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Archive for Sunday, July 15, 2001

Youth movement hurts NBA

Pro game being diluted by abundance of teen-agers from college, abroad

July 15, 2001

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For years, baseball's New York Yankees spent big money and employed good scouts and tutors for a farm system that steadily produced world championship-caliber players.

Owner Tom Yawkey of the Boston Red Sox meanwhile wasted countless bucks and drove himself nutty trying to buy talent to overcome the Yank assembly line. Never worked. As long as the New York farm system percolated, the Bosox and virtually everyone else were doomed.

Baseball farm systems no longer make such an impact. But the National Basketball Assn. for years had a genie in the jug with the stopper in its hand. The NBA had the best doggone "farm system" imaginable college programs, which cost the pros almost nothing.

If the confused and meandering NBA eventually collapses, it could well be because it killed that campus goose which for so long laid so many wondrous golden eggs.

Not only is the NBA now snatching up collegians after one to three years of needed training. It's grabbing high school seniors (even looking at juniors). The pro leaguers also have gone bananas about foreign stars. Some kid in Tanganyika grows to seven feet by the time he's a sixth-grader and bingo, the scouts are after him. A youngster in Lower Slobbovia shows a modest ability to shoot three-pointers and the NBA shows its concern for child welfare by rescuing him from the poverty of the steppes, or wherever some of these no-names are originating.

Then there's the free-agency which has complicated the personnel puzzle. Nobody seems happy where he is. Seems the only good team is where you've been or where you're going, seldom where you are. Owners keep falling for unrealistic salary and benefit demands; almost nobody knows where anyone will be the coming season.

In stealing so foolishly from the college ranks, the pros not only damage programs and naive kids' lives but they cut down on the chances for the public to get to know players to the point they really care what they do in the NBA. Think back to when a Larry Bird, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson or Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) had full college careers. You couldn't wait to see what they'd do as pros.

The least the NBA could do would be to set an age limit of 20 before kidnapping youngsters for a life most of them cannot handle. That wouldn't guarantee colleges the full services of a kid, but a coach at least could count on a couple years.

When Wilt Chamberlain was at Kansas for the 1957 and 1958 seasons, he could not go to the NBA until his four-year "class" hit 1959. He left early but had to play with the Harlem Globetrotters for his $80,000-plus.

The 1958 college All-America team had Wilt, Seattle's Elgin Baylor, Kansas State's Bob Boozer, Temple's Guy Rodgers and Cincinnati's Robertson. People wanted to see them as pros. Bill Russell and K.C. Jones ran the course in leading San Francisco to 1955 and 1956 NCAA titles.

The Boston Celtics lured KU's Norm Cook away a year early in 1976, a hint of things to come. The real celebrity for an "early out" was Michigan State sophomore Magic Johnson after his NCAA title year of 1979. Wouldn't happen often, experts said. You seldom find a kid who in four seasons leads his teams to a state high school title ('77), an NCAA crown ('79) and then, as an NBA rookie, a pro championship ('80).

Talent thefts continued increasingly to the point team rosters are so convoluted you have to think hard to name five guys each on 10 teams right now, even if you're a devoted fan.

Things are so confusing for fans that they're less and less interested. I think the NBA is going to rue the day it destroyed a New York Yankee-type farm system to sign ill-prepared kids like DeShawn Stevenson and give false hopes to rejects like Maurice Evans.

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Kansas University chancellor Robert Hemenway recently got an $11,932 annual salary hike to $219,420, plus perks. Heck, one more raise like that and he'll catch up to basketball coach Marian Washington who under her new contract got a $210,000 base plus another $20,000 or so for television-type loot with amazing perks of her own.

New athletics director Al Bohl better watch out. At $255,000, he might find Marian moving up in the passing lane. Not much public discussion about all this, but there's sure a lot of private resentment about Washington's package.

Some of it could even emanate from Kansas State president Jon Wefald who recently got a raise up to "only" $208,820, or Wichita State's Don Beggs, who was hiked to a paltry $183,652.

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Enshrined as he is in the Kansas City Chiefs football hall of fame, the late linebacker Derrick Thomas's official status seems secured. But his seamier side seven children with five women, none of whom he married or fully funded again moved into the news the past week.

Attorneys in the Thomas estate case are working with a private investigative firm to "help locate and determine" various Thomas assets that may be scattered around. The main goal is to help take care of the women and kids he neglected financially. Such doesn't come cheap the investigators charge $85 and hour and 51 cents per driven mile and the bills and expenses already have topped $6,000.

Are we that hard up for heroes?

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