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NBA, NCAA are both wrong in debate about age limit

Posted: Monday April 7, 2008 11:04PM; Updated: Wednesday April 9, 2008 2:45PM
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David Stern (right) and Myles Brand attended a news conference Monday that centered on youth basketball programs.
David Stern (right) and Myles Brand attended a news conference Monday that centered on youth basketball programs.
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The five players mentioned most frequently as the NBA's Most Valuable performers this season spent a total of two years playing NCAA men's basketball. Chris Paul stuck around through his sophomore year at Wake Forest, while Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard went to work straight out of high school.

They continue to walk that precarious tightrope today, moving into and through adulthood without their bachelor degrees to fall back on. The horror.

If NBA commissioner David Stern and NCAA president Myles Brand had their druthers, each of those fellows would have done what Paul did, enrolling in an institution of higher learning long enough to use up at least two of his four years of athletic eligibility -- which, we all know, is not to be confused with getting halfway to a four-year degree. (Some athletes don't get halfway to their degrees after all four years of eligibility.)

Stern and Brand, in staging a news conference Monday in San Antonio to announce a "wide-ranging initiative'' for youth basketball, did not specifically call for an increase of the NBA's entry age limit from 19 years old (and one year removed from high school) to 20 (and two). Initial reports that they would do so were faulty or incomplete or both, since the age limit was, is and will continue to be collectively bargained with the National Basketball Players Association. The current deal runs through the 2010-11 season.

"No one anticipates opening the collective bargaining agreement on one single issue,'' NBPA spokesman Dan Wasserman said Monday afternoon. "It has three years to go.''

Billy Hunter, executive director of the players' union, was out of the office Monday. But he wasn't in attendance at the news conference, either, despite an invitation from Stern and Brand to participate in or at least endorse this new public partnership. Who can blame him? Quibbling with something that is so about "the kids'' is like lining up against babies and puppy dogs, a no-win public stance.

But in truth, a lot of what Stern and Brand talked about doing from this day forward, the players' union has done at one level of youth ball for the past 11 years, running its "Top 100'' high school basketball camps each summer to stress individual, athletic and life skills. Again this year, from June 16-21 at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, about two dozen current and former NBA players, along with other staffers, will work with campers and their parents, providing not only on-court clinics but presentations on recruiting, peer pressure, nutrition, preparation for college entrance exams, goal setting and stress management.

"And we are the 'anti-entitlement camp,' '' Wasserman said. "We're talking five hours of classroom instruction. We don't allow scouts, runners, coaches or shoe company reps. We only allow the kids, their parents and media. ... Our high school camps have undoubtedly done more in terms of education and development than all the shoe companies and AAU programs.''

As for pushing the entry age of NBA players to 20 -- something Stern has pined for since the current deal went into effect in 2005 and Brand talked about a few days ago at the start of Final Four weekend -- that will have to remain one of the NBA's and NCAA's ideals. Because the union remains unconvinced.

"Historically, going back 11 years, our members have been 90 percent-plus against an age limitation,'' Wasserman said. "We don't think it's in the players' interest.''

Not even veteran players, who might be able to milk an extra year of NBA paychecks while young guys are kept penned up in college, have shown much interest in a minimum age -- beyond high school, anyway -- for NBA employment. When the union agreed to the 19-year-old limit three years ago, it did so reluctantly, tossing that chip into the pot in exchange for several tweaks to salary-cap calculations. The league was pushing image issues at the time, drug testing, dress code and entry age among them.

Obviously, the NCAA likes the idea of a boost in the age limit; it would love to keep the best players around longer, elevating quality of play and name recognition while making it worth the member schools' time and expense to recruit those guys. Certain high-profile coaches, like Mike Krzyzewski and Lute Olson, have complained that "one-and-done'' players aren't worth that cost or trouble, while others comply but resent the rent-a-talent system.

The appeal to the NBA is more, let's say, layered. You hear complaints that teenage players aren't strong enough or schooled enough in the fundamentals of the game. They allegedly aren't worth the money teams must pay them via the rookie salary scale or even minimum salaries for second-round picks. They're immature, prone to off-court misbehavior and lacking all kinds of manly virtues.

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