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Whatever Mutombo earns or does in the NBA, it will do little to ease the pain he feels when he ponders the wars, poverty and disease that plague Africa. "Killing somebody or invading a country has become too easy," he says. "I can build a hospital, but how are the people going to use it if the road to it has been destroyed by days and nights of bombing?"
The Development League
Faced with diminishing fan interest, league executives are finally acknowledging that the game's pace and flow were indeed more appealing during the Bird-Magic era of the 1980s. As tedious one-on-one play proliferates, commissioner David Stern and others are publicly discussing whether to allow zone defenses. Further, in light of what appears to be one of the least productive rookie classes ever, deputy commissioner Russ Granik believes more than ever that many of the young players entering the league are not capable of competing. "If it were up to us, we would like to see a situation in which a player under age 20 could not play in the NBA, period," Granik says.
Granik raises the issue of minimum age knowing he would have to persuade the players' association to accept one. "It's been informally brought up with the union in the last several weeks, and the reaction we got is that nothing has changed," Granik says. "We hope to discuss it again in the near future."
The facts of collectively bargained life have helped shape the National Basketball Development League, or D League, some details of which NBA officials hope to reveal during All-Star weekend. It will make its debut in November with eight teams playing in roughly 5,000-seat gyms, and it will be based in small cities in the southeast, like Fayetteville, N.C., the only town awarded a franchise thus far. Teams will play 56 games through mid-March, 24 of which will be shown on ESPN. While salaries will be roughly $30,000, officials hope the D League will be more attractive to players than the CBA, IBL, ABA and overseas leagues because of its sponsorship by the NBA, which will use it to train not only players but also coaches, refs and executives.
The D League will, however, be a far cry from a true farm system, like baseball's. Under the collective bargaining agreement, it cannot serve as a place for NBA players to rehab injuries or to polish their skills, nor can it be a place for top prospects such as Jazz rookie DeShawn Stevenson to get seasoning. Indeed, high school draftees like Stevenson won't be eligible: The age minimum of 20 will apply in the D League. Teams will be unaffiliated with NBA franchises; the talent pool will consist entirely of undrafted players and free agents, who could be claimed by any NBA team.
Over time, the D League could broaden its relationship with the NBA and become more of a traditional farm system—the players' association permitting. "There should be a decided effort to have people under 25 or 27", says Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who coached in the CBA in the 1980s. "The NBA, which allows 15-man rosters, should have 12-man rosters, and those three kids sitting on the end of the bench in street clothes should be in that league. Not the whole season, but they should be allowed to go down there for 10 or 15 or 20 games. I hope for the sake of basketball that it works. But it's a long shot."
Though the NBA set the D League's minimum age at 20 because it doesn't want to compete with colleges for talent, Granik says the minimum might one day be lowered to accommodate high school grads. While appearing in November before the Knight Commission, the blue-ribbon panel that is investigating college sports, Granik was implored by NCAA president Cedric Dempsey and other commission members to consider 18 as the minimum age. Those members hoped the D League would provide a home for players with no interest in a college education.
The Kings recently unveiled a $9.1 million practice facility next to Arco Arena, and the timing couldn't be better: Management hopes to persuade Chris Webber to remain in Sacramento when he becomes a free agent this summer. The prospect of Webber's doing so would not be bright if the team was still practicing at California Highway Patrol Headquarters, the Salvation Army gym, McClellan Air Force Base or Natomas High School, which have been among the Kings' 12 temporary training sites over the past 16 years.