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Is Basketball Better Off with One-and-Done?

There are probably a lot of people out there who still believe that the NBA’s age limit is a good idea. Who are certain that the best high school basketball players’ annually spending a mandatory year in college benefits the player, college ball and the NBA.

Those people will watch the NBA Finals starting this week, gaze at Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard (and, for that matter, Andrew Bynum), and recall the marquee players they overcame to get where they are, like LeBron James and Kevin Garnett, and conclude, “Yes, the NBA is much better off stopping the flow of players straight from high school.

Devastating, the havoc these kids have wreaked on the poor NBA lately. It’s been horrible, the way the ratings and buzz and widespread interest in the recently-lagging sport have risen this postseason, led by such unschooled, unskilled, unprepared youth.

Speaking of “unschooled,’’ I forget – how did Pau Gasol’s and Hedo Turkoglu’s teams do in the NCAAs? What about Yao Ming’s? Luis Scola’s? Tony Parker’s? Manu Ginobili’s? Dirk Nowitzki’s? Nene’s? Any handwringing about their high-school GPAs, or are only U.S. players lucky enough to receive that kind of grief?

Thankfully, though, there are plenty of recent examples of the wisdom of the rules, from the college end. The two signature one-and-done players of the 2007-08 season, for instance, are now central figures in the two ugliest scandals in the sport – O.J. Mayo, who allegedly received money from Southern California’s head coach before enrolling; and Derrick Rose, whose high-school grades and SAT before arriving at Memphis are now being brought into question by the NCAA.

Yup, paid players and academic fraud. It’s that sort of atmosphere of higher learning to which the NBA wants its players exposed before joining its ranks.

It’s been so beneficial all around, the NBA reportedly is prepared to ask the players association to agree to raise the minimum age by a year – to 20, or to two years beyond high school – when they next meet to discuss the labor agreement. Awesome. One extra year to funnel money illicitly to a player instead of allowing him to earn it above the table. One extra year to find substitute test-takers, falsify transcripts and create fake classes with phony credits in order to keep a player “eligible.’’

If the impressionable youngsters don’t take valuable life lessons from that, then when will they ever?

Better those lessons, though, than the unsavory ones being taught by Bryant, James, Howard and Garnett – that one is entitled to make a living off one’s skills, even at age 18, rather than be forced to give those skills away for someone else to make a living off of them. (Someone like, say, Tim Floyd or John Calipari or the athletic department officials at their schools.)

Or, if that lesson is way too fundamentally American and constitutional, then: If you’re good enough to play in the NBA, you should go do it. And if you’re great, you can have the sport’s very foundation built around you. A couple of puppets are tossing up chalk and displaying their rings in agreement.

Both the NCAA and the NBA will tell you that the age limit is in place, and being enforced, because they care about the kids being educated. What your chemistry or geography scores have to do with your basketball potential or aptitude is something the NBA has never quite explained. Meanwhile, the Rose allegations perfectly illustrate the disconnect between what the college basketball powers-that-be say about their educational mission, and what they actually do. (As for Mayo, as soon as Miley Cyrus apologizes for cashing in by the billions on her talents as a teenager, Mayo will surely do the same for getting comparative pocket change out of his.)

The bottom line: O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose were not forced into college for a year to educate them, nor is that the reason they were barricaded from the NBA. Also, the NBA has never been harmed by allowing high school players in, no matter how many times someone recites Kwame Brown’s career stats. And if college ball has suffered from the early exodus or complete detouring of young stars, then that is the price it pays for at least having a nominal connection to this country’s institutions of higher learning.

So the NBA now basks in the glow created by a wave of the kind of players it insists it no longer can stand having around. And college basketball wallows in the stink of the two most easily-avoidable controversies it has ever faced.

Congratulations to both. Keep up the good work, and absolutely, keep up that status quo.

David Steele is a sports columnist, formerly of the Baltimore Sun and San Francisco Chronicle. He may be reached at dcsteele@hotmail.com.

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