Widening the Waters
This post is supposed to be the first of two concerning some of the social implications of David Stern’s recent and controversial impositions on the league, beginning with a long overdue look at the age limit and ultimately ending with an examination of the new technical foul guidelines.I imagine that I am not unique for having spent a sizable portion of my childhood alone on the blacktop, oscillating between attempting to improve my game and imagining the future NBA glory that awaited me. Acting as both announcer and star, I narrated myself hitting game winning shot after shot over the outstretched arms of scores of beleaguered defenders.
Like a toddler declaring he wants to be a horse when he grows up, my own hoop dreams were equally unrealistic. Of course, no one ever told me, and no one ever should have. Regardless of how those daydreaming afternoons planted seeds of self-discipline and love of the sport, regardless of the demonstrated cognitive developmental benefits of engaging in pretend play as a preadolescent, regardless of basketball unshackling me from the television, there is simply no moral justification for crushing the hopes and dreams of a child.
For a long time, I remained unequivocally faithful to this simple axiom while I taught at one of the poorest schools in Mississippi (which, not surprisingly, was 100% black). When one of my 7th grade students would boast about his envisioned dominance on the hardwood, and all the money and notoriety that would follow, I could never tell him to find a new dream, I could only tell him that for now, he was stuck with me as his David Stern.
Orlando Johnson was one of my best and favorite students in 2004. Despite a father absent since birth, and a mother bouncing between jail and rehab, Orlando managed to raise his younger sister, earn excellent grades, and start as point guard for our middle school team. While blessed with quickness, coordination, and a strong work ethic, Orlando should consider himself lucky to ever top 5’7”. One evening, we stayed after practice to work on shooting mechanics before I gave him a ride home. During the drive, we chatted about his grades, his home life, and the NBA.
Our conversation lulled briefly and enabled Orlando to make what sounded almost like a pained confession. “You know what,” he told me, “I think I might have to go college before I can jump to the pros. I just don’t see my game being good enough by the time I finish high school.” That one of my most gifted and hard working students felt resigned to go to college shocked me. To him, an admission of collegiate aspirations revealed some kind of weakness within him, in the domain in his life with which he most strongly identified.
For so many of the kids I taught, dreams of basketball and dreams of college were mutually exclusive. For those convinced that a life of fame and wealth on the court awaited them, seeking higher education was construed at best, as irrelevant, and at worst, as an indication that they had failed in their quest to reach the league as soon as possible. I’m not sure that any amount of rational discourse might have persuaded these kids to find an alternate dream, and maybe the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to try indicated a failing on my part as well, but dreams of future success didn’t vary much in Indianola, Mississippi; almost no 7th grade boy aspires to be a young black doctor, lawyer, or entrepreneur because he’s never seen one and has been inundated with subtle and overt cues, practically from birth, that he can never become one.
I don’t mean to sound too melodramatic. For almost everyone, hoop dreams degenerate into painful hoop realities sometime around 9th grade at the latest. But for a kid born into poverty and a dysfunctional public education system, high school is often too late to decide that college may be for him after all. That college aspirations must come as early as 5th grade is a mantra adopted by nearly all of the most successful charter schools that specialize in educating low income minority students. Many of my 7th graders began the year three or four grade levels behind in math and reading and with little reason to see any value in investing time and energy into a system that had so consistently marginalized them and let them down.
The implementation of the age limit will not close the achievement gap. It won’t force books into the hands of inner city youth and supplies into their classrooms. But it will enable teachers and parents to tell their budding 7th grade superstar of the future that the road to the NBA runs through college. How can a 7th grader who knows he needs to go to college not be better off than a 7th grader who thinks college is for failures?
Some may argue that the collegiate experience envisioned by these 7th graders may be little more than skipping classes, ruling campus, and partying. However, nearly all of these kids won’t attend school to play ball, and have six years to recognize that a diploma may be their best tool for escaping poverty.
Countless athletes and writers have pointed out that the NBA’s age limit unfairly singles out young black men. It restricts them from earning a living playing basketball, despite the fact that dozens of other players have demonstrated they can excel in the league and contribute to it both as players and citizens. The age limit has been branded as “racist” and “unconstitutional.” The validity of some of these arguments cannot be refuted, but I don’t care. That six or seven preternaturally gifted high school kids must wait an extra year before they can begin their newfound life of opulence could not be any more overshadowed by the paradigm shift in mentality of thousands of young men who now must accept that college needs to be part of their future.
David Stern stuck to defending the age limit in strictly financial terms. He spoke of protecting the investments of the owners, and of using college basketball as a means of making his players famous before they even enter the league. I’m inclined to think that David Stern’s social conscious may have also informed this decision; I suspect he recognizes the tremendous impact that the NBA has on low income black communities and, without delving too deeply into a psychological profile of the man, that he feels responsible for helping the communities that pump so much lifeblood into his league (see his more than $800,000 contributed to Democratic candidates [an obviously debatable piece of evidence] and his description in David Halberstam’s Playing for Keeps). Maybe he sees himself as a modern day Andrew Carnegie, maybe he’s afflicted with Alexander Portnoy’s stereotypical Jewish guilt-complex (which often manages to manifest itself paternalistically).
Yet Stern’s justification for the age limit need not be considered; motivation and consequence usually dine separately. While measuring the social impact of the rule may prove impossible, every dollar or hour of time donated and every gesture or policy that helps people still does just that. Given the tremendous impact that the sport has on so many people, sometimes it’s important to remember that basketball is all about more than basketball.