CHICAGO — If Kevin Garnett winds up leaving childhood for the NBA without first going to college, then a whole lot of adults who claim to have his best interests at heart will have failed him.
This entire episode was headed for a wrong turn back in mid-winter, when Garnett's coach at Farragut High here, William Nelson, said publicly that his 6-foot-11, 217-pound, 18-year-old center was good enough to play in the NBA right now.
It was a foolish, wrong and stupid thing to say, and gave rise to the most ridiculous hopes. On May 10, Garnett submitted his name for the upcoming NBA draft, perhaps jeopardizing his amateur status/college eligibility. Undoubtedly, Garnett should have been in a library on May 10 studying to retake the ACT so that he can go somewhere in August and be a college freshman.
But this, unfortunately, is what passes for prioritizing in urban America nowadays, at least when it comes to Basketball vs. School. Education is taking a beating. Score one point below the minimum required to be eligible as a freshman? No problem, go pro. Didn't you know the only reason to go to college is to play basketball? The first day a pro scout pays the slightest attention, school becomes nothing but an impediment to making millions.
The critically acclaimed documentary "Hoop Dreams" was a mostly positive story about two Chicago kids who dreamed of making the pros. But Kevin Garnett's story has all the earmarks of a Hoop Nightmare.
First of all, Kevin Garnett is not ready to play in the NBA. He just isn't close. We're going to assume his coach simply hasn't seen enough NBA games, live, up-close. The kid isn't physically ready to play under the basket in the Big Ten, much less against Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. His skill level isn't high enough; he isn't savvy enough.
And by Garnett's own admission, the transition from life in small-town South Carolina (where Garnett lived before transferring to Farragut) to this year in Chicago was difficult. Then how difficult would you figure the transition from high school to pro ball will be?
Most kids who have trouble scoring a 17 on the ACT, who have clearly put ball ahead of school their entire lives, have enough trouble going from high school to college, much less high school to real life. What's your guess on whether Kevin Garnett has ever checked into a hotel by himself, whether he's ever paid a bill or negotiated a foreign country (he could be drafted by Vancouver or Toronto) essentially by himself?
Second, Garnett simply ought to be continuing his education. I would contend, starting his education. Not "going to get that piece of paper," not "going to school so that I have something to fall back on," not even "working toward a degree."
Garnett, like all these Hoop Dreamers, needs to be in an environment where he has a chance to receive an education. Even if much of it comes simply from being around other people who are getting an education. This isn't about books, it's about learning how to live and make choices, how to become smart enough to exist in a world that's steadily leaving more and more hoop dreamers behind.
I'll grant you that not every kid who can dunk belongs in college. But Garnett doesn't appear to be one of those kids. Arleen Daggs, an assistant principal at Farragut, said Garnett consistently scores over 20 in his practice ACT exams (17 is the minimum required to be eligible as a freshman) but is a nervous tester. He isn't alone.
The other problem is that the kid is such a celebrity he doesn't make many of the study sessions. Daggs ticked off a list of luncheons Garnett has attended when he should have been studying for the ACT or SAT. "There was one at the County Building, one at the Mayor's office, one at the police precinct. Then there are the games and practices. I know Kevin Garnett can attend and graduate from college. I know it."
Luncheons, quite obviously, are about adults. It's up to every adult at Farragut High School to just say no to luncheons. Luncheons are about status, and his status is about basketball, which means adults in high positions in Chicago are teaching this kid the wrong lesson, allowing him to tap into the wrong priorities.
In Chicago, Garnett's being given a lot of credit for getting advice from Bill Willoughby, one of three men who've gone from high school to the NBA with no institutional transition whatsoever. It was admirable for a Chicago newspaper columnist to provide Willoughby's phone number and even more admirable for Garnett to use the number and seek some advice.
I don't want to be too much the cynic. However. If Willoughby's advice is anything other than go to school, then why listen to him? He never amounted to much as a player and says he lost most or all of the money he made.
A voice Garnett ought to listen to belongs to Juwan Howard, another Chicagoan with big basketball talent. Howard, as he was writing a research paper on a flight to New York May 21, said,: "Listen, that kid ought to go to college. For him to miss what would be the best days of his life, to miss a chance to educate himself, that would just be wrong."
If Garnett is a basketball bust -- and only one man in 20 years, Moses Malone, has beat the odds of going from high school to becoming an NBA star -- how employable will he be? All Kevin Garnett, like most of us at 18 years old, needs is a group of insistent adults to tell him, "Son, put the ball down and go to study hall so you can take that exam again next week."
And if the self-righteous, rule-conscious NCAA tries to keep the kid out of college because he sent a letter with his name on it to the NBA and thereby "forfeited his eligibility," somebody ought to sue the NCAA's britches off to make sure Garnett has the right to go to college.