More high schoolers are taking the leap of faith toward NBA
By Peter May, Globe Staff, 3/28/2004
CHICAGO -- The talent spotters are everywhere at Moody Bible Institute's gym. They're standing against the wall, sitting on chairs, leaning over balcony railings, or simply ensconced in bleacher seats.
They are all here for the same reason: to look at 22 high school basketball players in the Roundball Classic. The spotters have another thing in common: They represent the 29 teams of the National Basketball Association.
They don't necessarily want to be here. Some, such as Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird, grudgingly acknowledge that high school hoopsters are now part of the necessary draft preparation, along with foreign players and, oh yes, college players. So you've got to look at the best of the best. Bird wishes it weren't so.
"It'd be better if we didn't have to," Bird said. "We could concentrate on the colleges and the international guys. It puts a new wrinkle in this; you've got to cover it. I guess it's going to be that way until they find out it takes these guys four to five years to mature as a player. I think it will revert back to college.
"You can't tell me these kids are better than some of the college players we have."
That's one view. Another view, more in keeping with the times, comes from Sonny Vaccaro, who has been a fixture on the high school and college basketball scene for decades. Vaccaro runs the Roundball Classic, the high school all-star game that he started in 1965 as the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic in Pittsburgh. This year's event began with practices last Monday and Tuesday, leading up to the game between East and West teams Wednesday.
The game has gone through a few name and venue changes, and has featured a lot of big-time NBA players, with three notable exceptions: Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan.
While Bird looks suspiciously on the high schoolers trying to impress the NBA decision-makers -- "Jonathan Bender is better than all these kids combined," he sniffs -- Vaccaro looks at 6-foot-11-inch Dwight Howard, 6-9 Josh Smith, and 6-7 Shaun Livingston and sees nothing but greatness.
Vaccaro said he thinks 10 high school players will go in the first round of the 2004 NBA Draft. That would be a record; the previous high was four in 2001, and only 13 have been selected in the last five years. Howard, a Kevin Garnett wannabe from Atlanta, is widely rumored to be no worse than the second overall pick. Smith, a smooth lefty from Oak Hill Academy's semi-pro feeder program, is not going to be far behind. Howard hasn't even bothered making a college commitment. Smith picked Indiana, but Mike Davis, head coach of the Hoosiers, need not worry about finding dorm space for Smith in Bloomington.
"I feel very, very safe in the kids I know are going," Vaccaro said. "Dwight Howard and Josh Smith are going to make an impact. They are going to be all-stars."
As for Livingston, a reed-thin point guard from Peoria, Ill., hypothetically bound for Duke, Vaccaro said, "I think Shaun Livingston will be a 10-year all-star and potential top 50 player when the game is over. I think he is brilliant."
And the others?
"I think this total class is the best since 1979, no doubt in my mind," Vaccaro said. "That was the greatest high school class I ever saw -- that was [Ralph] Sampson, [Dominique] Wilkins, [James] Worthy, Isiah [Thomas]. I think there were 14 of the 22 kids from that game that played for more than two years in the league."
Back then, it wasn't like it is now. Sampson, Wilkins, Worthy, and Thomas all went on to college, with Sampson staying four years at Virginia (much to the chagrin of Red Auerbach, who tried to entice him to leave early). Instead of NBA coaches packing the gym, you'd have college coaches lining the sidelines. Back then, that was where the players were going -- to college.
"In the old days, every school in America would come," Vaccaro said. "Jim Calhoun found two or three of his biggest players ever at Northeastern at the preliminary game in Pittsburgh. I had 250 colleges there every year, guaranteed. Now, it's evolved into this mega-thing. Now we get the pro people. But we also get owners." Indeed, the Celtics' Steve Pagliuca was there one day.
The general manager of the Chicago Bulls is one of those pro people. John Paxson was an accomplished high school player at Archbishop Alter in Kettering, Ohio, and had already decided to attend Notre Dame when he got the invitation from Vaccaro to participate in that vaunted 1979 Roundball Classic. Byron Scott, the former Lakers star and recently deposed Nets coach, was a teammate of Paxson's that year.
"For any high school kid, just getting the recognition to play in those kind of games was obviously very special," Paxson recalled. "I think it is for these guys, too, even if the climate has changed. Back then, we were all going to college and we didn't see each other as much as these guys do. It was a reward for something you'd done in high school. But, boy, we had some bad-looking uniforms. I forgot to mention that to Sonny. They were pinstriped -- red, white, and blue. Not very good-looking."
Now, of course, the players are dressed to the proverbial hoop nines by Reebok, the latest sponsor of Vaccaro's game. Vaccaro has been with Nike, Asics, Adidas, Converse ("an equal opportunity exploiter," cracked Celtics personnel guru Leo Papile) and now has gotten the Stoughton, Mass., apparel/footwear collosus to back his game. In Vaccaro's mind, it's an odd partnership, only because Nike and Adidas have generally been at the forefront.
"When I started with Nike, there was no competition," Vaccaro said "In 1977, when I left to go to Adidas, I only had to fight against Nike. Now I'm here, I'm with Reebok fighting against Nike and Adidas. When I worked for Nike and Adidas, I never saw Reebok as a competitor on this level."
He went on, "Reebok is the most interesting one because they are the most divorced company I've ever worked with as far as being ignorant of this society. The grass roots. The high school. They made a business decision to go into properties when they took the NBA and the NFL. They went a whole different direction." Nike still has its own all-star game. Adidas has one as well. This week, the stars will be in Oklahoma City for the McDonald's All-Star Game, including New York City pro-to-be Sebastian Telfair, who couldn't make the Roundball Classic because his high school team was still playing. Then comes the Nike Hoop Summit in San Antonio over Final Four weekend, which is scheduled to highlight Howard, Telfair, and Smith against some equally talented teens from overseas. Eventually, it all comes to an end and the kids will announce in May whether they will apply for the NBA draft.
Bird might think it will eventually go back to college, but the trend certainly seems to be going the other way. The kids don't see the ones still struggling -- the Leon Smiths and DeSagana Diops. They see last year's Rookie of the Year, Amare Stoudemire, who went from high school to the NBA. They see this year's de facto Rookie of the Year, LeBron James, be the No. 1 overall pick from high school.
That's what they see. And they see no reason not to do the same thing.
As Vaccaro said, who can blame them? The money is there. The contract is guaranteed.
"If you're guaranteed," he said, "it's really pretty simple. You've got to go. And if you're as good as some of these kids, it's really a no-brainer."