Stars can warn kids: Don't pin future on basketball

September 08, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

Basketball's allure in urban neighborhoods is a matter of record. The game is a religion there, a culture, a sweet and powerful sporting drug with millions of youths in its thrall.

This is not a bad thing. As city schoolteachers can attest, any endeavor that directs a child positively, away from the trouble that is often so close today, is a useful tool. Sometimes even a lifesaving tool.

Yet, basketball's elevated status also exacts a terrible price in these communities. It puts stars in the eyes and dreams in the heads of children and teen-agers. It gives them role models who, in many cases, used the game to escape a life of need -- teaching the next generations a lie, a huge and hurtful lie, the one that suggests that basketball is a viable means of self-betterment.

It isn't.

OK, yes, it is for a few: a handful of lottery winners, in essence, among the tens of thousands of aspirants. Twenty or so will play in the Muggsy Bogues All-Star Classic tonight at the Arena, with proceeds benefiting Baltimore Reads, a non-profit organization that provides literacy classes for adults.

But Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson, Bogues, Reggie Williams and the rest of tonight's bright collection of names are among the chosen few.

Basketball is a dead end for everyone else in the vast dribbling population; just a wonderful game to be loved and played, not a vehicle for getting a college education or a trip to the Disneyland that is the NBA.

The numbers don't lie. A few years ago there was a Harris poll surveying high school athletes. Of the black athletes, 59 percent said they expected to play college ball, 43 percent pro ball.

Of the white players, 39 percent expected to play in college, 16 percent in the pros. But only one of 100 high school athletes plays in college. One in 10,000 plays in the pros.

The cutdown is cruel and systematic and damages far too many of those who aren't among the chosen few, those who spend their youths with their eyes on the wrong prize, those who forsake their educations to work on their games.

Those who believe the lie.

The irony is as undeniable as it is wrenching: in areas where basketball brings joy to many and even saves lives, helping keep young feet off the streets, it is also a poisoned apple of sorts, an attractive fruit that takes a terrible toll.

Certainly, there is much to applaud about tonight's game at the Arena. Good cause, good game, good to see players giving back to the community.

But if the players truly want to make a difference in their communities, they should stand up tonight -- as often as possible, for that matter -- and shout to the rafters: "Don't believe my life!"

Not that they can facilitate any significant change by themselves, of course. The problem is part of an urban fabric that is far too damaged for the urgings of a few ballplayers to sew back together. They don't begin to have that kind of power.

Yet, the mythmaking machine operated by the NBA, the shoe companies and the television networks wields a powerful arm in this constituency.

The players become social icons, larger-than-life figures. For better or worse, what they say and do is relevant.

If they were to take a strong stand in exposing the big lie, in explaining just how impossible it would be to follow in their footsteps, perhaps it would help their loyal young followers begin to understand the length of the odds against them -- and possibly set different priorities.

To do so would be to pop the excited dreams of thousands of youths, which, of course, is a tragedy. But to not do so, when the numbers are so depressing, is pure cynicism.

This is not to say that an effort isn't being made. The NBA has a "Stay In School" campaign. Sam Cassell, to name one player, has tirelessly traveled the city streets this summer, explaining again and again that the real ballgame, the real way to improve your life, is to go to school.

But too many players' idea of giving back to the community is playing in a few charity games such as tonight's and donating money to a cause their agent suggests. What Cassell is doing is more personal and important, striking at the heart of the problem, the dangerous overemphasis of the game. It is just too bad that more players don't follow Cassell's lead.

Thousands of fans, many of them young and impressionable, will attend tonight's game and go home with stars in their eyes. Such is the way things work.

But wouldn't it be grand for them to go home with the cautions of a Mourning or a Johnson ringing in their ears? Wouldn't it be grand if someone whom these young people respected took the time to explain just how self-defeating it was to try to turn basketball into anything more than a game?

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