Basketball's age concerns are benched

April 02, 2005|By David Steele

ST. LOUIS - Ask most people who have a grasp of both college and pro basketball, and they'll tell you that an age minimum of 20 for the NBA is a good thing. But they won't give you the reason you'd think they would.

An age minimum, on the table in the coming NBA labor negotiations, isn't needed to save college basketball. If this NCAA tournament is any indication, the game is getting along just fine with what it's got - better than it has in a long time, even if the games aren't teeming with future Hall of Famers.

North Carolina, for instance, might have as many first-rounders-to-be than the other three Final Four teams combined, yet no one would be surprised if the Heels go down in some dramatic fashion to Michigan State tonight.

In fact, based on last weekend alone, America expects nothing less.

Rick Pitino will tell you, and he has seen the signs of damage the talent exodus supposedly had on the colleges, and what it did to the NBA. He's glad he's on the right side of it now - so glad, in fact, that in a way, he doesn't miss what the NBA took from him and his Louisville team before this very season started.

If two recruits, high school point guard Sebastian Telfair and junior college swingman Donta Smith, had come to Louisville instead of jumping to the pros after committing, "we may not have made the Final Four," Pitino said yesterday.

You can't replicate the chemistry his current team has, he said, adding: "How much better could it get being in a Final Four with these guys? We probably appreciate it so much more with the guys we have."

The entire Final Four might be different if the rosters all over the country were different, if the likes of LeBron and Carmelo and Dwight Howard had followed the path taken by the stars of previous decades. The dynamic of the whole field surely would have changed, and if ever there was a tournament that didn't need messing with, it's this one.

The game, Pitino said, "is staggering right now from an entertainment value. ... I've never seen anything like this since a long, long time, what happened this year. These regional games, these comebacks, these overtime games, the way these guys handle pressure situations, the way they don't handle pressure situations. It's intriguing."

Where Telfair - a player thinking pros almost exclusively throughout his high school life - would have fit in is equally intriguing. Meanwhile, seeing the growth of certain players who proved their character outside the pressures of the NBA life has been mesmerizing. Exhibit A is Sean May, North Carolina's rock, a true survivor of the dark days thanks to his solid foundation and resultant character.

Sometimes, the pro game is exactly what a player needs, and sometimes college is the ideal fit. It merely took the better part of a decade for that to become apparent to the hard-liners on both sides of the issue.

Under a system under constant attack for so long, both the colleges and the NBA have managed to undergo a renaissance this season, so much so that a big postseason for the NBA later this spring might throw a wrench into the whole minimum-age issue after all.

It definitely has calmed down on the college side, at long last. "I never bought into that sky-is-falling, Chicken Little mentality," said CBS broadcaster Clark Kellogg, who played during the NBA's glory days of the early `80s and still works games for the Pacers between network gigs.

College basketball, he said, "is changing; the sport is making a transformation. But in this instant age, people jump to conclusions too easily. The college experience is still going to mean something. This tournament is going to mean something for a lot of people and will entertain a lot of people. That doesn't make it good or bad. It's different."

Even Pitino, while acknowledging that the NBA is suffering from a maturity void because of the youth influx, said it it wasn't going to kill the league - "where it's not going to exist or not be a great product." The two games are, he said, "worlds apart."

And he couldn't, in good conscience, begrudge a kid who wants or needs the money. His own star, Francisco Garcia, is leaving after his junior year to help his family in the Bronx.

The truth is that the cold war between the colleges and pros over this issue is thawing at long last, and it took the zany, unpredictable, thoroughly engaging action of this tournament to warm things up.

"I'd say right now, this is the fruition of the [transformation] process," Kellogg said, "to go from that top level of talent of college basketball to the next level down. ... People are going to see that it's all right for the sport to be like this."

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