Is the NBA Unfairly Dashing Hoop Dreams?

Decades ago, pro basketball decided to let high school graduates bypass the NCAA and go straight to the NBA. Then a few years ago it rescinded that rule. But to what end?

03.14.16 6:39 PM ET

On the eve of the basketball calendar’s two biggest events—the NCAA tournament and the NBA playoffs—a talented young sportswriter is out with a must-read about the game, an incisive and exhaustively reported exploration of the price that young men pay for a chance to make it in the extraordinarily competitive world of pro hoops.

Jonathan Abrams asks smart questions and has a gift for portraiture. In Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution, the former Grantland staffer delivers on his promise to shed new light on the careers of future Hall of Famers who leaped directly from high school to “the league.” But he also has a soft spot for players who couldn’t cut it, and it’s this quality—Abrams’s knack for persuading ex-prodigies to share soul-searching anecdotes—that makes his first book an important contribution to the discussion about the way we consume sports in America.   

“Now that three people have done it, everybody thinks they can do it,” teenage rookie Jermaine O’Neal said in 1997, discussing his decision to emulate Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, both of whom had opted to skip college ball. “It’s going to take one person to fail for everybody to realize that everybody’s not ready for the NBA.” O’Neal was right—and it was a lesson that several of Abrams’s subjects would learn the hard way.

Over a three-decade period, more than 40 high-schoolers bypassed the NCAA apprenticeship route and tried to crack the NBA as teens. Most did quite well for themselves. Citing research by legal scholar Michael McCann, Abrams notes that “the 29 high school players who had declared for the NBA draft and signed with agents from 1975 to 2003 … had stayed in the NBA much longer, while earning larger contracts and maximizing their earning potential, than their counterparts.”  

But in 2005, the NBA and the players’ union agreed to stop high-school players from jumping directly to the league; newcomers must now be at least a year removed from high school in order to enter the draft. The idea, as then-Commissioner David Stern put it, was informed by the desire “to tell the communities that we serve that the sixth-grader, as Arthur Ashe used to say, is far more likely to be a rocket scientist, biology professor, etc., than a pro athlete.” This was meant to seem like a principled stance. But it was also a paternalistic one. To no one’s surprise, the policy has had unintended consequences—most notably, the rise of the so-called one-and-done player, who spends a season playing in college and then bolts shortly after March Madness.

Those who think the league’s ban is patently unfair make a pretty strong case. As O’Neal notes, 18-year-olds can enlist in the military and die for their country: “So my question is, Why aren’t you allowed to do something as simple as play basketball?” He has a point: Should an NBA-ready 18-year-old be effectively forced to cool his heels in college for a couple semesters instead of starting a lucrative career that will change his life? What does this accomplish aside from further enriching CBS and ESPN, the NCAA, and a bunch of overpaid Division I basketball coaches? Doesn’t this make the idea of amateurism—already a very big farce in American sports—an even more ridiculous conceit?

On this subject, Abrams cites Michele A. Roberts, the head of NBA players union, who told Sports Illustrated, “I’ve been practicing law for thirty years. One of the beauties of being in that job is that I can practice until I lose my mind or die. That is not the case with athletes. You have a limited life to make money as a basketball player. Anything that limits those opportunities is distressing to me.”

This is worth considering as you read Abrams’s book, which in one chapter after another notes that the players who successfully made the prep-to-pro transition weren’t just tall, fast guys who could jump high—they were also incredibly hard workers and devoted pupils of the game.

In his 1996-97 rookie season, for instance, 18-year-old Kobe “Bryant did little beyond play, practice, and think about basketball. He did not go out on the road carousing,” Abrams writes, and “frequently traveled with video of Michael Jordan’s highlights,” which he mined for pointers. Kevin Garnett, who broke into the NBA a year before Bryant, might’ve been even more obsessive about learning from his opponents and avoiding bad influences. Garnett “practiced mercilessly to better himself,” kept handwritten notes on the tendencies of opposing players, Abrams says, and stuck to a schedule that didn’t allow for “partying or burning through money.”  

On the other hand, there were some notable failures during the years that the NBA accepted players directly from high school. Abrams’s profiles of these young men are often heartrending, and they make you wonder if big-time sports aren’t even more morally suspect than you’d already assumed.

Take Lenny Cooke, a New York City “phenom” who, Abrams notes, was slated for NBA stardom in the early 2000s: “He was a svelte, 6-foot-6-inch player, stronger, more athletic, and brasher than his opponents. He could attack any defender any way he chose, dropping back to shoot, blowing past him, or simply going through him.” Before he could realize his potential, however, Cooke’s career succumbed to bad luck and bad decisions. He listened to hucksters who were hoping to get rich on his back, partied too much, tore his Achilles tendon—and never logged a minute in the NBA.

Visiting a now-30-something Cooke at his home in Virginia, Abrams finds him out of work and “still conflicted, at times holding himself accountable and at other moments voicing anger at those who misled him.” His home is adorned with trophies he won as a teen, a poignant shrine to what might’ve been. He tells Abrams that being a father is now his top priority, that he’s not haunted by missing out on a big NBA contract: “My family needs me more than anything now. At times, it bothered me. Especially when night comes around and it’s like, Damn, you know you are supposed to be there. The fellas sitting there like, ‘You see his bum ass on TV?’ Other than that, it don’t bother me.”

This reminded me of a bit from The Breaks of the Game. In the opening pages of that 1981 classic, David Halberstam channeled a hoops lifer who noted that at its highest level, the game “allowed for very few illusions. The question remained whether it was possible to survive and even triumph in such a world, and still exist outside it.” Better than most basketball writing, this captures the harsh nature of our multibillion-dollar sports industry. At its best, Abrams’s Boys Among Men does the same.