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Ron Johnson, twice an All-Pro running back with the Giants, calls it "the rude awakening. All those skinny little guys with glasses? Always studying? Well, by the time they're 30, they're doctors or lawyers or successful businessmen and just beginning to cash in on these years of struggling. But the football player is almost always through by that age. and then he goes from earning maybe $100,000 a year, maybe more, to maybe nothing."
Walter (Flea) Roberts, a former roommate of Edwards' at San Jose State, made it to the Cleveland Browns as a 152-pound kick returner, but didn't get his degree. Roberts is one of the lucky ones. He has done well as a San Francisco sales executive and is not a bitter man. He has a Kierkegaardian approach to life—you are, he says, "the prime reason for what happens to you." If you allow yourself to fall into a pattern of relying on someone else to hold your hand, as so many athletes do, he says, you'll surely wind up "a goner."
The worst thing of all, says Roberts, is the aftershock. "If you don't get that diploma, there's no way you'll be better off for having been to college when you go back to Bedford-Stuyvesant or Watts or the Hough area in Cleveland. There's nothing there. I've been to those places, and there's nothing there that I care to be around."
The dream dies hard. In the ghettos, it never seems to die. Last summer the Los Angeles Times scoured the playgrounds and gymnasiums of the inner city to take a look at the teen-agers who ply the backwaters of basketball.
The Times found that coaches in the inner city made no pretenses about what life was all about there. A ninth-grader who said he was "recruited" by five different high school coaches was asked if any of them had mentioned academics. "No," he said. Mike Montgomery, one of those L.A. playground stars, says, "You think if you don't make the pros, life is over." He calls it "psycho desire."
Bill McGill has been at the top. And back down.
McGill was made for basketball. At 12, he was six feet tall and already a hero. At Jefferson High in downtown L.A.. the hero went to class, but "didn't study." His friends didn't care, and neither did his teachers. He had a C average. Two hundred and fifty colleges sought his signature on a scholarship. He accepted one from the University of Utah, where the coach, Jack Gardner, found him "an ideal player, almost a model." He led the nation in scoring in 1961-62, with 38.8 points per game.
McGill was the second black to attend Utah on a basketball scholarship. They were the "good times," he says. "I really enjoyed it, and I did pretty good in class." A Utah assistant coach remembers that McGill "went to class and tried," but tutors had to be hired.
A semester short of graduation, McGill dropped out of school. He had been selected No. 1 in the 1962 NBA draft, by the Chicago Zephyrs. It was a great honor. Had he come out of college 10 years later, it would have meant a lot of money up front. McGill had no agent, but he walked out of the Zephyrs' office "the happiest guy in the world." He had been given a $5,000 bonus and $17,000 a year for two years. With the bonus he bought an Austin-Healey 3000. The salary was to be the most money he ever earned.
Bill Sharman, the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, remembers McGill as possessing "the most fantastic turnaround jump hook there was. Nobody could stop it." But McGill didn't have the strength to play the post-against the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell and wasn't quick enough to play the corner on defense.