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The Evolution of Younger Athletes in Professional Sports

April 22, 1990|KEN DENLINGER | WASHINGTON POST

How to grab the 19-year-old Haywood and infuriate the colleges as little as possible was solved by an agent named Steve Arnold. According to Don Ringsby, a former co-owner of the Denver team that chose Haywood during a secret ABA draft and signed him: Arnold "came up with the 'hardship' gimmick whereby we could plead for a waiver of the (four-year) rule on the basis of financial hardship. He knew Spencer came from a poor family in the Deep South. Arnold just invented it. It was a gimmick. And Jim Gardner, the president of the ABA, okayed it."

A contract dispute with Denver led Haywood on Dec. 20, 1970, to sign a six-year, no-cut deal with the NBA SuperSonics for $1.5 million, to be paid at the rate of $100,000 for 15 years. Even though Haywood had been a pro for more than a year, NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy earlier had said no NBA team could sign him. Not until June 1971 would it be four years after his high school class graduated.

Haywood sued and finally won. The federal district court judge who ruled in his favor, Warren J. Ferguson, wrote: "It is uncontested that the rules in question are absolute and prohibit the signing of not only college basketball players but also those who do not desire to attend college and even those who lack the mental and financial ability to do so. As such, they are overly broad and improper."

The wailing was both immediate and loud.

NBA Commissioner Kennedy: "This could kill college athletics and seriously injure professional athletics."

Northwestern football coach Alex Agase: "This could eliminate all superstars from college competition."

Furman basketball coach Joe Williams: "This will take a great deal of incentive out of recruiting good players."

The colleges, of course, could have simplified matters-and purified themselves-by going back to using student-athletes. Instead, a grudging compromise came about in the NBA, the hardship "gimmick" Arnold had devised several years earlier for the rival league. Into the uncharted waters came Chenier.

"I first thought about it during trials for the 1971 Pan Am Games," he said. "I'd befriended (University of Minnesota forward) Ron Behagen, who introduced me to two agents from New York. They said a couple of NBA teams were interested. I'd just finished my junior year at Cal."

Chenier was frustrated by losing to John Wooden's nonpareil UCLA teams-and when a very good transfer to Cal decided to return home to Nebraska, he opted to apply to the NBA. Nineteen years later, he said: "I didn't feel I was in a hardship situation."

The NBA's investigators very likely agreed. But Chenier, Cyril Baptiste, Joe Hammond, Ed Owens, Tom Payne and Nate Williams were part of a supplemental draft. Baptiste, Payne, Williams and Chenier were first-round choices, with Hammond a fourth-rounder. Owens was not chosen.

"The deal was pretty much secure ahead of time," said Chenier, meaning money. Still, he thought the deal was with the Chicago Bulls and was flabbergasted when the Bullets drafted him.

Of that six-player class, only Chenier had a long and productive NBA career. Chenier has not regretted his decision. The only time he feels even mildly guilty is when he talks with his teenage son and daughter.

"It's very difficult for me at this point to say to the kids upstairs (he also a daughter in college): 'Hey, school's important. You've got to get your degree.' I tell them I made some mistakes. There were certain areas where I did not achieve what I could have. But you shouldn't set your goals in accordance with someone else's."

Chenier has an associate degree in computer science from Howard Community College, where he works in student activities. Also an analyst on Bullets telecasts, he hints at possibly trying to make up the 30-some credits he needs for a bachelor's degree.

"When I talk with youngsters (exceptional at basketball), I don't want to feel hypocritical by saying: 'Oh no. This (NBA) dream can't be met. You can't achieve this.' Some can. To cut short one's dream is just as wrong as trying to lead somebody down the wrong path."

No one has put the early-entry issue any better, for when to grab for the dream is as uncertain as at the dream itself. Over 19 years, the NBA lists 184 players as having traded college eligibility for a shot at pro riches.

That's not entirely accurate, because the tally includes at least two merry men who treated the NBA in the manner of a public-course golfer trying to crack the Masters. Not long after being told, about two years apart, that injuries had ended low-level college careers for them, Reinhard Schmuck of Baruch and Dick Whitmore of Brown applied for the NBA draft.

Whitmore and a classmate, Arthur Jackson, decided he should petition the NBA as a way of understanding how a pro league operates. Both had aspirations of a career in sports management.

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