The kid next door has made himself available for the NBA draft.
He's 7'2" and weighs 215 pounds. He's also 11 years old and in
the last two months of fifth grade. He wonders if he's doing the
The local newspapers have questioned his decision. They portray
the NBA as a scary environment for an 11-year-old. There have
been columns that say high school seniors never should go to the
NBA and that even college sophomores and juniors should be
afraid. The boy from next door has become a bit confused.
"Whatcha think, Mr. M?" the kid asks.
"I say, full speed ahead, Arnold. Go get 'em."
"You don't think I'm too young?"
"This is America. No one is too young for anything, Arnold. If
the buck is there, you have to take it."
I have been his principal employer until now. I have given him
$5 or $10 a week to mow the lawn, to shovel the walk, to do odd
jobs I need done. He presumably will make $10 million for the
next three years in the NBA. He averaged 73 points per game for
the Rositani Bakery Mitey Mites this season. I say he's more
than ready. What team doesn't need a 73-point scorer?
"I was kinda looking forward to sixth grade," he says. "We were
going to learn about long division and U.S. history. All my
friends are going to be in sixth grade. It would have been fun.
Then junior high. Then high school!"
"You'll be fine, Arnold," I say. "You'll be a millionaire by the
time any of these kids have zits."
"I won't miss long division? U.S. history?"
"You'll be able to hire the best long-division guy in America
for what you're making. And U.S. history... you can hire Ken
Burns to come to your house to tell you about the Civil War. No
I tell Arnold that if he were an exceptional singer, dancer,
violinist, movie actor--even a great solver of long division or
a great student of history--he would be recognized as a prodigy
and accepted in his field simply on merit. Even most other
sports would readily accept him. Aren't there dozens of
outstanding gymnasts and figure skaters who are very young?
Tennis, golf, bowling, whatever. Ability is what is important.
How old was Wayne Gretzky when he was first acclaimed a
superstar? Baseball has always looked for talented teenagers and
put them right to work. Joe Nuxhall, a million years ago,
pitched in a big league game for the Cincinnati Reds when he was
Only in basketball and football--sports in which colleges have a
large financial interest in what happens to young athletes--is
there such an outcry about "getting a degree" and "being ready"
for the temptations that await. It's all quite silly. What's the
major mission of a college? To prepare a young person to get a
job. Why should anyone try to stop a talented individual from
taking one of the best jobs available? People were trying to
tell Marcus Camby of the University of Massachusetts, who was
universally acclaimed the best player in college basketball
during the season just past, that he should wait another year
before turning pro.
Hello? Wait for what?
"No one ever told Shirley Temple she shouldn't be dancing and
singing and making all that money," I tell Arnold.
"Who's Shirley Temple?"
"No one ever told Michael Jackson or Donny Osmond they were too
"Who are Michael Jackson and Donny Osmond?"
"You know what I mean."
Life in the NBA, contrary to the grim picture drawn by the
naysayers, would seem to be the perfect adolescent existence.
Arnold could do all those fun things that Shaquille O'Neal does,
making movies and rap CDs and buying every toy imaginable. He
could be like Mike! Hang around with cartoon characters. True,
there are some murkier possibilities--finding drugs and alcohol
and being hit by paternity suits, everything that comes with the
danger of making the wrong friends--but aren't those also
possibilities at junior highs and high schools in America in the
1990s? Wouldn't you rather have your kid play for, say, the
Atlanta Hawks than go to most junior high schools? At least he
wouldn't have to walk through a metal detector on his way to
"It's not like you're going to Honduras," I tell Arnold. "You're
not exactly sewing dresses for Kathie Lee Gifford. You'll be
fine, as long as you get those rebounds and hit that jumper."
"Who's Kathie Lee Gifford?"
"Just go, Arnold. The NBA needs you. If the league expands one
more time, there'll be young people playing on all the teams.
You'll be a veteran in the league by the time you get your
driver's license. Go. Have a ball."
As he starts up the mower, he asks if I have any final NBA
advice. I think for a minute. I tell him to stay away from
anyone with purple hair, tattoos and pierced body parts. There
is nothing special about this advice. It is probably the same
thing I would have said if Arnold were continuing on to sixth
B/W PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION No one told Shirley to stay in school. [Shirley Temple]