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Antoine Walker was a delight to watch in the 1996 NCAA
tournament, a supremely talented and crowd-pleasing sophomore
forward who played no small part in Kentucky's national
championship run. Seventeen-year-old Kobe Bryant, two years his
junior, is a little like Walker: gifted on the court; bright,
personable, confident, but not insufferably so, off it. Both
have declared their intentions to play in the NBA next year, and
here is the blunt truth: There are many, many basketball people
who hope both of them fall on their faces in the pros. "You
never hope for guys to fail," says Pepperdine coach Lorenzo
Romar, who played in the NBA for five seasons, "but that might
be the only way we see this changing."

"This" is the flood of players who have declared for early entry
into the 1996 NBA draft. By the time the clock struck midnight
on Sunday night, the hour by which early entries had to be in
the mail, at least 23 players had puffed out their chests and
said, "Choose me." Some of them might still pull back and return
to school if they conclude that their draft prospects aren't
good, as Syracuse's John Wallace did last year, or if the
results of the June 26 draft don't meet their expectations. But
the early line is that more will turn pro than the 13 who did so
a year ago. Jacque Vaughn was only half kidding last week when,
in announcing that he would stay at Kansas for his senior
season, he said he was taking "a path less traveled."

As a result of this exodus of stars, the college game is
suffering an identity crisis. Teams no longer stay together long
enough to gel and capture the imagination of fans. Consider what
the college hoops aficionado faces for the '96-97 season. Except
to watch John Thompson walk around with a towel around his neck,
will anyone want to tune in to watch an Allen Iverson-less
Georgetown? Did you fall in love with Final Four newcomer
Mississippi State? Too bad. Without center Erick Dampier and
forward Dontae' Jones, the Bulldogs probably won't be back in
the tournament this season. The names of Chris Kingsbury and
Jess Settles may not resonate like those of Ray Allen and Marcus
Camby, who are bolting from UConn and UMass, respectively, but
in a Big Ten that has been slowly deteriorating of late, their
defections from Iowa are a major loss. What center is still
around to give Tim Duncan--the Wake Forest senior-to-be, who
against all odds elected to return to college--a showcase game?
Eddie Elisma of Georgia Tech? Serge Zwikker of Carolina? And as
for Tech's Stephon Marbury and Cal's Shareef Abdur-Rahim, well,
gentlemen, we hardly knew ye. These early entries in the NBA
draft used to be called "hardship cases." Now that term is a
more fitting description of the state of college hoops.

This isn't idle doomsday nattering by the negative nabobs in the
media. Here's Washington coach Bob Bender: "You just won't see
as many premier players over many years now, guys like Pat
Ewing, who stayed four years [at Georgetown]. All the early
entrants are changing the face of college basketball." Here's
Atlantic-10 commissioner Linda Bruno: "It seems as soon as
college basketball hooks on to a star, he's suddenly a part of
the NBA. Athletes' leaving early has definitely hurt the college
game." And here's a guy who you would think would be fairly
sanguine about the state of the game: "Quite frankly, I think
college basketball is in serious trouble." That is the sentiment
of none other than Kentucky coach Rick Pitino.

Perhaps two words will suffice to illustrate the negative impact
that early entry has already had on the college game: North
Carolina. Had forward Jerry Stackhouse and center Rasheed
Wallace, both early entrants in 1995, stuck around for the
'95-96 season and the upcoming '96-97 season, the Tar Heels
would have been a fascinating, high-octane team that might even
have beaten Kentucky. Without Stackhouse and Wallace, Carolina
was an above-average but largely uninteresting squad.

There is more than anecdotal evidence that early migration has
hurt the game. Television ratings for the NCAA title game have
been descending over the past four years (chart, left) despite
the fact that media coverage and other attendant hype have
grown. No NCAA final in recent years has approached the ratings
of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird (otherwise known as Michigan
State-Indiana State) classic in 1979, which drew a 24.1 rating
and a 38 share. And if you choose to view that as an anomaly,
consider that no recent final has matched the 1985
Villanova-Georgetown showdown (a 23.3 rating and 33 share),

What do those examples say? They say that fans like to watch
established stars. True, the Magic man was only a 19-year-old
sophomore (who himself left school for the NBA after that game),
but if today's attitudes were prevalent back then, most likely
neither he nor Bird, who was a 22-year-old senior, would have
stuck around in college for their epic encounter. The same is
true of Ewing and Villanova's Ed Pinckney, who in '85 were
established four-year stars. Fans also like to watch the
development of rivalries that build up over several years. That
doesn't happen anymore.

Television execs are loath to talk about diminishing ratings,
and most still feel they get their value out of the sport. But
they, too, acknowledge that there's trouble. "College basketball
is at a crossroads," says Len DeLuca, vice president of
programming for CBS Sports. "You look back to the halcyon years
when Patrick Ewing developed over three Final Fours and Ralph
Sampson tried to get Virginia there and Danny Manning carried
Kansas to the title. That kind of development you're not going
to see."

The early departures might be more palatable if they were at
least creating a better NBA. They are not. "We're very unhappy
about all the early entries," says NBA deputy commissioner Russ
Granik. "They take away from college basketball, and in most
cases they don't make our game any better. If this continues, we
won't be getting the polished players. We'll never get Bird and
Magic again." Yes, the latest high school kid to pass on
Philosophy 101 in favor of the illegal-defense guidelines,
Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves, will probably be an
All-Star someday. But as is the case with the Timberwolves'
field goal attempts, the misses far outnumber the makes when it
comes to early entries.

