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Stern proposal

Sports | The NBA tries to find a way to keep teenage stars in college

Issue: "Who will be the next pope?," April 16, 2005

What's the biggest obstacle for a University of North Carolina repeat championship next March? The NBA. The act of cutting down the nets in St. Louis after a 75-70 victory over Illinois in the national championship game will prove to be the last act by the latest incarnation of a North Carolina basketball team. Not only will the Tar Heels lose seniors Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott, and Jawad Williams, but any or all of UNC's star juniors-Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton, and Sean May-could bolt for a professional basketball career. Even freshman Marvin Williams, who contributed a key tip-in with less than two minutes remaining in the title game, is considering an NBA leap.

The decision for many players lies at the intersection of books and bucks: When does the potential paycheck outweigh the education and fun of college life? And with more and more premier college players choosing the glitz of the professional basketball life, NBA commissioner David Stern says he will push for an NBA age restriction that could radically change professional basketball and the college game.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams plans on talking to each one before the May 14 deadline to enter June's NBA draft. But what is the coach to say? Tell a player to go to the NBA and he weakens his team's chances for the next year. Tell a kid to stay and he may cost the player millions if he's injured. So he'll just talk. "Raymond [Felton], he and I sat down before the season started and said we would have a discussion once the season was over. . . . Marvin [Williams], I've heard him say that he'd really love to stay, but he and I are going to sit down and talk. Sean [May] has said publicly he is coming back, but we'll sit down and talk there as well."

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But how do you tell a college athlete to turn down big bucks to continue his university education? If the university is all about career preparation-and for many college students, it's just that-then what sense does it make to stay in school when your dream employer is offering you millions? That's the question University of Connecticut's Charlie Villanueva could no longer ignore. Instead of returning for his junior season, Mr. Villanueva will test the NBA waters. His coach, Jim Calhoun, can't disagree with the young man's decision. "I don't think Charlie's making a mistake," Mr. Calhoun said. "Would I have liked him to stay for another year? Yeah. Could he use another year? To some degree, they all could."

But Mr. Villanueva has already passed on the NBA once. Before going to Connecticut, Mr. Villanueva considered making the jump to professional basketball directly from high school. "I knew I wasn't ready," Mr. Villanueva said. "But I'm 100 percent confident this time." Mr. Villanueva said part of his decision to leave came about after his mother was in a serious car accident. He doesn't want her to have to go back to work, he said.

If Mr. Villanueva is one of the first 29 players selected in June, he could make enough money in the next three years to live on for the rest of his life. NBA bylaws guarantee first-round draft picks three contracts worth between $13.5 million for the first pick to $2.7 million for the 29th pick. "Right now, we seem to have lost a little bit of sight that a few of our very, very special students have an opportunity to get a very, very special job," Mr. Calhoun said.

But NBA commissioner David Stern would change all that. During the league's upcoming labor negotiations, Mr. Stern says he'll push to make the NBA a league for players 20 or older. The initiative, Mr. Stern says, would make business sense for the league. And though the NBA has benefited from 18-year-old stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, from a business standpoint, clubs say paying millions to teenagers has become bad economics. Besides, Mr. Stern argues, an age minimum will help the NBA avoid ugly situations like that of Leon Smith, a high-schooler drafted by the Dallas Mavericks who attempted suicide during his first year. But union representatives, who oppose an age minimum, say mischief won't be thwarted by a prohibition on younger players. Only a maturity minimum would do that.

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