Max Good has placed 64 players at Division I schools over the past eight seasons as the coach at Maine Central Institute in Pitts-field, a prep school superpower much like Oak Hill Academy. As he prepared to coach in a postseason high school all-star game several years ago, he told organizers that he objected to their providing a police escort for his team bus. His players would soon be expecting white-gloved chauffeurs, he warned. "Sure enough, the next time we got on the bus," says Good, "I heard a voice from the back say, 'Yo, Coach, when are we going to get a limousine?' "
"For 11 years I've said that kids haven't changed, that the world around them has," adds Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. "Now I'd tell you the world around them has changed, and the recruiting process has changed, and because of that you're starting to see some of the kids change."
Wake Forest coach Dave Odom is as concerned as Calhoun. Last month he suspended his 7-foot sophomore center, Loren Woods, for failing to keep basketball in perspective; while Odom's explanation may be enigmatic, the penalty he assessed certainly is not. Jason Collier, Lester Earl and Sam Okey, despite being substantial contributors at Indiana, LSU and Wisconsin respectively, have all moved on—to Georgia Tech, Kansas and Iowa. (Kansas may have refused to act as an enabler to JaRon, but the Jayhawks had no reservations about accepting Earl, who was disenchanted at LSU despite reportedly receiving thousands of dollars in improper payments from a former Tigers assistant coach as well as a booster.) This season at Fresno State, hardly a citadel of discipline, the Bulldogs have suspended all but three of their nine current scholarship players, yet they have just welcomed a couple of more itinerants with substantial baggage: guard Courtney Alexander, who had to leave Virginia after his sophomore season upon being convicted of assault and battery; and former Georgetown point guard Kenny Brunner, a freshman, who couldn't cope with a rash of teammates' injuries and suspensions that left him responsible for the Hoyas' fortunes. "I tried to live up to that," Brunner said last week. "But people don't understand how it feels for an 18-year-old to deal with this."
With the welts only just fading from P.J. Carlesimo's neck, the NBA can hardly afford to absorb any more emotionally immature émigrés. That's why the league could do both itself and the college game a huge favor by adopting a rule that has worked for major league baseball. As a high school senior, a baseball prospect faces a simple choice: Sign a contract and begin his pro career, or accept a college scholarship with the proviso that he can't turn pro until after two years at a junior college or three years at a four-year school. In the meantime a proposal by the National Association of Basketball Coaches—an organization made up mainly of college coaches—designed to commandeer the summer scene from the Myron Piggies and the shoe companies would at least return responsibility to people on the payroll of educational institutions.
Dan Owens, who runs the Derby Festival Classic, a high school all-star game in Kentucky, tells of a phone call he made in the spring of 1995 to Maurice Carter, a 6'4" guard from Jackson, Miss. Carter told Owens that he was sorry, but he wouldn't be able to play in Owens's game because he had to go to his aunt's funeral.
It was the middle of March. Owens reminded Carter that the game was scheduled for the end of April and asked when the funeral was. "He told me his aunt wasn't dead yet," Owens recalls, "but he said that she was real sick and that they'd gone ahead and scheduled the funeral."
Owens doesn't know exactly what was going on. Perhaps a rival all-star game didn't want Carter participating in Owens's event; maybe some school wanted to keep an unsigned star from doing business with anyone in Kentucky in the spring, just in case the Wildcats had a scholarship left. Whatever, Carter was merely a pawn in a game involving competing interests. Though he has survived—Carter is in his junior season at LSU—that tale serves to remind us of how many teenage ballplayers are regarded as commodities. And most commodities ultimately get discarded.
The threat to college basketball isn't that its best players are leaving prematurely for the pros. It's that a lost generation of high schoolers has learned all the wrong lessons before even getting to campus. The college game is far from dead. But how come it feels as though it's time to schedule a funeral?