The NBA is saturated with players whose games never had a chance
to grow, players who, as Stanford coach Mike Montgomery put it,
"will have to be nurtured through [their] immaturity." For every
Jason Kidd, there are any number of Dontonio Wingfields, Donyell
Marshalls and Sharone Wrights, all of whom came out with Kidd in
'94, and none of whom has come close to developing an NBA game.
And while there is every reason to expect that the ACC's
talented early-entry troika of Stackhouse, Wallace and former
Maryland center Joe Smith will flourish, there are just as many
reasons to believe that their draftmates, Scotty Thurman of
Arkansas and Rashard Griffith of Wisconsin, would have been
better off with another year of collegiate seasoning.

Certainly it is ridiculous to posit that every basketball player
should go to college and stay four years. Garnett probably did
the right thing by coming out early--he is a splendid 6'11"
talent, and anyway, he had little chance of qualifying
academically. The same may not be true for Jermaine O'Neal of
Eau Claire High in Columbia, S.C., the other high school player
besides Bryant who has opted for this year's draft. Like
Garnett, O'Neal is not academically inclined, but he may not
have Garnett's prodigious ability. (As yet no one has taken the
apocalyptic step about which Stanford's Montgomery was musing
last week: a player giving up his senior year of high school to
declare.) But colleges had better take a long, hard look at
players like Marbury, who see college as nothing more than a
brief minor league stop.

Consider the remarks of UNLV coach Bill Bayno on Marbury's
departure. "It was certainly worth it [to Georgia Tech] to take
Marbury," says Bayno. "They knew it was a risk that he would
leave after a year, but they benefited from it and went to the
Sweet 16. Had they not taken him, maybe that wouldn't have

But in what way was it worth it? What does it say about Georgia
Tech as an institution? Is whatever Tech gained from reaching
the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament worth the tradeoff it made,
knowing that Marbury never intended to get an education and
wanted only to use the school as a one-stop showcase for his
game? This is not to single out Georgia Tech. Tim Thomas of
Paterson (N.J.) Catholic, perhaps the most talented player in
this year's high school senior class, has made no secret of the
fact that if he is projected as a top-five pick after his
freshman season, he intends to leave his trade school of choice,

The sad truth is that one-year plans aren't even news anymore.
And while there are coaches, such as Georgetown's Thompson, who
can talk about education and not sound like complete hypocrites,
there are few, if any, who will turn down a player even if he's
almost certain to leave early. "All of the coaches I've talked
to told me they have no problem with having me for one or two
years," says Corey Benjamin, a blue-chip 6'6" forward at Fontana
(Calif.) High, who has not yet qualified academically but who
has verbally committed to Oregon State. Indeed, Missouri coach
Norm Stewart says, "You still have to recruit the kid who might
not stay."

That's what the pressure of winning has done. The charm of the
college game once lay in watching players and teams develop over
the course of three or four years. But if the game's version of
Exodus continues, that charm may disappear forever.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Fans who want to watch Marbury (opposite) and Iverson develop will have to tune in to the NBA. [Stephon Marbury]

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above--Allen Iverson] COLOR PHOTO: JAMES DRAKE [Magic Johnson and Larry Bird playing in NCAA Championship basketball game between Michigan State University and Indiana State University]

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Pitino expressed concern not only for his program but for all of college ball when Walker walked. [Antoine Walker and Rick Pitino]


Here's a look at how the number of quality players who have
applied for early entry into the NBA draft has risen in recent
years. (For the purposes of this examination, a quality player
was defined as one who was eventually drafted or at least had a
reasonably good chance to be selected.)

'87 5
'88 8
'89 6
'90 8
'91 7
'92 6
'93 8
'94 14
'95 16
'96 23
Shareef Abdur-Rahim, California
Ray Allen, Connecticut
Kobe Bryant, Lower Merion High
Marcus Camby, Massachusetts
Erick Dampier, Mississippi State
Ronnie Henderson, LSU
Allen Iverson, Georgetown
Dontae' Jones, Mississippi State
Chris Kingsbury, Iowa
Randy Livingston, LSU
Stephon Marbury, Georgia Tech
Jeff McInnis, North Carolina
Jermaine O'Neal, Eau Claire High
Jason Osborne, Louisville
Vitaly Potapenko, Wright State
Darnell Robinson, Arkansas
Mark Sanford, Washington
Jess Settles, Iowa
Greg Simpson, West Virginia
Kebu Stewart, Cal State-Bakersfield
Antoine Walker, Kentucky
Samaki Walker, Louisville
Lorenzen Wright, Memphis


The highest rated NCAA Championship game of all time was the
Magic Johnson-Larry Bird matchup (above), which drew a 24.1
rating and a 38 share when it was televised by NBC in 1979. The
rights fee NBC paid that year was $4.95 million. Since then the
fee has jumped to $219 million a year for CBS, but the ratings
for this decade suggest that business isn't as good as it used
to be.

Year Matchup Rating Share

1990 UNLV-Duke 20.0 31
1991 Duke-Kansas 19.4 30
1992 Duke-Michigan 22.7 35
1993 North Carolina-Michigan 22.2 34
1994 Arkansas-Duke 21.6 33
1995 UCLA-Arkansas 19.3 30
1996 Kentucky-Syracuse 18.3 29