In the wake of reports that high school basketball prospects are padding their grades at diploma mills to earn college scholarships, NBA Commissioner David Stern, to his credit, is addressing this problem. One idea that has found traction is to establish a national basketball academy. The school would train future pros and Olympians in academics as well as the fundamentals of the game.
It is commonly believed that a lack of fundamentals was responsible for the disappointing performance of USA Basketball, the national team, at last year's world championships in Japan. The team, with such NBA stars as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade, was beaten by Greece in the semifinals and finished third. The assumption is that the struggles at the top levels of the sport can be traced to a lack of organization at the lower levels, where elite high school-age players are exploited by business interests.
In the main proposal under consideration, the basketball academy would be modeled along the lines of the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, which produced Andre Agassi, Anna Kournikova and Venus and Serena Williams. A selection committee would invite several dozen underclassmen, who would sleep, eat and train at a dedicated basketball facility.
Every morning, they would be bused to a local high school to complete their course work. Every afternoon, they would return to the academy to complete their court work. The academy would field two teams and each would play a national schedule during the traditional hoops season. Tuition and player expenses would be funded by individuals and corporate sponsors.
Well, as grand an idea as a basketball academy sounds, to my mind, it's as ill-conceived as it is ill-advised.
The creation of such a high school for jocks is opposed by no less an authority than Myles Brand, president of the NCAA. Brand says the idea "focuses too narrowly on the elite players and doesn't address the needs of hundreds of others who fill our rosters in Division I and Division II."
I agree. The emphasis of this sort of program should not be on winning a gold medal with 20 or 30 kids, but on getting a first-class education for thousands. The objective should not only be to groom them to be better NBA players, but to prepare them to be better citizens if, like nearly every teen phenom before them, they don't end up playing pro ball.
A well-rounded education involves more than just getting kids ready to do well on standardized tests; the purpose should be what one prominent educator has called the "cultivation of human powers."
To that end, students must learn something substantial about science, history and contemporary civilizations so they can apply that knowledge to the challenges of the future.
A well-rounded life involves more than just perfection in sport. Instead of training these prodigies to be great floor leaders and make vast sums of money, we should encourage them to be great leaders of their communities and make a positive impact on society.
In trying to develop the next Michael Jordan, we should also be trying to nurture the next Barack Obama. The Illinois senator and presidential hopeful played forward at the Punahou School in his home state, Hawaii. In his senior year, 1979, he helped the Buffanblu win the state championship.
Gifted young athletes would be better served by a national program that funneled them to preparatory schools such as Punahou, the North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles (where I have two children) and Penn Charter in Philadelphia.
All of these schools boast diverse student populations, offer scholarships to financially disadvantaged youth and have the financial clout to help. And every one provides tutors to assist student-athletes in need of remedial work.
During the summer months, players who hold their own academically could be brought together in an intensive basketball camp, where they could hone their skills with top coaches. The hundreds of prospects could be divided into dozens of teams that could tour the world as goodwill ambassadors. Scrimmaging against teams from other countries would also season these players to international competition.
Funding is, of course, critical, and happily, both the NCAA and USA Basketball have a considerable largesse. The former receives millions of dollars annually from CBS; the latter is bankrolled in no small part by the NBA. Either outfit could handily subsidize a program to place teens at select private schools nationwide.
Ideally, all children should have the opportunity to receive a high-quality education -- be it public or private -- but that is still a long way off. Perhaps the participation of the NCAA and USA Basketball would spur athletic organizations to follow suit in other sports. No doubt an academy could teach our best young players to compete with the best anywhere.
Still, it's far more critical that they be taught to lead meaningful, fulfilling lives. Yes, these talented but raw teens need to be shaped into superb players, but it's far more vital that they be developed into superb contributing citizens with the ambition, drive and social skills to succeed.
High school should not just act as a farm system for college and the pros, but be an entryway into a better life beyond basketball.
\o7Arn Tellem is the president of WMG Management.