Pro Basketball in Erie, Part 2: The Basketball Food Chain

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The following post is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, “Pro Basketball in Erie, Part 1: The NBA Problem.”

For a long time, the basketball food chain was pretty simplistic. The best elementary school players went on to play in high school. The best high school players were recruited to play in college. And the best players from college went on to the NBA after graduation. In the early 70s, Spencer Haywood became the first player to challenge this model, filing an antitrust suit against the NBA.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Haywood won, forcing the NBA to adopt a “hardship rule” that made an exception that players who could prove financial hardship could play in the NBA without going to college. By 1976, players were eligible for the NBA after the time their class graduated from high school. Moses Malone and Daryl Dawkins were among the first to take advantage of this rule that would eventually lead to many of the game’s greatest stars today bypassing college to go straight to the NBA out of high school.

At the same time that high school stars were flocking to the NBA, basketball was experiencing the effects of globalization, and the foreign influx of talent grew steadily. If you remember as recently as 15 years ago, Toni Kucoc, Dino Radja, and Vlade Divac were among the few foreign-born NBA players, and none of them were elite-level performers.

Fast-forward to the 2000s, and it’s literally a world of difference. The past three NBA MVPs have been players who didn’t play college ball. And in this decade, the NBA Draft has had three high schoolers and three foreign-born number one picks, including two who didn’t play U.S. college ball.

Two years ago, the NBA instituted a new rule that forces players to be at least one year removed from the graduation of their high school class. And while it’s true that the NBA still feeds on the best players from college, they also have a taste for international talent these days. And the rest of the chain is all kinds of crazy. Starting in 2006, high school players can no longer go straight to the NBA, but they are going to play (and get paid) in Europe rather than spending the mandatory one year in college. And U.S.-born NBA players are going to play internationally as well.

That brings us to the D-League part of the equation. Where does the NBDL and the Erie BayHawks fit into the modern-day basketball food chain? It's another question that has no simple answer. Depending on who you ask, you’re likely to get a different response. It’s a really important question, too. Ultimately, the answer to this question will determine the fate of the D-League.

Right now, the D-League is closest thing to international basketball on the basketball food chain. Its primary targets are young players a year or two out of college that can’t quite make an NBA roster. Its main exports go to the NBA. The allure of Europe is that their teams are generally able to pay much better than the D-League. The one area where the D-League has a leg up on international teams is its NBA team affiliation. Unfortunately, the affiliations are mostly indirect and most D-League teams are affiliated with more than one NBA team.

Currently the D-League does not rival the NCAA. NBDL President Dan Reed isn’t spearheading an advertising campaign to get blue chip high school prospects to forgo college in favor of spending a year with the Erie BayHawks. I don't think that's in the plans. And although I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the NBA/NBDL to know if accepting players right out of high is in the long-term plans of the league, I think it's an idea worth fleshing out.

Obviously college basketball isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. At the same time, the current NCAA system is significantly flawed. It's set up to benefit schools first, coaches second, maybe fans third, and players last. It’s a joke to see these top-level players show up on campus for a year before declaring for the draft.

Far too many players aren't going to college on a basketball scholarship. They're going to play basketball on a college scholarship. There is a difference. The point is, college isn’t for everyone. There has to be an alternative, and maybe that's Jeremy Tyler's European endeavor. Or maybe it's the D-League. All I know is that if Spencer Haywood won his case in the 70s, I don’t see why another challenge to the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement wouldn’t be able to shake things up again in 2009.

Granted, it's not in NBA’s best interest for the D-League to get all of the best high school players for a one-year minor league stint travelling to play in Erie, Fort Wayne, Dakota, etc. But it's also not good to force kids to go to college who have no business nor desire to be there. We need to find a compromise. Is the NBA honestly going to tell young hoops hopefuls that it was bad for Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudemire, and Tracy McGrady to jump from high school to the pros? I don't think so.

However, that early-entry decision doesn't always go as planned. Remember Korleone Young and Ndudi Ebi? Probably not. Well, surely you know Kwame Brown and Sebastian Telfair. All of these guys tried to go from high school to the NBA, and it didn't pan out as they had planned.

Isn't it possible that preps-to-pros draft busts like these could’ve benefitted from some professional seasoning in the D-League? It certainly couldn’t hurt considering their career paths. I think that’s territory the D-League needs to claim. They need to carve out their place in the food chain or they’ll be eaten away from all ends by the competition.

The D-League needs to make room for players straight out of high school who lack the desire to go to college, the maturity to survive in Europe, and the talent to be in the NBA. They also need to establish the league as a true minor league system (an idea I can’t say I’m the first to suggest).

It just makes sense. Each NBA team makes a financial commitment to cover the basketball operating costs of one D-League franchise. The one-to-one correspondence benefits the NBA teams by giving them greater control over player development, ensuring that the players are being taught in a way that fits their system. The D-League gets the financial support it needs as a young league. The direct connection also strengthens the D-League’s role as a feeder system. Plus it gives the fans of the NBA franchise a vested interest in the affiliated D-League franchise since all of its players may someday suit up for that NBA team.

The basketball food chain has been rapidly evolving. The D-League is in a position to stake a major claim in the food chain and better the game—by bettering the NBA—by continuing to evolve itself. If it does that, there’s a chance the D-League could become the preeminent minor league in American sports or at least a league that can't be ignored by any self-respecting Erie basketball fan. There’s a lot of work to do to get there, but it’s within the realm of possibility.

Coming up next: Pro Basketball in Erie, Part 3: Getting from Them to Us


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About this blog/blogger

Blog Talk BayHawk is an unofficial Erie BayHawks blog covering the NBA D-League. It features opinions and information about the NBADL and the Erie BayHawks. Blog Talk BayHawk is written from a basketball fan’s perspective to fill In the gaps left by professional journalists’ coverage of BayHawks basketball and the Erie professional basketball scene.

Matt Hubert is a 25-year-old writer and basketball fanatic born and raised in Erie, Pa. He graduated from Mercyhurst College in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in English and a dual concentration in writing and creative writing. Matt's not wavering from his stance as a lifelong Los Angeles Lakers fan, but he will cover the BayHawks' NBA affiliates in Cleveland and Toronto when it makes sense to do so throughout the year.

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