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Among the significant links to one another—considerable skills, lofty expectations, impressive achievements—Albert King, Ralph Sampson and Mark Aguirre also share this: a mutual inclination to reject the cold cash of the pros for the warm security of the campus.
Though each is in a different college class—Sampson a sophomore at Virginia, Aguirre a junior at DePaul, King a senior at Maryland—the three seem to be symbolic of a fresh trend toward undergraduates staying in school rather than risking their developing bodies, raw abilities and tender psyches in the harsh wilds of the NBA.
In the decade since the NBA's so-called hardship draft was instituted in 1971, considerably less than half of the 78 players who left college as undergraduates have had NBA careers of two seasons or more. Oh, there were perennial all-stars such as Phil Chenier and Bob McAdoo in that group, but there were many more whose potential was unrealized, not to mention several—Cyril Baptiste comes to mind—who turned to drugs and crime.
Following last season only two of the seven college players who took advantage of the "undergraduate eligibility rule" (as the hardship draft is now more accurately known) remained on a pro roster. Following the 1978-79 season three of four did. Magic Johnson of Michigan State might have made it, but Garcia Hopkins of Morgan State didn't. Thus the credo of a cruel system: bring me the head of Garcia.
The smart ones now stay in school, for reasons all their own. King says quite frankly, "Loyalty had nothing to do with my decision to stay at Maryland—unless it was loyalty to myself. I'm having too much fun in College Park." Aguirre says simply, "I could play with the pros...yeah, I could. But what it is, you know, I'm not quite ready." And Sampson? Well....
Though in the past players who decided to remain in college were automatically praised by virtually everyone, Sampson's decision to remain at Virginia was blasted by some. Red Auerbach, the president of the Boston Celtics, announced that Sampson had been "hoodwinked by a few glad-handers." Having the No. 1 pick, Auerbach wanted to draft Sampson and shore up the Celtics at center into the 1990s. In an interview with Daniel Ruth of The Tampa Tribune, Howard Cosell said, "The University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson's school, has a 7'4" kid at the fifth-grade reading level." In another of his familiar swipes at college sports, Cosell heartlessly maligned a person he'd never met or talked to.
Arthur Ashe, the tennis champion and a native Virginian, who has spoken with Sampson over the telephone, offered a more cogent analysis of the situation.
"Professional sports' front-office people often underestimate the maturity one gains in four years of college," Ashe wrote in a newspaper column. "While improving as a student, Sampson is also rubbing shoulders with the greatest mixture of people he'll ever get to know.... He is not being used. It would have been well worth it to him to borrow money to attend a school like the University of Virginia. If anyone is 'using' someone, Sampson is using the university...He decided to 'use' Virginia to market his basketball skills while attending classes. And as his price at contract time is liable only to go up, the University of Virginia can hardly be charged with exploitation...."
And there are even those in the NBA who share Ashe's opinion. "All kids benefit from four years in college," says Bob Ferry, general manager of the Bullets. "Maybe not basketballwise, but lifewise. They all benefit."
And so does the college game. The credentials of this trio are well, documented. Sampson began his freshman season slowly, came on against the strong competition in the ACC, slumped and then closed with a rush to lead Virginia to the NIT title. Aguirre scored and emoted at will as DePaul won its first 25 games before its immaculate season was ruined by upset losses to Notre Dame and UCLA. It was no accident that King's personal resurrection coincided with that of Maryland's, a confused team in past years that started 1979-80 in doubt and ended it by winning the ACC regular-season championship in a walk. Now—thank goodness for tall favors—all three are back to play their roles as college basketball's three brightest stars.