As Wie gets paid, teens must wait for the NBA

October 06, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

Michelle Wie looked like a lot of things yesterday as she set herself up for the most super Sweet 16 party, like, ever. She looked like a mature woman, and like a giggly teen, not to mention like a natural-born citizen of Nike-topia.

What she didn't look like was ashamed.

As she officially announced her ascent into the professional golf ranks at age 15, huge endorsement contracts in hand, Wie never once seemed as if she needed to apologize for being so good at what she did.

Never once did she indicate she didn't deserve the money and attention, or that she was obligated, for the good of herself, her sport and society at large, to wait a few more years.

Too bad that's not the case for prodigies in other sports.

Yeah, you know what sports.

It was dumb luck that Wie's big payday came right in the middle of the first week of NBA training camps, the first to take place under the new 19-year-old age limit pounded, to great fanfare, into the new labor agreement.

Wie can now buy the biggest, most tricked-out Hummer ever made, even though she can't drive it quite yet. She could ace the first hole of her pro career, but she'd get carded if she tried to buy the round at the 19th hole.

But basketball players younger than 19 can't get into the NBA without being out of high school for a year. They used to be able to, and a few of them helped their teams eventually win championships. But that was bad for the game, or so everybody has been saying for the past decade, with an almost-poetic mythology offered up to support it.

"For every one that makes it, 10 of them flop," the naysayers repeat. That's a lie. Period. The numbers show that it's more like the other way around.

"They miss the maturing aspects of college life." College coaches and presidents, the networks and fans might miss it. The players who get their grades fixed and their indiscretions whitewashed, but who land their schools on probation when they accept a free pair of shoes, don't appear to miss it. Plus, the number of players who enter the pros from college less mature than the high school kids is too large to count.

"Franchises are ruined by picking players that young and undeveloped." NBA analyst and former player Greg Anthony, among others, is puzzled by that one. "I keep hearing that; somebody name them," he said on a studio show during last spring's playoffs.

Well, there is Kwame Brown. Yet he's the exception in the high school class, not the rule. The Wizards drafted him. Brown was a chronic knucklehead. But the next generation of 18-and-under stars paid for that mistake.

If Wie flames out, and her endorsers decide they wasted their money, they'll move on. Wie will move on, too, likely with no regrets but with a fat bank account. Some other 10th-grader will ponder the example she set and maybe decide to take that route anyway.

You do your homework, you take the risk, you live with the consequences. That goes for the payer and the paid. Who can legislate against that?

The NBA can, and did. The NFL always has. Ask Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams about that. Your family will benefit from your ability, they were told, when we tell you it can. And here's the number we pulled out of thin air that will determine it.

Of course, it's probably a coincidence that these two sports are the ones dominated by young black men, and that this group is the only one to whom these rules are being dictated.

No, no, come the shouts. We don't mean to imply that everybody except young black athletes deserves the right to capitalize on their skills. Or that anyone feels threatened by the power and influence they wield. Or that anyone is envious of, or uncomfortable with, or deeply offended by, their wealth and success.

No, that's not it at all, because when the Indiana Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal intimated last spring that race was a factor in the age-limit debate, he was shouted down like a 10-year-old speaking out of turn around the grown-ups. Well, what would O'Neal know? Nine years ago, he was one of those high school flops.

OK, he's not a flop, he's a perennial All-Star. There go some more stupid facts getting in the way.

The lesson for you kids out there, then, is to pick the right sport. Golf, of course, is ideal. So are tennis, gymnastics and figure skating. Baseball and hockey are good, too. Ask Sidney Crosby, who has yet to be told he needs to go to college, for his own good or anyone else's. In fact, he's being asked to save the NHL at the age of 18.

Michelle Wie, meanwhile, is chasing the American dream. Her basketball counterparts can only chase their next couple of birthdays.

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