Two Cents: Player Cries Racism in Face of NBA Age Limit (4/13/05)

(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)

On Monday, Indiana Pacers All-Star Jermaine O’Neal, was asked if he thought the proposed age limit on players entering the NBA draft was racist. He replied that he thought maybe it was, and a predictable firestorm of controversy ensued.

80-percent of NBA players are African American, so any decision the league makes will have more of an effect on that race. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Stern and the boys are hiding white sheets under their tailor-made Armani’s, but one has to wonder what the real motivation is.

It’s definitely not race, because the majority of foreign players that have invaded the league in the last decade are largely European, not black. And they would be just as affected as African Americans.

O’Neal clarified Tuesday night that he wasn’t implying anyone was being a bigot; he was just wondering what the bottom line was. O’Neal is one of the many players that have made the jump from high school, so he has a first-hand perspective on what it was like.

He did say that it was “unconstitutional” to deny an 18-year-old the opportunity to make money, while the same 18-year-old can go and fight for our country on foreign soil.

Unconstitutional? Last time I checked the NBA wasn’t part of the government and is definitely not included in the constitution.

He also said that the NFL is the only league that has an age limit, while teenagers can make the jump in every other professional sport.

I agree to a certain extent. The NHL and MLB both have minor-league teams where youngsters can cut their teeth before hitting the stage in the big show. You don’t see too many 18-year-olds who are ready to take big league pitches or crosscheck Joe Sakic on the ice.

The NBA has the same thing; it’s called the NBDL. If a player just has to come out because of financial reasons or because grades aren’t up to snuff, they have an option.

If the NBDL isn’t for them, then they have the choice of playing overseas, where their maturation will definitely be sped up.

I think the real reason Stern is considering the age limit is because he is concerned about the product he is putting on the floor.

Like any good businessman – and Stern is widely considered the best commissioner in all of sports – he wants the public to keep shelling out their money for everything NBA.

Are his concerns justified? I think so. Look at the decline of the U.S.A.’s power in international hoop competitions.

The main reason for the slide is lack of fundamentals and high-percentage shooting, which are things that can be learned in a college environment.

You can also look no further than the rash of off-court incidents that have steadily risen since the mid-90s, which is coincidentally when high schoolers making the jump became vogue.

Add in the fact that scoring was down, shooting percentages are down, and all anyone cares about is the dunk and how many faces or flexes you can make while running down court, and you’ve got a sport that is widening the chasm between the ticket buyers and the teams they follow.

The scoring became such a concern that only a rule change that limits what the defense can do on the perimeter has made the numbers rise this season.

Now I’m not blaming all of this on the high schoolers that are playing in the league. There are a lot of college players that come out without knowing how to shoot straight or make a proper pass.

But the more teaching you can get before doing anything professionally can only help the employee and employer. Learning on the job shouldn’t be a requirement in the NBA. Take Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry and Kwame Brown.

All three were taken in the top five picks, with Brown being the overall number one. Brown may never live up to his draft number, and Curry and Chandler are just now coming into their own. Just like O’Neal himself, who languished on the Blazers bench for years before being ready to play.

Hmmmm…maybe three years in college could have hastened their development.

The Bulls – whom Chandler and Curry play for – have made a dramatic turnaround this year.

Curry and Chandler deserve credit, but so do the quality college players they’ve drafted like Kirk Heinrich, Ben Gordon, and Chris Duhon.

Besides, what’s wrong with a couple of years of college? You get to hone your game against top competition, and you have a foundation for your life in case basketball doesn’t work out.

Just because you can dominate a high school game, doesn’t mean you’re ready to play against Shaquille, Iverson, or Mourning. I was a good writer in high school, but there was no way I was ready to do it for a living.

LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire have won the last two Rookie of the Year awards, but they are anomalies. Along with Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and Kevin Garnett, they had freakishly athletic, man-sized bodies when they were drafted.

I’m really neutral on the subject. I would like to see better shooting, and for the U.S. to dominate international play again, but it’s not my call. I’ll watch basketball no matter what.

Ultimately, it’s Stern and his board of directors (the owners) who will have to make the decision. Stern is smart. My guess is he will reject the age limit.

But you never know, and it’s hard to hear what he has to say when the white hood muffles his mouth.

Categories: Basketball, sports

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