Lebron James

The Brilliance of Mark Cuban: Let ’em play and pay ’em for it

Mark Cuban has the right idea about the NBADL.

Mark Cuban has the right idea about the NBADL.

Mark Cuban knows how to get things going. The Dallas Mavericks owner and  part-time shark said recently that high school basketball stars should consider jumping directly to the NBA’s Developmental League, rather than going to college for one or two seasons before declaring for the NBA Draft.

This, apparently, is a brand-new concept to people in the basketball business. Representatives on both sides–NBA and NCAA–from Charles Barkley and Jerry West to Bruce Pearl and Larry Brown have denounced this as a ridiculous concept that will surely result in the Apocalypse … of basketball.

The Cubes has it right.

Proponents of the college game tout “the college experience” as something uniquely beneficial to these athletes. “They get certain life skills and gain an appreciation for academics with the rest of the student body.” (Not a real quote, more of a gist). Stop it. The college experience for a premier men’s basketball player is nothing like that of the average pinky toe of the student body. While they all likely have been told that they have what it takes to make it to the NBA, there are a definitive few who can legitimately cut class three years early. Those players show up, play ball, and leave. They can’t earn a degree in that time and they know it. So, while they may even get legit grades, they do it with a course load that is geared to get grades. Their goal isn’t to graduate, it’s to pass (the time). And I don’t fault them for that; the system allows it and even promotes it.

Talking heads say the college game is the best at preparing players for the NBA. If they are true student-athletes, why is it the school’s job to prepare them for a life that does not require the degree? Shouldn’t it be to prepare them for a career off the court and, if they happen to make it to the league then so be it? Truth is, universities spend millions of dollars on trying to find and develop the best basketball players they can so the school’s colors can stain television screens in March. If they happen to graduate the so be it.

The perception of the D-League is that of an empty gym for oft-injured veterans and raw prospects to give it a go. It’s basketball limbo with C-minus talent in cities that aren’t quite “destinations” with crowds closer to semi-pro wrestling. So what? The disdain with which the D-League is talked about confuses me because no other minor league gets the same treatment.

Cito Culver

Cito Culver

Meanwhile, a 17-year-old kid named Cito Culver was drafted in the first round by the New York Yankees in 2010.  No one batted an eye. He since has yet to get past the Single-A level. He’s barely 20 and will never know the college experience, but nobody worried he was making the wrong decision. Maybe his career .238 batting average is just the coming-of-age portion of his baseball biography. Maybe at 21, 22, 23 or 24 he’ll break into the league and enjoy a 10-year career. Or maybe he’ll fade into minor league purgatory, forgotten before he could be remembered.

Baseball and hockey have made stories like that OK. It’s part of the culture of those sports. The NBA would do well to develop something similar–the kind of indifference to the eventual outcome that helps scouts, fans, athletes and their parents sleep at night.

Ideally, the D-League and other minor leagues would make a college fund part of any player’s initial contract. A player could come out of high school, earn a paycheck to play basketball, and earn added money that can only be used to pay a tuition. The truly great players who make a name for themselves in high school would be free to sign endorsement deals, and then join the NBA a year or two years later. And follow baseball’s lead: If a player opts to go to college after they’ve been drafted in high school, they are required to wait three years before becoming draft eligible again.

In the end, the NBA has the power to make this happen at the great expense of the fleeting NCAA. The governing body of college sports has taken so many hits over the past decade that it seems a perfect time for a break-up. The NBA is a business, and the NCAA is a business that clings to a poorly held-together notion of altruism that is all but evaporated. The first time a major college prospect opts for the D-League instead of Duke, makes some cash, and becomes an NBA star, consider the floodgates opened.

And thank Mark Cuban.