone Young. You may think this is a sad state of affairs, or simply the American way. Either way, it is irreversible.

The danger, of course, is that if college isn’t even a desire, then the motivation to do anything more than stay eligible in high school is diminished. This leads, inevitably, to broken dreams by kids who thought for sure they’re be “the next Kwami Brown” only to find themselves undrafted.

But Wednesday, before a cheering crowd on a New York night, no one spoke of broken dreams. By the time the first round was over, only four college seniors would be chosen, none, besides Battier, higher than 20th. Meanwhile, a fourth high school player, DeSagana Diop was the No. 8 pick.

As Kwami Brown, history-maker, was being tugged at by TV reporters, I found Battier and asked if he were saddened by the flip-flop in priorities.

“Not really,” he said. “It may sound archaic, but I actually enjoyed college. I was in no rush to leave it.”

Imagine that.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313–223–4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3–6 p.m. weekdays on WJR–AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3–5 p.m.

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