To keep up with LeBron James - former star of Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, last year's No. 1 pick of the NBA draft, beneficiary of a $90 million endorsement contract and Rookie of the Year with the Cleveland Cavaliers - doesn't exactly require a search party. His fame might explain the unprecedented rush of high school talent going pro, with the league receiving notice of plans to enter next month's NBA draft from 13 players.
To keep up with James Lang - the fifth and last player the league drafted out of high school - is a challenge in his current job with the Oklahoma Storm of the United States Basketball League. Lang, former star of Birmingham's Central Park Christian High, was last year's No. 48 pick of the New Orleans Hornets. In midseason, he was picked up briefly by the National Basketball Development League's Asheville (N.C.) Altitude.
Whatever trappings of stardom have come to Lang through his leap into pro basketball, they don't extend to voicemail at the motel in Enid, Okla., where the Storm stays when the team is not criss-crossing the country to venues ranging from Brooklyn to Dodge City to keep the players' hoop dreams alive.
"I hope they're making the right decision," Lang said of this year's crop of high school entries, ranging from potential top pick Dwight Howard of Atlanta to Tacoma, Wash., unknown Maurice Shaw. "Everyone's doubting you, and that's going to be hard. You just have to use that as a motivation."
In Enid, the operator at the hotel housing Lang answers, "Motel 6," followed by "reservations," the latter a fitting term to describe the discourse regarding high school players skipping college basketball to earn professional money.
Players like Lang stand in contrast to the success achieved by Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O'Neal, all of whom jumped past college basketball and are now considered among the top 10 players in the NBA.
It would be kind to call on-court beginnings modest for the other three high schoolers drafted in last year's first round. Boston's Kendrick Perkins, Minnesota's Ndudi Ebi and Portland's Travis Outlaw combined to appear in 35 games, indicating that not everyone had the impact that James did, and making executives such as Ernie Grunfeld, general manager of the Washington Wizards, hope for change.
"I think everyone should get the college experience, for the maturity - not just physically, but also emotionally," said Grunfeld, whose roster includes Kwame Brown, a high school star who joined the Wizards as the league's top pick in 2001.
Brown's minutes have increased in each of his three seasons, but he is still seen as an unfinished product. "He might have been rushed, but that's what we're dealing with. Maybe he could have benefited from a developmental situation in college. Everyone has their own pace," Grunfeld said.
This year's fringe candidates appear to be Maurice Shaw, a 6-10 forward who played a fifth year of high school ball in Maine, and Jackie Butler, a 6-10 power forward from McComb, Miss., a Tennessee signee dismissed from Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute.
Seeking age minimum
Though players can test the draft and try college if they don't sign with an agent, "a lot of these guys are going to be hurt," said Chicago-based agent Keith Kreiter. "If a kid is thought of as being a sure-fire pick, then I see no reason he shouldn't be allowed to make the jump. But it should be handled properly, because if it's not, they're giving up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Concerned about the issues surrounding high school players, the league has begun a quest for an age minimum, probably 20, on which it hopes to find agreement with the National Basketball Players Association.
NBA commissioner David Stern proposes a ban, "not because I don't think that LeBron, Kobe, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal can't play," he told the New York Post earlier this month. "I'm just not sure I feel the ones who can't are being properly led by what we do."
For the moment, Lang, cousin of former Duke player and NBA journeyman Antonio Lang, is satisfied with the counsel that eventually guided him to Enid, where the wind alternated with the "yessirs" through his cell phone during a recent conversation.
After a year that has included being released by the Hornets and the Altitude, the 6-10, 320-pound center said he has achieved much, even though not as much as he wished. He was averaging 10.3 points and 5.1 rebounds in 19.5 minutes for the Storm in eight games.
"It's been blessful," he said, shortly before an afternoon practice. "I've been able to show what I can do. There's a lot I've learned by watching others and myself."