SBJ/July 12 - 18, 1999/No Topic Name

A system without safety nets

By bruce schoenfeld

Senior correspondent

In his quiet, well-mannered way, Albert White was utterly confident he could play NBA basketball. He'd already wasted a season, 1996-97, transferring from Michigan to Missouri, so when he led the Tigers in scoring, rebounding and assists as a junior and carried them to the NCAA Tournament, he figured his time had come. He declared himself available for the NBA draft and signed with an agent, Sandy Sanders of Ann Arbor, Mich.

And then White parked himself in front of the television at his mother's Inkster, Mich., home on draft day and waited for the announcement that never came.

"I really thought I'd get drafted," he said a few days later. "Up until the last name was called, I was still hoping."

White is one of several underclassmen who slipped through the cracks of the NBA draft this year, exposing its structural flaws. The fact that he didn't get selected is not the issue; it's that he can't return to Missouri. Even though he was deemed unready to play in the NBA by the open market, his eligibility is forfeited and his athletic scholarship canceled.

The NBA and the NCAA, vastly different entities, have this in common: Neither has been able to concoct an early entry system that doesn't penalize young athletes for taking a chance that might earn them millions of dollars.

Until recently a student and an athlete — CNN/SI's Player of the Year in the Big 12 and an academic junior just two semesters from a degree — Albert White is now in very real danger of being neither.

"Why would you take him out of a situation where he can refine his skills, both basketball and academic?" Sanders asks. "I tell Albert that there are 7,000 brain surgeons in America but only 400 NBA players, so he'd better keep his options open. But by losing his scholarship, what options does he have?"

To be fair, many underclassmen fared better. The first four players selected, Elton Brand of Duke, Steve Francis of Maryland, Baron Davis of UCLA and Lamar Odom of Rhode Island, all had college eligibility remaining. You can argue that some or all of them are not ready for professional basketball, but you can't question their decision to leave school, not with the money guaranteed to lottery picks.

Like Michael Jackson, Pete Sampras and Bill Gates, they'll do fine without a college degree. Their first NBA contract will guarantee them more money than many Ivy Leaguers earn in a career.

Many of the other early entry candidates, including high schoolers Jonathan Bender and Leon Smith, were drafted in the first round and are entitled to guaranteed three-year contracts. Twelve additional underclassmen, told by NBA scouts that they definitely wouldn't be selected early in the first round, chose to withdraw their names from consideration. For these players, the system worked well. Accurate information about when players were likely to get picked was disseminated. Possible life-changing errors were avoided.

But White didn't fit neatly into a category. He wasn't a sure first-rounder, but even after missing two days of the Chicago pre-draft workout camp following surgery to remove a boil, he was told he might get chosen. As it turned out, he wasn't.

White made a conscious choice, signing with Sanders even though he knew it precluded further college competition. But while it's true that you can't protect people from their own misjudgments, you can help soften the consequences.

If he could return to Missouri, White would play another year of basketball and make a run at the Final Four. He'd complete the two semesters of course work he needs to get a degree. And perhaps he'd sharpen his skills enough to get chosen in the first round next year, which would mean a guaranteed contract.

"He'd benefit academically and athletically from another year at Missouri," said Sanders. "There's no question about it."

Instead, he'll work out for the Phoenix Suns in late July and hope for an invitation to their training camp. Sanders thinks he can find White a place on a team in another country, like Turkey or Taiwan.

The NBA knows the draft is a work in progress. Backstage at Washington's MCI Center, between visits to the lectern to announce first-round selections, Commissioner David Stern argued for the adoption of a rule barring candidates under age 20.

"What's driving me is the increasing view among youngsters in high school that, whether they're honor students or not, if they'll ultimately be good enough to play in the NBA, they should come right out," Stern said. "I'd like kids to have the benefit of the life experience you get with two years of college."

He's confident such a provision would survive a challenge in court.

"Every business has some entry-level qualifications," he said. "In some cases, it's a master's degree. In others, a high school diploma."

But the problem with using age as a qualifier is that 18-year-olds like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant were ready to play in the NBA even as teen-agers, while White, 22, still belongs on a college team.

Stern's answer is a binding contract between recruits and schools that commits athletes to at least two years of college basketball but gives them four years of academic scholarship even if they turn pro after their sophomore season. They couldn't compete, but at least they could earn their degree.

Yet even that half-step is too radical for the NCAA, which lurches into action more slowly than the federal government.

"I think it is fair to say that the structure of the NCAA effectively makes it unable to respond to an issue like this in a meaningful or timely fashion," Stern said. "We're going to proceed down the road to examine this issue in conjunction with the players' union. It's just too bad the NCAA can't function as a significant player at the table."

"It's important to remember that the NCAA is not like the NBA," responds Cedric Dempsey, NCAA president. "It's an association. It's run by member schools. It deliberately doesn't move fast. And it does so as is befitting the world of higher education, which is the world in which college athletics exist.

"Just as the NBA has its players' association to deal with, the NCAA has a membership with which it must interact. The NBA has talked for some time, for example, about an age rule and has not been able to get that in place. This is a complex issue, and neither party has found a successful solution."

Because they haven't, White's college career is over. He puts on a brave face and says if he had to make the decision again, he'd do the same. He's willing to play in Europe, the CBA, anywhere to display his talents.

"I'm in this for the long term," he says.

But the reality is that his chances aren't very good. Of the 49 early entry candidates who weren't drafted over the last three years, a total of three now adorn an NBA roster. Taj McDavid, who came out as a high schooler, successfully petitioned the NCAA for reinstatement, although he was forced to wait a year as a penalty. He spent last season playing for NCAA Division II school Anderson College. The rest are out of big-time basketball. And they're not likely to be in college, either.

As a high school senior in 1995, White was named to the McDonald's All-America team. From that team, Shareef Adbur-Rahim, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, Stephon Marbury, Ron Mercer, Chauncey Billips, Paul Pierce and Garnett all left college early or never went at all and were chosen as lottery picks. All are financially secure today.

They are White's peers. Nobody would tell any of them that they made a mistake by leaving school with eligibility remaining, but the system is telling White exactly that. And it's punishing him for it, too.

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