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Skipping School

Has a shoe-biz insider found a way to beat the NBA's new age limit?

LAST YEAR the NBA, in an effort to slow the influx of kids who needed more seasoning in basketball and life, adopted a policy stating that to be eligible for the draft, a player must be 19 and at least one season removed from high school graduation. The rule in effect mandated a year in college before anyone could turn pro. Endorsed by the players' union, it would theoretically allow talented young men to play and learn the game instead of wilting on the NBA pine; it also helped preserve the free NBA farm system that is college hoops.

But now someone is stirring up trouble. Reebok director of grassroots basketball Sonny Vaccaro, 66, who for years has advised top prep players including LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, thinks he has found a loophole in the rule. Last weekend, as high schoolers from 1,000 AAU teams descended on Las Vegas to audition for college coaches at three shoe-company-sponsored AAU tournaments, Vaccaro (above) told SI he thinks high school stars who want to can indeed go directly to the NBA.

Vaccaro (and his lawyers) believe if a player is 19, passes the GED and then sits out his final year of high school, he would meet the NBA's requirement. "The GED is the major loophole," says Vaccaro. "The NBA didn't consider that." (Vaccaro says NBA commissioner David Stern told him the NBA "would look into the matter." NBA spokesperson Tim Frank said a GED wouldn't "shorten the amount of time a player has to wait before entering the draft.")

What would a player do in that year off? Vaccaro says at least two overseas teams would sign top players for one season. Or the players could simply work out--and since they wouldn't be in college, they'd be free to accept cash from agents. "The money will be there for the players and their families for that year," Vaccaro says.

Vaccaro refused to discuss specific players, but he says there are seven top seniors who fit the criteria, and "people can figure out who they are." It's no secret that O.J. Mayo and Bill Walker, two of the best players in the class of 2007, prefer to go straight to next June's NBA draft. Neither has a school lined up for his senior season. (Walker can't play at North College Hill in Ohio because it was ruled that he had exhausted his eligibility; Mayo, his teammate at NCH, would prefer to go where Walker goes.) Also school shopping is Michael Beasley, ruled academically ineligible by Virginia's Oak Hill Academy. (When asked last weekend where he'd play this fall, Walker said, "We'll figure something out.") Vaccaro hasn't been approached by any of the players. "But," he says, "if they come to me for advice, I want to be able to give them their options."





HOLD IT Mayo's senior-season plans are up in the air.