To play the game, one must understand the "game"

Jared Trexler, Contributing TSN Editor

From the end of the Bench Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Many of these kids started with nothing. Basketball was their escape from drugs, violence, life. An orange ball and a pair of Nikes were their ticket out.

When nothing quickly becomes a whole lot of something, judgment is clouded.

Hours spent in the weight room and on the playground send basketball's next rising star into a revolving line at the nearest meat market. Take a number and wait your turn.

When the number is called, be prepared for a thorough inspection. Ability to jump through the roof? Check. Inside-outside skill set essential for a well- rounded offensive game? Needs work. Court Awareness? Will improve with time. Life skills? As high as can be expected for a 19-year-old kid.

Basketball experts everywhere will spend the next several days dissecting a player's body fat, vertical jump and ability to catch and square to the hoop in one fluent motion.

However, most NBA failures don't fall into obscurity because of a lack of talent. Rather, the problems lie with a lack of discipline. Lack of focus. Lack of accountability.

In simple terms, they are grown men living an existence without consequence. That mentality lands even the most physically gifted athletes at the end of life's bench -- a view that isn't pretty when staring up at success with failure's splinters riding up one's gym shorts.

So, when Toronto's brass is placed squarely on the clock with the draft's first selection, it should consider a player's ability to not just play under the bright lights of the Air Canada Centre but also the bright lights of Canadian nightlife.

An organization should consider a player's values -- ranging from his upbringing to his time spent in college under the watchful eyes of a coaching mentor. A young man who spent the prom in Juvenile Hall may be a risk. A player that learned the game of life from North Carolina head coach Roy Williams should have an edge over another who soaked in Bob Huggins' wisdom.

"Family values in the household are extremely important," said Gerald Cimmet, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, educator, speaker and performance enhancement coach with over 25 years experience. "There can be fine values even in the poorest neighborhoods as there can be shallow values in the richest."

However, Cimmet admits that the lure of financial well-being is significantly greater among players who grew up in low-income neighborhoods.

Kyle Lowry
Kyle Lowry
"These players might think, 'I'm likely to be nobody and I can't do anything else, so why not take the money.' This could be more pronounced in the poorer neighborhoods, but the idea of a dream of fame and success coming true is very powerful and affects everyone's judgment regardless of neighborhood," said Cimmet.

The trip down a very slippery slope begins with that dream. While a dream's foundation -- ambition, desire, hope -- is positive, not all chances at success are created equal.

The ping pong balls signifying an NBA team's chances at the top pick demonstrate the volatile nature of the sport. It is a lottery, where some make it big and others watch life pass them by while expressing eternal, yet false hope.

"In poorer neighborhoods, the children's role models tend to be in sports and music, while in other neighborhoods there is likely to be a more diverse group of role models that could include teachers, lawyers and doctors," said Cimmet. "The thinking for the first group is more likely to be, 'Life's a risk anyway, so why not go for it.' It's a gambling philosophy."

So many times players get sold into the illusion that every hand will be a royal flush, when in reality the odds are stacked highly in favor of the house.

"From the age of five to 20, the idea of a glamorous life greatly outweighs stark reality-based thinking," said Cimmet.

That's the scary thing. If the player is caught up in the mirage of luxury, who is there to reel him back in with sensible discourse?

The parents? Sadly, some see their child as a tool to wealth. Even the most loving parents get caught up in the possibility of early retirement after 19 years of labor just to put food on the table.

The agents? Their minds are clouded with big money and big marketing ideas. Their vested interest is in the player, not the person.

The team? It is looking for a player to fill seats, increase profits and take the organization to the promised land. It views the player as a commodity until the shots stop falling. It then turns its attention and financial resources to the next rising star.

Never in the structure of a team game can an individual feel so alone.

To cut down on young adults entering a world they are not prepared for, the NBA changed the age limit for players to enter the draft in last year's Collective Bargaining Agreement. Now, a player must be at least 19 years old to declare for the draft or be at least two years out of high school. The new limit has eliminated high school basketball players from throwing their hats into the ring.

"It buys another year or two and makes an assumption that the slightly older athlete will be more mature," said Cimmet. "It might help a little, for some 17 and 18 year olds think more maturely at 19 and 20."

While the league helped its overall product with the higher age limit, it more importantly helped today's young athlete. It also gave an indirect order to colleges nationwide.


In the context of the basketball ladder, the two entities that make millions off the success of athletes should now know where they stand. Colleges need to take more responsibility for their athletes, while the NBA must hold each individual player to not just a talent evaluation, but a psychological litmus test.

Sadly, even this article has left the most important piece to the puzzle for last.

Tim Duncan and Matt Leinart are two prime examples of four-year student athletes who didn't rush fame. Duncan learned how to use a lanky frame to his advantage, developed a mid-range game and grasped the idiosyncrasies of basketball. Today, the Spurs forward is the most intelligent player on the court.

Leinart could have leaped to the NFL after a junior campaign that included a Heisman Trophy and a national championship. However, he wanted to experience his senior year of college. He had the rest of his life to play pro football.

The Southern California signal-caller didn't win either coveted prize last season, but put up phenomenal numbers and spent another season with his teammates and friends. He picked up ballroom dancing then used the dance moves on a litany of So-Cal coeds.

Both are reasons why students shouldn't trade in school for a career in sports so quickly. Granted Duncan and Leinart were in better financial situations than many collegiate hoop stars, but that is all the more reason for an athlete from an impoverished area to use his talents to earn a degree.

Life on the road in the NBA is an entirely different animal than a Friday night at Party U. Kegs of cheap beer and the smell of cheap drugs are replaced with Cristal and Crystal -- just one of many illegal drugs that have got various young players into trouble over the years.

Before stepping foot into the arena, players need to understand all it encompasses. They should ask themselves if they can survive in it.

If the answer is truly "yes," then the decision to forego the collegiate experience is a profitable one in the long term.

However, if the answer is "no," then schedule classes and suit up for meaningful games at the Carrier Dome.

Good luck Kyle Lowry. Best wishes Adam Morrison. Farewell Cedric Simmons.

For every undergraduate who opted for cash over college, the game is waiting. So is the "game."

Longevity in the league will be determined by success in both.

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