King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Is Jermaine O'Neal right? Is the NBA's proposed minimum age about race? Well, no, it's about money. But it's worth having this conversation.

Published April 13, 2005 7:00PM (EDT)

Pacers center Jermaine O'Neal said Monday he thinks there might be a racial element to the NBA's stated desire to set a minimum age of 20 for entry into the league. NBA commissioner David Stern has said he wants the age limit put into the next collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA expires at the end of this season.

So I spent a good part of Tuesday going up and down the radio dial and surfing the Web, listening and reading as the white commentariat -- of which I am a member -- fell all over itself to say how ridiculous O'Neal's comments were.

When that happens, it makes me think there might be something to the comments being dismissed. In this case, though, I think there isn't. As Steven A. Smith said on Tim Brando's radio show, this issue isn't about black and white, it's about green.

But that doesn't mean O'Neal's comments were ridiculous, especially in light of some clarifications he made on ESPN's "NBA Nation" Tuesday night. O'Neal, 26, who is black and who was drafted out of high school in 1996, is not some idiot spouting off, though I can't help thinking he might have been a little better at expressing himself clearly in the first place if he'd spent some time in college classrooms -- not that basketball players in college do a lot of that anyway.

He made some interesting points. He asked a very good question: "What is the debate about?"

Here's how O'Neal was quoted in the hometown Indianapolis Star Tuesday: "In the last two or three years, the rookie of the year has a been a high school player. There were seven high school players in the All-Star Game, so why are we even talking [about] an age limit?"

"As a black guy, you kind of think [race is] the reason why it's coming up," he went on. "You don't hear about it in baseball or hockey. To say you have to be 20, 21 to get in the league, it's unconstitutional. If I can go to the U.S. Army and fight the war at 18, why can't you play basketball for 48 minutes and then go home?"

On "NBA Nation," O'Neal said he hadn't brought up race in the Monday interview, but had been asked if he thought it might have played a part. He heaped praise on Stern and said repeatedly that he wasn't accusing anyone of racism, from Stern on down.

"The question that was asked of me was, 'Is it because you guys are black?'" O'Neal said. "I said, 'Well, it looks like that.' Whether it is or whether it's not, I don't know. I really don't know. But I'm dealing with the bare facts that people that are 18, 19 years old are making the transition and doing it in a very successful way."

O'Neal pointed out that it seems to be "no issue" when teenagers younger than the 18-year-olds who enter the NBA from high school choose to turn pro in other sports -- sports that are not predominantly black.

"The NBA is doing very well," O'Neal said, "and the prime faces for the NBA are high school players. So what is the debate about?"

The answer, of course, is money. Stern talks about teenagers being mentally, emotionally and physically unprepared for the NBA, and how the exodus of underclassmen has hurt college basketball by siphoning off the best talents, but what this is really about is NBA owners wanting to protect themselves from taking risks. Please see the NHL for a clue about where that desire gets you.

Eighteen-year-olds are a bigger gamble than 20-year-olds who have a couple of years of college ball under their belts. The kids declaring for the draft out of high school are mostly the ones with the flaming talent, so their ceiling is higher, but so is their flameout rate.

Those 20-year-olds -- guys like Ron Artest, he wrote sarcastically, who played two seasons at St. John's -- have a little more maturity, and they've shown what they can do in what's essentially a big-time minor league.

And if nothing else, they're two years closer to their prime, and the NBA owners don't want to pay an NBA salary for those two years. They'd rather have the kids go to college, where they can work on their game and get a whole bunch of publicity, all at no cost to the league. Plus, entering the league at 20 rather than 18 makes it more likely that a player will only cash in with a big, long-term contract once in his career, rather than twice.

It looks like win-win-win for the NBA to keep the kids out.

There's another argument too, that all these 18-year-olds are ruining the league because they come in unable to play, without fundamentals and so on, though, oddly, the same people who make this argument also complain that fundamentals aren't taught in college. This line of argument is completely bogus.

Two years ago, when the minimum-age issue bubbled up, I counted up how many teenagers were on NBA rosters. I wondered who these guys were who were simultaneously ruining college and pro basketball. You know how many there were? Four. Dajuan Wagner, Jamal Sampson, Amare Stoudemire and Eddy Curry.

Stoudemire was such a problem for the NBA that it gave him the Rookie of the Year award. The next year, LeBron James won it. James would still be banned from the NBA if the age limit were in place. LeBron James. As O'Neal put it, the face of the league.

Things have changed since 2002-03. Stoudemire and James have been named top rookies, and the number of players on NBA rosters who weren't 20 at the time of the 2004 draft is 17. That's quite an increase, but it's still fewer than one per team. Eighteen of the 30 teams have no teenage players. There just aren't enough teenagers to affect the overall quality of play.

Six of the 17 teenagers have seen almost no playing time. How exactly is Darko Milicic hurting the quality of play in the NBA by sitting on the Pistons' bench rather than having some college graduate sitting on the Pistons' bench? And if these teenagers can't play, why are some of them playing so much?

Why does Dwight Howard, for example, a 19-year-old power forward and the first pick in this year's draft, play 32 minutes a game for the Magic when Tony Battie, who went to Texas Tech and didn't come into the league until he was a codger of 21, plays only 23 minutes, and despite that college grooming has never come close to 32 minutes a game in eight seasons? What fine former college star is Celtics forward Al Jefferson depriving of P.T. with his 14 minutes a game?

Plenty of college guys can't play. O'Neal, who mostly sat on the bench for four years in Portland before becoming a star in Indianapolis, says that was a better basketball education than college would have been. "There's no better way to deal with the NBA other than dealing with the NBA, hands on, on the job," he said Tuesday night. "College doesn't teach you about the NBA. College teaches you about college."

That's a debatable point, but there's no doubt that quality of play is a red herring.

Some money might be saved by not having to pay teenagers like Milicic or Travis Outlaw to ride the pine. But in the wake of Stoudemire and especially James, not to mention Carmelo Anthony, who would have been too young to lead the Nuggets to their first playoff spot in 400 years last season, the idea of a minimum age of 20 is probably not going to fly.

Stern and the NBA owners have to know that, and they have to know too that the money saved by not having to pay the Darko Milicics of the world might not be as much as the money not made by not having the LeBron Jameses, Amare Stoudemires and Carmelo Anthonys of the world, teenagers who are franchise players, All-Stars, merchandise movers.

The age minimum is probably nothing more than a bargaining chip, and probably has nothing to do with race at all. As O'Neal noted in his clarification Tuesday, there's no reason to think Stern and the rest of the NBA brass and owners are racists. People who'd rather not see black folks making top dollar would, you'd think, stay away from the NBA in the first place.

But I'm glad O'Neal said what he did. Even if the answer is no, the question was worth asking. We've been talking about race in America for the last day or so, and even if the talk hasn't really led anywhere, that's never a bad thing.

Previous column: Mitch Albom

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