The announced departures of college freshmen Tyler Ennis of Syracuse and Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, with more to come, brought to mind a conversation that occurred more than three decades ago in a University Hall anteroom.
Two media types sat waiting to speak with Virginia coach Terry Holland. The topic of the day was 7-4 Ralph Sampson, the Cavaliers graceful, highly mobile center. Largely forgotten now, Sampson was a national phenomenon in the early 1980s. Following each of his college seasons, including sophomore and junior efforts that earned him National Player of the Year recognition, speculation peaked regarding his intentions of staying in school versus leaving for the pros.
In those days few players exited college early to seek a professional basketball career. Even at the height of the bidding wars between the National Basketball Association and the upstart American Basketball Association only four ACC players jumped to the pros with eligibility remaining: Marylands Barry Yates in 1971, UNCs Bob McAdoo in 1972, UVas Gus Gerard in 1974, and Clemsons Skip Wise in 1975. (The leagues merged in 1975-76.)
Early departures remained uncommon when Sampson, the 1980 ACC Rookie of the Year, reportedly spurned several offers to turn pro. Seated in Hollands Charlottesville office, Al McGuire, a TV basketball commentator and recently retired head coach at Marquette, argued adamantly that Sampson should leave early. McGuire thought it was good business sense for the player to capitalize on his status as soon as possible. Waiting with McGuire, a young writer insisted with equal vehemence that Sampson should finish his career at UVa. There was a bond between player, teammates, and school, the writer insisted. A college degree was irreplaceable. Sampson had yet to win either an ACC tournament or an NCAA title.
Finally, unable to contain his exasperation, McGuire exclaimed, What, did you go to school here or something?!
The answer was no. The writer was simply a college basketball fan.
How quaint that all seems now, when the best male players are expected to leave college early from the day they arrive.
Take Duke freshman Jabari Parker, the 16th consensus All-American under coach Mike Krzyzewski. Should the 6-8 forward decide to come back next season, it would be an even bigger upset than No. 14 Mercers defeat of third-seed Duke in the NCAA tournament. The effect of having a one-and-done prospect on the squad generated much second-guessing when the Blue Devils fell short of expectations this past season. Similar questions were raised concerning Kansas and Syracuse, which flared out quickly in the NCAAs while featuring freshmen who already have jumped ship.
Then again, the presence in this weekends Final Four of a Kentucky squad with five gifted freshman starters the programs second visit with a similarly youthful roster in three years might seem to rebut arguments about one-and-done instability.
Discussions of Parkers status tend to quickly wander off course the fact he may not be ready for the pros is secondary to his status as a likely NBA lottery choice. Debate all you want whether a particular player is prepared for the rigors of a professional basketball career, either in terms of skills or maturity. Such analysis is largely beside the point, as fans have learned over the decades. Jabari is in a great position for his future, Krzyzewski said, so that would be a big-time decision not to go. Because hes going to be one of the top picks.
Following the rules
Like a coach jumping programs for a better paycheck or greater job security, Parker is just following his professional aspirations. If the opportunity to cash in presents itself, he would be defying contemporary custom to turn away. The same goes for sophomores such as N.C. States T.J. Warren and, to a lesser extent, Dukes Rodney Hood and BCs Olivier Hanlon.
Of course even when moving on, so-called student-athletes operate within a framework circumscribed by others. The NBAs collective bargaining agreement generally forces players to attend at least one year of college. (Krzyzewski believes a rule mandating a two-year stay is on the way and would be good for everybody.) NCAA rules require a quick decision, this year by April 27. The NCAA also prohibits eligible athletes from retaining business representation under penalty of forfeiting their amateur status.
Meanwhile, fans look on with benumbed resignation. The sense of shock and disillusionment that accompanied Michael Jordans 1984 decision to leave North Carolina after his junior year, when a terrific Tar Heel squad failed to win either an ACC or NCAA title, has faded from memory. Back then many fans felt betrayed, especially if they took seriously the cliché about playing for the name of the front of the jersey. It took years to accept the parade of early departures, which for a time was most evident at Chapel Hill. Easing acceptance, Dean Smith defended basketball players right to leave early, likening it to similar choices by undergrad golfers or tennis stars. He also had pro teams write incentives into contracts to encourage former Tar Heels to earn a degree.
Krzyzewski somehow managed to avoid having players depart early until 1999. After one of his best teams fell in the NCAA title game, three underclassmen left. Included were sophomore Elton Brand, the top pick in the 99 draft, and Corey Maggette, a freshman who started three of 39 games and averaged 17.7 minutes. Since then Luol Deng in 2004, Kyrie Irving in 2011 and Austin Rivers in 2012 jumped to the pros after one year. Dengs choice was a surprise; the others were not.
These comings and goings generate speculation akin to handicapping a coaching search. ACC annals are replete with arguments regarding players who perhaps should have cashed in when their market value seemed high, from Virginia guard Harold Deane in the 1990s to UNC junior James Michael McAdoo in 2012. Then again, history is also full of players like Deng, or North Carolinas Kendall Marshall, who figured to stick around longer than they did but jumped ship when opportunity beckoned.
Early departures by premier players have long been cited by coaches in power conferences as key to spawning parity. The uncertainty also changed recruiting. Where once a coach more or less assured a premier prospect a year or two would pass before a competitor was recruited at the same position, now programs defensively stock up on talent.
Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins, who relied on a small core of star players, lamented his failure to adapt his recruiting tactics after junior Dennis Scott entered the draft in 1990, and Stephon Marbury went following his freshman year in 1996. Each time the Yellow Jackets endured a prolonged tailspin. More recently, UNCs Roy Williams vowed not to be caught short again after Marshall was hurt in the 2012 NCAA tournament and, without injured backup Dexter Strickland, the Heels were forced to employ lightly recruited Stilman White.
The spring is a period of time when you dont know who youre going to have, Krzyzewski said last week. Its tough for me to comment right now on who our team will be.
He called it the worst time of year for a college coach. Its no picnic for loyal fans, either.