Baltimore Sun

The Endorsement: Basketball players skipping college

Each week in the Toy Department, a Sun sports writer will take a moment to offer his or her Endorsement of something they feel passionately about. There are no rules, and the subject can be as broad, or as narrow, as the writer chooses. This week, Kevin Van Valkenburg makes the case for why high school basketball should be able to skip college entirely if they want.

LeBron James was featured on 60 Minutes this weekend where he was interviewed by journalist Steve Kroft. Right about the time during the interview when James cupped a basketball and fired it -- underhand -- from three-quarters court in his high school gym, hitting nothing but net, it dawned on me that I was probably watching the most athletically-gifted player of my lifetime.


James is now in his sixth year in the NBA, and it's obvious by this point that he didn't need to attend college to hone his basketball skills. He's an absolute freak of nature at 6-feet-9 and 270 pounds: quick and yet graceful, explosive around the basket, but possessing an artist's touch on the perimeter. Magic Johnson is my favorite player of all time, and James, like so many men his age, grew up worshiping Michael Jordan. Watching him is like seeing a hybrid of those two stars. The next 10 years of his career are going to be an absolute joy to watch, and the fact that he's turned out to be such an astute businessman only makes him all the more likable. I'm glad he didn't play college basketball. He was simply too good for that level. It would have been a waste of time and someone (perhaps even James) most likely would have gotten hurt.

But you know who else makes me believe high school basketball players should be able to jump straight to the NBA if they so choose, without this ridiculous 1-year apprenticeship the NBA now enforces? Darius Miles, Korleone Young, Jonathan Bender and Kwame Brown. And all the other prep stars who either fizzled and disappeared from the league, or never really lived up to their potential.


Because they didn't belong on a college campus anymore than James did.

They wouldn't have suddenly developed as players or as people just because they spent two years reading Madame Bovary, attending frat parties and doing trigonometry. They wouldn't have suddenly become injury-free once they reached the NBA. Their careers would have been, in all likelihood, pretty similar. Dick Vitale just never got the chance to rave about them. You never got the chance to bet on them in an office pool.

In a few days, Lance Stephenson, a New York city prep star who averaged 35 points a game his senior year, will announce whether he's decided to attend Kansas, St. John's, or Maryland. (All signs seem to point to Kansas.) But whatever he decides, no one really believes he'll be there for more than one season. "One and done" is the term, and it's tossed around frequently in college basketball these days, ever since the NBA said it wouldn't admit players until they were one year removed from their high school graduation. And if we were really honest about it, we admit that wanting to watch Stephenson play in college has nothing to do with his own interests and everything to do with our own.

We don't really believe a semester of college will mature a prep star or better prepare him for life in the NBA and beyond. We simply want to be entertained. We want the NCAA tournament to remain exciting. We make the players who don't really want to be there go through a charade instead of simply embracing the athletes who do want to experience college. College basketball has become one giant game of three-card Monte, and no one knows how to deal with it because there is so much money involved, it's in everyone's best interests not to talk about it. But we're the mark, because we keep buying in. It's laughable the way some college presidents go along for the ride during the NCAA tournament, openly rooting on players who, deep down, they must know aren't really interested in any form of education.

I like James in part because he saw through some of that. If you're not interested in college course work, why play for free (for a business, because that's what college programs are) when you can get paid to play in the NBA? You have more time to work on your jumper there anyway. If you seek knowledge at a later date, those opportunities will still be available down the road.

The notion that players "learn the fundamentals" in college and that the NBA is now unwatchable mostly because "no one knows how to play defense" are two of the biggest falsehoods repeated whenever this debate comes up, and sadly no amount of logic can convince most people otherwise. (Recruiting has become so important to college basketball these days that most of the true teachers are dinosaurs on their way out, and the main problem with the NBA is that people play too much defense, not too little.) But those concerns could easily be addressed the way baseball does, with a true minor league system, where players could be brought up and sent back down if they still needed to sharpen their skills.

The NBA doesn't have to do that, though, because college basketball has been willing to do it for them for free. Even though institutions of higher learning are essentially prostituting themselves, it's OK because the money makes it worth it. (It's like a real life Pretty Woman where CBS is Richard Gere.)

Whether or not you succeed in life is mostly a measure of talent, character and effort. In the interview with Kroft, James mentions that he never really got into trouble as a kid because it simply didn't interest him. College wasn't going to teach him that kind of lesson. He already understood it.


College basketball would be fine if more athletes skip right over it into the NBA. It might even be better off, since it might cut down on various shenanigans. And the players who jump, like James (or Kobe Bryant, or Kevin Garnett, or Tracy McGrady, etc.), will still sink or swim based on their own talent and drive. The ones who fail were likely going to fail anyway. They just got paid to do so.

LeBron James on 60 Minutes: