$20,000 barely covers the phone bill

Posted: Friday, April 26, 2002

We used to worry when a girl left home at 14 with a just a suitcase, an overbearing father and a coach to try her luck on the tennis circuit.

Now we have 16-year-old regulars in Major League Soccer and a 17-year-old out on the PGA Tour. Eighteen-year-olds with an entourage and their agents on speed-dial have become a fact of life in the NBA.

Nutritionists dictate their diets, personal trainers chisel their bodies, psychologists prop up their psyches and lawyers take care of the paperwork. No wonder the notion of teen-agers playing pro sports has lost its shock value.

Almost everyone has come around to the idea that a few million dollars is fair compensation for skipping geometry, the prom and the rest of adolescence. And so the debate is less and less about how young is too young, and more and more about how much each prodigy is worth and who gets what share of the take.

That issue caused the NCAA to re-examine its mission, to consider whether the offer of a $20,000 loan and relaxed eligibility rules will make talented athletes pretend to be students for a few more semesters. But that amount barely covers the cellphone bill of one NBA teen-ager, let alone his pals, for a month.

It's also why the government in China has attached a lien to Yao Ming, the 22-year-old, homegrown basketball star who has become its most valuable international sporting asset. Like a parent who puts time and money into developing a prospect, the sports authorities there want half of Yao's potential NBA windfall to help pay for the programs and facilities that he used on the way up.

''It seems like we wrestle with the development issues every few years,'' NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said, ''and nothing much ever changes.''

Except that the kids at the center of the tug-of-wars get younger.

Three years ago, a regular Sports Illustrated feature titled ''This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us'' was devoted to 6-foot-9 1/2 Kentucky schoolboy Brandon Bender, who announced that he might skip his senior year of high school to enter the NBA draft.

Bender didn't but a few weeks from now, another kid might. His name is LeBron James, and he doesn't turn 18 until the end of December. People who've seen the junior from Akron, Ohio's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School have few doubts about whether he's ready for the NBA -- even if that's not an option yet.

The NBA, like several pro leagues, already has a minimum-age requirement in the collective bargaining agreement with its players' union. It stipulates that no player can be drafted until his high school class has graduated. League lawyers have assured commissioner David Stern that the NBA would win any legal fights, and so rumors that James intends to challenge age requirement are probably just that.

More intriguing are the rumors that James will spend the year playing AAU ball or take millions to play professionally in Italy. Relatives have said he'll be back for his senior year, but two things are certain: First, the day James turns pro, a sneaker deal will make him a millionaire; and second, no matter where he spends next year, college will not be in his immediate future.

The NCAA resigned itself years ago to losing a talent like James. And as much hand-wringing as there used to be over kids leaving school early, the leagues have learned from their mistakes.

For every flameout -- think Korleone Young or Leon Smith -- there has been a spectacular success -- Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. More encouraging still, there have been several kids like Jermaine O'Neal, who served solid apprenticeships and are developing into likable young stars.

It was with the O'Neals of the basketball world in mind that the NCAA began rethinking its concept of amateur athletics. Now, it's not just the prodigies who are skipping college and leaving early. Half the top eight picks in last year's NBA draft were high schoolers; only one college senior was taken in that span.

The NCAA's member universities are increasingly unhappy about losing their share of the athletic arms race. Whether they'll be able to do much about it remains anyone's guess. On Thursday night, the NCAA tabled the $20,000 loan proposal but it did tinker with the eligibility rules.

Developing athletic talent is less chaotic when it's run by the state, or by powerful clubs, such as the soccer teams in Europe. Twelve-year-old talents are identified, catalogued, sent to academies, signed, trained and delivered to pros a few years later at fixed costs.

''That sounds great,'' Granik said, ''but there's no chance people in this country would ever go for that.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org

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