Oh, would I love to turn the basketball clock back to 1968. And I have to think the NBA people would welcome it, too. Life was orderly and serene. This was pre-hardship draft, pre-early entry, and pre-one and done. In other words, it was pre-Spencer Haywood.
You were eligible to play in the NBA, and, yes, the ABA, once your college entrance class finished four years, and not one second before. No exceptions.
Only two NBA players of the day had not attended college. There was Joe Graboski, a 6-foot-7-inch forward who played 13 years in the league, and there was the celebrated Reggie Harding, a 7-footer out of Detroit who had an inability to stay out of trouble and who died a sad death at age 30.
Everyone else had gone to college, and if you decided to leave, you then had to wait until that original class had finished. When Wilt Chamberlain left Kansas after his junior year, he couldn’t come to the NBA for another year, but he did have the welcome (and quite lucrative) option of playing for the Harlem Globetrotters.
Ray Scott was another one. He left the University of Portland after his freshman year and had to spend the next three years playing in the Eastern League before embarking on what would be a quite successful 11-year pro career.
The system worked well for both the colleges and the NBA. Combined with freshman ineligibility, the college coach had firm control of his program. Recruiting patterns made sense. Requiring even the most gifted player coming out of high school to pay his dues as a freshman meant there was a seniority-based pecking order on a team.
“Entitlement” was an abstract concept. Even an Oscar Robertson or a Lew Alcindor had to wait his turn while playing on a freshman team.
The fans benefited, too. Freshman games meant more bang for the entertainment buck. A great freshman team not only provided another 40 minutes of entertainment in a preliminary game, it also provided visible hope for the immediate future.
We had such a team when I was a freshman at Boston College. We wouldn’t think of not being in our seats for the freshman game, and we had a varsity squad that went 22-7 and made the NIT when that still was a worthy goal.
Fans knew players would be there for the long haul and could therefore develop a proper fan/player relationship.
The NBA had a great thing going. Players were coached for four years. More important, as Hubie Brown might say, teams were presented with fully formed human beings, not egotistical kids who lacked fundamentals and who had seldom heard the word “no” during their careers. Coaches were coaches for all 12 players, not coaches for 10 or 11 and a glorified baby-sitter for one or two.
Then came a 6-8 20-year-old out of Detroit named Spencer Haywood. He had gone from Trinidad (Colo.) Junior College to the 1968 Olympic team to the University of Detroit, where after one season in which he averaged 32 points and 22 rebounds per game, he decided to turn pro and was promptly signed by the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association.
The toothpaste was out of the tube, and it stood to reason that it would be the ABA and not the NBA that would be willing to rewrite the rules.
Haywood spent just one season in the ABA, averaging 30 points and 19.5 rebounds per game, before jumping to the Seattle SuperSonics. There were suits and countersuits aplenty as the NBA old guard tried to cope with his disturbing presence, in part because he was so very good and in part because he was messin’ with the system that had served everyone so well.
Let’s be clear. The system was always legally tenuous. Haywood just happened to be the one with the determination, presence of mind, and best of all the extraordinary raw talent to shake things up. It was also about competition. Absent the ABA, things might have continued to flow in the NBA the way they had for the next couple of decades. But the ABA was never going to play nice.
So here we are, 46 years later, and the NBA is still trying to clean up the poop. I refuse to believe that the NBA really likes the way things are. I believe that if we took a poll of NBA coaches, general managers, and player personnel directors, they would time-capsule themselves back to 1968. They would, for the first time in their careers, be dealing with better-coached, better-educated players who are more fully formed human beings.
The system we have now is just plain horrible. By making prospects wait until they have spent a year out of high school before becoming eligible for the draft, the NBA has created the collegiate circumstance known as “one and done,” and that has seriously affected college basketball in a negative way.
Throw in the fact that we now have this laughable transfer rule that allows graduates to play an additional year at a school, provided they take up a course of study unavailable at their previous institution, and we have college teams that might as well have “M” for “Mercenaries” on the front of their jerseys.
I think I speak for many college fans by saying that all of this diminishes our enjoyment of a sport we used to love unconditionally.
My solution is simple. Let them come. If a top-flight prospect wants to enter the NBA draft right out of high school, so be it. The NBA is under no obligation to take anyone.
But the NBA teams should make it clear to these 18- and 19-year-olds that if they are drafted and signed, it doesn’t mean they will be suiting up every night. They should be told that there is something called the Developmental League and that you might spend a couple of years there learning how to be a pro. And if that is distasteful, tough. Stay home. Or go to college.
If the word gets around that turning pro might mean a significant minor league experience, that might even make a few more high school players take the academic side of life a bit more seriously in preparation for college. Once in college, one or two of them might even like it.
OK, now I might be kidding myself, but the fact remains that the current system is broken.
Spencer Haywood was just inducted into the Hall of Fame. As good a player as he was, he had even more impact off the court than on it.