Wrinkles showing in NBA's age rule

March 26, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Kobe Bryant picked a great time to go on the greatest run of NBA scoring prowess since Wilt Chamberlain more than 40 years earlier - right in the middle of March Madness.

Bryant, who 11 years ago had the audacity to skip college in favor of the NBA, scored 50 or more points in four straight games before his streak ended last night. He somehow managed it - and managed three NBA championships - without the prior influence of Coach K, and without Dickie V narrating a second of his post-high school career.

He also never went to a Final Four, as Greg Oden and his freshmen cohorts at Ohio State are doing later this week. Nor has he had fellow underclassmen and their fathers and uncles clamoring for his college jersey, as is the case with Kevin Durant's Texas jersey.

Because the NBA's minimum age rules - at least 19, and at least one year out of high school - went into effect this season, Oden and Durant are bona fide college heroes. Eventually they will be pro heroes. They were forbidden to be this year because the NBA decided that experiencing what Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Moses Malone did - and yes, Kwame Brown, Leon Smith and Korleone Young, too - was detrimental to the players and the game.

Actually, that was determined to be detrimental to the NBA's image, which is all that matters to the league these days. Dress this way, sit this way, speak to officials this way, play with this ball, and now, let us determine your and your family's future. Talk about audacity.

So, Oden carries a team to glory for the price of a year of college tuition, room and board that he could have afforded after about a month of work had he been given the choice to turn pro. And Durant gets visibility he would have gotten at about the same time anyway had he taken his immense talent and level head to the league last spring.

Ohio State and Texas, their conferences, CBS and the guys who sell jerseys without giving those players a dime of the profits - they all benefit from this. One of the arguments for the age minimum is: The money will still be there in a year or two. No one tells the networks, athletic directors or coaches to wait to get paid, just the players. Those people likely wouldn't tell their own children to choose college over $10 million, either, just someone else's children.

Oden and Durant probably altered their draft positions slightly, while going without a year's salary and pushing the date of their big contract extensions back a year. Which means the owners of the teams that draft them benefit, too.

The NBA? It's supposed to benefit, because Oden and Durant are now known quantities at draft and ticket-renewal time, the way Magic and Michael were, and don't have that too-much, too-soon taint. Yeah, what a wasteland that uneducated LeBron has turned this league into.

(I know: Yeah, but what about Kwame? Well, what about him? Go ahead, convince me that going to college instead of straight to the NBA would have made him the next Bill Russell. I dare you.)

But a funny thing has happened while the NBA was pandering to "middle America," whatever that is - the desperate measures to change the negative image aren't working. It's gotten worse, actually, to the point that an NFL player can get himself into an unholy mess at a Vegas strip club, yet the NBA gets blamed for it.

Plus, the protectors of the college game and its way of life are now pleading with Oden and Durant to turn away from the NBA for another year, as if the choice is between continuing divinity school and becoming a heroin smuggler.

The age minimum, however, did further the double standard that basketball-playing kids live with that teenage prodigies in every other field of entertainment don't.

As a bonus, it reinforced the notion that America has to be protected from young, rich black men at all costs. Britney Spears breaking the bank at 16 was cute; Greg Oden playing for the Raptors at 18 was a threat to our values. Yet the next person who suggests that Brit might have avoided shaving her head, attacking cars with umbrellas and forgetting to wear panties had she spent a year or two at LSU will be the first.

The rule is pointless. And, while not as demeaning as the dress code, it's more sinister. So much so that it forces one to defend Kobe Bryant, on principle. Ugh.

The bottom line is no one will ever, ever be able to prove that Oden or Durant was better off for one year of college exposure. It was just different. Now that the first year is over, it's also a moot point, albeit one that the college crowd wants badly to claim in its favor.

As for Kobe, when he was supposed to have been a college freshman, he was instead shooting air balls in the fourth quarter of an elimination game in the NBA playoffs at Utah.

Bryant managed to get past that. And without CBS' theme song ever ringing in his ears.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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