Posted: Friday June 3, 2005 7:35PM; Updated: Friday June 3, 2005 8:16PM
Salim Stoudamire (top) and Matt Walsh don't look like this any longer.
While perusing reports from pre-NBA Draft workouts -- mostly batches of unrevealing quotes from poker-faced personnel directors, or unequivocal optimism from the players themselves -- I noticed one, troubling trend. While auditioning for the same league whose MVP, Steve Nash, wears his hair long, two of the NCAA's hirsute icons felt compelled to chop it all off:
Arizona shooter extraordinaire Salim Stoudamire, whose 'do was (shown at right) longer than the average hoopster's during his senior season, arrived for his Denver Nuggets workout on May 31 with a buzzed-down look. "I had to clean up the image," he told The Oregonian. "I'm in the big business now." Stoudamire's image issues, in actuality, had nothing to do with his hairstyle, and everything to do with his relationship with Wildcat coaches (tenuous, at times) and his on-court demeanor (often interpreted, or misinterpreted, as angry). But his hair was perceived to be a part of the problem.
Florida junior forward Matt Walsh, whose collegiate locks were of a curly, bouncy sort, shaved his head on the eve of his audition for the Memphis Grizzlies on May 25. Walsh is a hard-working player who, unlike Stoudamire, didn't have a negative image in college. He did manage to irk a few opposing SEC fans, like the absurd Kentucky fanatic who told the Miami Herald in 2004, "I can't stand the guy ... Just look at him -- the way he wears his hair." Somehow, to a few informal background-checkers, the curls were also a cause for concern. Walsh told SI.com that his advisors would hear things like, "What's the deal with his hair?," or "Is this guy a pothead?" -- "because of the way I looked," he said. "So I just said, 'Screw it -- I'll erase any thought of it'." And out came the clippers.
It is a mournful thought that two of the college game's signature looks are dead, sacrificed in hopes of winning over NBA scouts. Pre-draft workouts are admittedly not Marine Corps boot camp, and the haircuts were voluntary. But they were undoubtedly products of the pressure to look "professional" -- and the feeling that NBA evaluators are more comfortable watching a swished 3-pointer shot by a crew-cutted kid than by one whose coif spills out over a headband. For NBA teams, every draft pick is a calculated risk -- and the notion seems to be that there is inherently less risk in one of the many short-haired hopefuls rather than one of the few long-hairs.
The prevailing opinion is that while both Stoudamire and Walsh (who still has the option of returning to the Gators) are going to be drafted -- and possibly both in the first round -- neither has given the NBA proof that he's a lock to succeed as a pro. As they worked toward that goal, the negative connotations of long hair, however false and unfair they may be, weren't helping either player's cause.
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Stoudamire did prove at Arizona, where he established himself as the college game's top shooting guard, that he has NBA range, yet there are worries that his size (6-foot-1) will limit his effectiveness at the two. Meanwhile, Walsh, a 6-6 guard and one of the SEC's top players, wasn't on any first-round draft boards when he declared this spring as a junior, but has recently turned some heads with his play rather than his hair.
"My first impression [when I declared] was that I would be back at school," he told SI.com. "But I've had such good workouts and such positive feedback that now I'm in it for real."
The shaved-headed Gator was particularly happy with his performance in front of the Sonics (pick No. 25, 48 and 55) on Thursday and is marketing himself primarily as a two-guard. Both players will be at the mercy of the league on draft day, their fates hanging on the impressions left by their workouts.
The month of June will serve as their extended job interview and while, "Finish college, get a haircut, get a job," has been the refrain for those guiding grads into corporate America, the pre-NBA climate shouldn't be so congruous. It is, after all, the professional sport with the most opportunity for expression; skin exposed for tattoos, armbands, arm sleeves, high socks, headbands and last of all, no helmets or hats in the way of hairdos. The identity of a proven star like Ben Wallace is tied as much to his picked-out afro as it is to his tenacity on defense. There are already too many buzzed cuts in the league; it's a shame two intriguing NCAA prospects had to shed a part of their identities to prove themselves all over again. Maturity can't be judged by a haircut.
I hope that, once Stoudamire and Walsh find their way onto NBA rosters, they re-grow the iconic 'dos of their college pasts. And I wish they hadn't felt the pressure to cut them in the first place. What were people worried about, anyway -- that these two kids would turn out like Nash?