IT HAS BEEN, clearly, one of the most gut-wrenching decisions that I've ever faced in my life. And it's not one of those decisions that I would recommend making alone, which is reason why over the past two weeks I've sought the guidance from my family and some of my closest friends.
Go for it, they told me almost unanimously. And so on Tuesday I called Teri Washington, in the media relations office of the National Basketball Association.
"Teri, this is Jerry Bembry," I said. "And I'm officially letting you know that I'm making myself eligible for the 1996 NBA draft."
And would you believe, at this pivotal moment in my life, there would be a problem with the phone line. I get this off my chest and all I hear is a distant static, similar to the sound of someone lying on the floor and laughing hysterically.
After a few minutes the phone's back to normal, and Teri's explaining to me that I can't declare myself as an early entry candidate because: (A.) I'm a college graduate; (B.) I'm too old; and (C.) I have no game.
Let's just take the time to clear up the facts. Given the fact that I never played college basketball in my four years at Ohio Wesleyan University, my four years of college eligibility remains intact. Sure, being 33 would be a hindrance, but Arvydas Sabonis is coming off a season where he made a huge impact as a 31-year-old rookie with the Portland Trail Blazers.
And no game? You would think word would have gotten around to the NBA types that my team in February won the three-on-three media basketball championship for the third year in a row. Can I help it that a guy named Michael Jordan won the MVP of the All-Star game in the same city on the same day, knocking my accomplishment out of hundreds of newspapers around the country?
Surely Marty Blake, the league's scouting guru, had heard of me. His knowledge of players is unmatched. So I called him on the day that I announced, asking for a spot in the invitation-only pre-draft camp that will be held next month in Chicago.
"Who are you?" Blake asked, followed by "What's your vertical?"
Well, I've never really had my vertical leap measured, although I can say I have dunked the ball with two hands in my lifetime (sure, it was about 16 years ago, but back surgery has a way of sapping your leaping ability). I'm a one-of-a-kind player: a 6-foot-2 power forward/small forward type with outstanding defensive skills and shooting range beyond the three-point line.
They were calling me "Air" before Michael Jordan even entered college. Ask enough people and you'll hear about the time I single-handedly outscored an entire team, scoring 45 points in a 56-43 victory. So what if it was a Baltimore recreation league BTC game? If Jordan had such an accomplishment, I'm sure you would have heard of it.
But let's get to the real bottom line about why I'm entering the draft, and it's not any of those well-worn excuses given by some of the early entry candidates who cry on cue at those tired press conferences: Shareef Abdur-Rahim, in announcing last week he was leaving California after his freshman season, explained it was to help his family and that the decision "is not for me." North Carolina point guard Jeff McInnis announced he was skipping his final season because it "had become necessary for personal reasons, the greatest of which to help my family financially." It's almost to a point where reporters can write those early entry stories in advance.
Well here's a different spin: I'm coming out because I want to get paid. For me, not anyone else. I figure that if Jack Haley can make $250,000 this past season for playing in just one game and being Dennis Rodman's personal valet; if Chris Dudley can make $24 million over six years while being a total scrub, if Kevin Duckworth can sit on the bench and make over $3 million while same time shaping his bloated body for his post-NBA career as a sumo wrestler, then there's a spot for me.
There will be no snarled negotiations when I'm in the NBA. Whether I'm a first- or second-round pick, I'm seeking the NBA minimum: $250,000. I figure that with teams facing salary cap problems, I'd make the sacrifice to accept the minimum so that players like Michael Jordan and Juwan Howard are able to sign for the big bucks. You will never hear me griping about being underpaid.
If Stephon Marbury can come out early, if Kobe Bryant can leave high school to go straight to the NBA, if Kevin Simpson can declare after two years at Dixie Junior College, why can't I? These kids don't have a clue of what it's going to be like dealing with the daily grind of the NBA. I've experienced the NBA travel. I've seen up close the groupies in action (usually as they elbow me to get to the real players). And I've been on the court with Jordan, with Charles Barkley, with David Robinson (it's amazing what I've picked up from courtside the last three years as a beat writer covering the Washington Bullets).
Of course, I'm smart enough to keep my options open. Which is why I have yet to sign on with an agent. I figure that if I fail to catch on in the NBA, I can always go back to the college ranks where -- with many of its best players bolting -- there will be scarcely enough players to fill most Division I rosters.
Jerry Bembry covers the National Basketball Association for The Sun.
Pub Date: 5/12/96