You will make all kinds of mistakes; but as long as you are generous and true, and also fierce, you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her. She was made to be wooed and won by youth.
To that sentiment, Mr. Prime Minister, the NBA can only add a hearty amen. Barring a surprise, none of the first four picks at next Wednesday's NBA draft will have reached either his 21st birthday or his junior year in college. And sometime around 8 p.m., when it comes time to announce the fourth selection, commissioner David Stern will call from the podium at the Toronto SkyDome the name of Kevin Garnett, who in the last five weeks has celebrated his 19th birthday and secured his high school diploma.
We have no idea if Garnett will be generous and true, and there is still a question about him being fierce, too. The only certainty is that he will make all kinds of mistakes.
No matter. The 6'11" Garnett represents that most elusive of commodities for the bottom feeders of the NBA—hope. Get Garnett, the thinking goes, and you've got an All-Star well into the 21st century. Get Garnett and you put backsides in the seats when Michael and Shaq aren't in town. Get Garnett and you're in the Finals two years from now. On and on. There is no limit to the imagination of NBA executives, and there is nothing that stirs basketball imaginations quite like a kid with major league size and major league skills. Garnett has both.
The buzz about this year's draft is that, yes, it's good and deep, but it's also short on future superstars. Jerry Stackhouse might be one, and Garnett might be one. That's it. Garnett's leaping ability is off the charts, he runs the floor like a sprinter, he shoots 20-foot jumpers with ease and perfect rotation, and he's the best-passing big man in the draft. Most teams believe he'll eventually be a do-everything small forward, but for now let's give him a new handle. Call him a faceup 4, a power forward who can hurt you from anywhere, a cross between Reggie Miller and a kinder, gentler version of Alonzo Mourning.
Oh, Garnett comes with an asterisk, as even the most breathless NBA executive will acknowledge. Drafting a teenager who is obviously talented but not physically or emotionally mature is a charged issue for the NBA. Only four American-born players before him in the modern age have made the jump directly from high school to the pros, and only one, Moses Malone in 1974, did it seamlessly. There are concerns about Garnett's maturity, his social skills, his sense of responsibility, his friends and his diet. And that's not to mention the question of how long he will take to develop physically (only 220 pounds are slung along those 83 inches) and whether he'll fold like a nervous poker player the first time Karl Malone hips him into a basket stanchion. But ask any NBA executive if he'll consider drafting Garnett, and after reciting a litany of concerns, he'll almost certainly say yes. NBA types became mildly interested in Garnett last summer when reports of his dominating play at high school all-star camps began to filter into front offices around the league, and they became strongly interested after many of them watched him average 26 points, 18 rebounds, seven assists and six blocked shots for Chicago's Farragut Academy last winter. Now they are panting. Three weeks ago, as marginal NBA prospects auditioned at Chicago's Moody Bible Institute during the league's predraft tryout camp, Garnett displayed his wares separately in two one-hour workouts at the University of Illinois-Chicago before an audience of invited representatives from the 13 lottery teams (plus several others that came without having been asked). Jumping, quickness, agility, ball handling and shooting were emphasized. True, no one was on the court with Garnett except Detroit Piston assistant coach John Hammond, who put him through his paces. But all who watched came away with the feeling they had seen the future. New Piston coach Doug Collins said, "He's a genetic freak. All the great ones are."
Well, he's not a great one yet. A few days before his workouts Garnett showed up late for his camp physical and then abandoned, out of apparent exhaustion and frustration, his stress test. "The team that takes Kevin has to commit its entire organization," says Portland general manager Bob Whitsitt, who drafted Shawn Kemp out of high school for the Seattle SuperSonics in 1989. "Ownership, coaches, other players, everyone has to realize this is a 24-hour-a-day process. You have to be willing to spend the years, not the days, the years, to make this work."
Garnett says he can adjust to any team, but he thinks a nice place to play would be Toronto, where he would be under the care and feeding of Raptor general manager Isiah Thomas, a Chicago native. "Wherever I go, it'll be an opportunity," says Garnett. "Millions of kids want to play pro basketball, and here I am getting the chance early. I learned one thing—never hate a positive option."
Ah, options. One of Garnett's was supposed to be college. But he has yet to receive a qualifying score, on either the SAT or ACT, that would enable him to secure a Division I scholarship. He retook the former on June 3 but scrapped plans to retake the latter only a few days before the June 10 test date; it was no coincidence that he canceled after the Chicago show all but locked up a spot in the NBA lottery for him. The question is this: Had he earned a qualifying score before the pro freight train got a full head of steam, would he now be buying Michigan T-shirts instead of getting measured for a size-52 suit to wear on draft night? "I'm not sure," says Garnett. "But the one thing that bothers me is everybody thinking I just, you know, got into this without thinking it over. I thought about it a lot, and I think I'm ready."
He's not, of course. The public-relations-conscious NBA, which is already disgusted with the negative image of some of its stars, is apprehensive about the possibility that Garnett will be a spectacular flameout. "If it were up to us, we'd prefer not to see someone come into the league at that tender age," says Russ Granik, the NBA's deputy commissioner, "but the courts say otherwise." Indeed, once the NBA lost the Spencer Haywood case in 1971, it was helpless to stop the flood of early entrants. Since 1976 the early entrants have numbered 198. The last two years 16 were selected in the first round of the draft, and the trend will continue next Wednesday with would-have-been college juniors Stackhouse, Joe Smith, Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace certain to be among the early catches. But early entry has also produced a plethora of long-forgottens. Where have you gone, Garcia Hopkins, Leonel Marquetti and Yommy Sangodeyi?