Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Too Young for the Big Leagues? Basketball Players Come under Fire for Turning Pro When They're Still Teenagers. So Why Is It OK for Soccer, Hockey, and Baseball Players? (Sports)

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Too Young for the Big Leagues? Basketball Players Come under Fire for Turning Pro When They're Still Teenagers. So Why Is It OK for Soccer, Hockey, and Baseball Players? (Sports)

Article excerpt

THE NO. 1 PICK IN LAST YEAR'S NBA draft is scoring a paltry three points a game--that is, when he gets off the bench at all. National Basketball Association executives wish he had gone to college instead of turning pro right out of high school. But Kwame Brown, who just turned 20, has collected about $3 million from the Washington Wizards for this season--and he's learning the game from Michael Jordan.

Did Brown make the right choice? It's one of the hottest debates in sports. Brown is part of the youngest rookie class in NBA history, advancing a trend that began in 1995, when Kevin Garnett leaped from high school to stardom with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Four of last year's first 10 draft picks took that prom-to-pro route. Now they all have seven-figure contracts.

Still, there are risks to turning pro so early. If a high-schooler declares that he's entering the NBA draft, held in June, he is ineligible to play in college, even if no team picks him. The NBA only drafts about 60 players a year, and it doesn't have the extensive minor leagues of baseball and hockey to help teens develop. A basketball prospect can easily find himself out of options.

Even for teens who are drafted, there's a downside. "You go from being the man to being nothing," Brown says. "You get beat up in practice. You probably won't get in the games. That's so hard for high school guys to understand. I'm still adjusting."

Brown, a 6-foot-11 forward, started only two of the Wizards' first 60 games. But he is considered a lock to shine in the league---eventually. It took time for Garnett and fellow high school stars Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady to get up to speed, too.

Brown has a special edge because of Jordan. As Wizards team president, Jordan drafted Brown, signed him to a three-year, $11.9 million contract, and then, as his teammate, began schooling him. Could a teen do better than that in college?

"I don't think there's a high school kid who wouldn't benefit from a few years of college experience," says Mike Bantom, NBA senior vice president of player development. "Physically, mentally, and emotionally, we just think they're not ready to enter this world."

NBA Commissioner David Stern said last season that he'd like to set a minimum age of 20 for all players. But the players' union came out against that idea, and it was scrapped.

LEAGUES OF TEENS

While the NBA has resisted teen players, Major League Soccer has embraced them. Among MLS's All-Star teenagers is D.C. United's Santino Quaranta, 17, the youngest member of a major U.S. pro sports team.

"We work in a unique environment," says Todd Durbin, MLS senior vice president for player personnel. Unlike other leagues in the U.S., MLS is not the world's best. As more American teens get offers to play overseas, MLS wants to keep them at home. …

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