NBA to rescue Final Four?

Don't you believe it. The league's likely new age limit will help owners' bottom lines, not college hoops.

Published April 4, 2003 11:53PM (EST)

Pretty soon we won't have to settle for this kind of Final Four anymore.

No more watching weak lame-o's like Carmelo Anthony of Syracuse and T.J. Ford of Texas, boobs like Dwyane Wade of Marquette -- and don't even get me started on those two clods from Kansas, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich! Those guys are seniors! If they could play they'd be in the NBA, right?

It looks like the good people of the NBA are going to be coming to the rescue of college basketball soon by creating a minimum age of 20 for entry into the league. This brings up a question for me as Anthony, Ford and company prepare to lead their teams into action in the NCAA Tournament semifinals Saturday night at the Superdome in New Orleans.

What is it about Craig Kilborn that fills me with loathing?

Wait, that's not the question. Here's the question: Why does anyone who doesn't own an NBA team think this is a good plan?

The idea behind the minimum age is that players turning pro out of high school or after only a year of college is somehow a bad thing.

From an NBA team owner's perspective, it's bad because these guys often have big-time talent that's undeveloped. The odd Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett aside, 18-year-olds aren't physically developed, emotionally mature or hoopatorially educated enough to excel in the pros. Even Kobe Bryant didn't become Kobe Are You Freakin' Kiddin' Me Bryant till his third year, when he was 20. All he did when he was 19 was score 15 points a game while averaging 26 minutes, which by his current standards was just sort of OK.

Spencer Haywood, whose lawsuit against the NBA three decades ago won players the right to play in the league before their college class graduated, now agrees with the idea of an age limit, "but there are some guys, like LeBron James, who are ready," he told Rocky Mountain News columnist Chris Tomasson. "I think there should be some sort of panel of experts who would decide what players under 20 should be allowed to play in the NBA."

There already is a panel of experts who decide what players under 20 should be allowed to play in the NBA. They're called general managers. Their findings are released to the public every year on draft day.

But their bosses don't like paying teenagers guaranteed seven-figure first-round-pick money for a couple of years while they grow into their talent, often while sitting on the end of the bench. If the teams didn't think paying an 18- or 19-year-old to sit on the bench and learn was a good investment, they wouldn't draft them. They'd pick graduating seniors, who usually offer less talent than the phenoms but more polish, maturity and smarts, at least at first. Obviously the kids are a good investment. The owners would just rather someone else pick up the tab.

So hey, why not some university somewhere? The kid won't get the same kind of basketball education in college that he'd get in the NBA -- long before his rookie season ends, an NBA player has done more playing, practicing and learning than he'd do in two years of college ball -- but on the other hand, the TV exposure he'll get as a college star will make him a more marketable commodity once he hits the pros.

And here's a bonus: The owners get to look like they support education. These kids need to go to college and get some book-learnin', they get to say. Of course, most of these kids get no such thing. What they get is the chance to either play for free, enriching others, or become expert in the ways of cheating. As Peter Vecsey of the New York Post cracked:, "No, Siree, Bob; we wouldn't want our kids to miss the value of the university experience."

From the fan's perspective, having young 'uns in the NBA is supposedly bad because it dilutes the college game. Newspaper columns lamenting the disintegration of college basketball usually start like this: "Imagine the NCAA Tournament that might have been. Kwame Brown at Florida instead of underachieving for the Wizards. Tyson Chandler at Arizona instead of averaging nine points a game for the Bulls. Amare Stoudemire at North Carolina instead of" ... uh, hang on a second.

But you get the picture.

Listen carefully: College basketball is just fine. The Tournament is just fine. The Final Four is just fine. Are you worried about the dilution of talent? Foreign-born players tend not to go to American colleges anyway, so take a guess how many American players in the NBA weren't 20 when the season started. Give up?


That's right. Four guys. If college basketball is noticeably damaged not to have Dajuan Wagner playing at Memphis, Jamal Sampson playing at Cal, and Amare Stoudemire and Eddy Curry playing wherever they might have gone, it's past saving.

And even if college basketball has suffered a dilution of talent -- and that dilution is caused by because of the loss of juniors and seniors, who would be unaffected by the new age limit -- so what? You don't watch college basketball for the level of play. If you want to see the best basketball players in the world, watch the NBA, now winding up its 82-game preseason schedule and engaged in answering such exciting questions as whether the lousy Milwaukee Bucks or the lousy Washington Wizards will make the playoffs and lose in the first round to Detroit.

What's great about college basketball is the atmosphere, the intensity, the excitement. There's a famous story about Magic Johnson's first NBA game. The Lakers won a close one and the rookie was ecstatic. He hugged Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who looked at him like he was nuts and told him to relax, it was just one game. In college basketball, there's almost no such thing as just one game. Pretty much every game means something to somebody. Watch the kids in the NCAA Tournament, even the early rounds. When they win they go bananas and when they lose they cry. When was the last time you saw an NBA player do either of those things? Why should he? It's just a job.

Kwame Brown would be a hell of a college player, I'm sure, but what makes college basketball, and especially the Tournament, special doesn't require his presence.

Enjoy the Final Four for what it is, the competition of a lifetime for four squads of kids who, even if they're not the best possible squads in the best of all possible worlds, are still pretty sublime. Wade, Collison and Hinrich are all upperclassmen, so great players sometimes stay in school of their own accord, without the interference of a minimum-age rule whose real purpose has nothing to do with education or better basketball and everything to do with lining the pockets of NBA owners.

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I've already clinched defeat in every pool I'm in, whether those in it with me know they're in it or not, but I thought I'd give you my Final Four predictions, just in case you don't have enough to ridicule me about.

I had Texas beating Oklahoma in the semifinal, so I'll take the Longhorns over Syracuse too. The key will be how much Ford will be able to break down the Orange zone defense with slashing drives. My prediction: a lot.

Now that Kentucky is eliminated, the wise guys who didn't pick Texas, and even some who did, have jumped on the Kansas bandwagon, especially since it seems to be playing out as one of those meant-to-be scenarios for coach Roy Williams to finally get his national title with the Jayhawks, then take the vacant job at his alma mater, North Carolina.

I'm not buying it. Kansas has more talent, but I'm besotted with Dwyane Wade and his sharpshooting teammates, Travis Diener and Steve Novak. I think they have just enough, and Kansas is just vulnerable enough, for Marquette to pull off the upset. Then they'll lose to Texas.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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