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More than Basketball: Impact of impoverished beginnings on NBA age limit discussion

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Deciding on what age an athlete may play professionally requires conversation about the many factors that impact the path towards the NBA.

2018 USA Basketball Men’s National Team Minicamp Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Sun rays beat down upon a cracking blacktop. With each passing dribble, the macadam is becoming more of a gravel lot and less of a recognizable court. The border where fresh paint used to lay, is now just a faded outline. The rim is crooked and the backboard hasn’t been of any use for calling ‘bank’ in many years. This poor excuse for a basketball court is not hard to find. In fact, just look in a city where poverty is rapid and funding is low. But the conditions of this subpar court don’t matter to the kids that are hustling up and down the gravel. To them, this is the closest they will get to Madison Square Garden, for now. They play day in and day out, to one day have their names in lights, buy the big house for their moms and to cash the elusive NBA checks.

For many impoverished inner city minorities, the only ticket they groomed to get out the ‘hood’ is by way of professional sport (likely the NBA or NFL) or by signing a record deal. The statistic that not everyone makes it to the professional level is widely known but many are willing to take that chance, as other opportunities of success are not readily available.

The NBA finds themselves in an interesting situation when discussing altering its age limit policy, a situation they haven’t been in in over a decade. Though this time is different than it was in 2006. The game of basketball has grown exponentially since 2006. Thanks to multi-billion-dollar TV deals, worldwide reach, and more international players that are in the league, ratings are up and will only continue to go up. While this is great for the NBA as a brand, this only instills more hope in the young athlete that can be found playing on the basketball courts of North Philly, East New York and the Southside of Chicago.

The last time a young man was able to make himself eligible for the NBA Draft directly out of high school was in 2006. Since then, an NBA hopeful has had to attend college for at least a year, play professionally overseas or work on some sort of development before declaring for the NBA draft. On the surface this policy could ‘work’ but when dealing with athletes that are not spawns of 4-year college graduates, the reality is much different. While the NBA will continue to evaluate what is best for their league as well as the athlete, there are some factors worth exploring.

How many players are to the likes of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and ‘the chosen one’ LeBron James? Besides having all won a championship, these players were all drafted right out of high school. Your all-time greats like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and even Michael Jordan all went to college to put this feat in perspective.

To date, there have been 45 high school draftees which proves that there are only a select few athletes that have NBA-ready talent at the age at 18. You could argue there were a few players in recent memory that could have been NBA ready had they not had to enroll in college for a year first. Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons.

Players of this caliber, of course, can benefit from the NBA lowering the age to 18 through league acceptance right out of high school, but it cannot be stressed enough that these players are the elite of the elite. Kids should always believe they have the power to do anything but it becomes irresponsible to only let them believe they can be under the two percent that ‘makes’ it. By no means is the answer to the age limit question just to reduce the age to 18 years and then wash your hands of the situation.

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In its annual audited financial report of 2017, the NCAA reported a revenue of over $1.1 billion. The overwhelming majority of this money came from the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. Tournament television rights alone brought in $824.1 million and tournament ticket sales $130 million. And yet, reality sinks in when you realize that the players which make up the teams that are driving in the revenue, see very very little of it.

While scholarships have likely made it possible to even attend the school, the additional costs of everything ranging from textbooks to a Gatorade drink after practice, lead to student athletes paying roughly $3,222 out of pocket each year, according to an NCPA report entitled “The Price of Poverty in Big Time Sport”. For some families, this is entirely doable and the parents don’t blink twice at having to Venmo their child some extra cash. For other families, this becomes an added stress and may mean the grocery money allotted for the family members back home just became even tighter. The siblings don’t get their promised new sneakers. Or more seriously, the bill that keeps electricity throughout the house, doesn’t get paid.

For students that come from rough upbringings, they are often the first member of their family to attend college, let alone to play a sport at that level. These students are often put under immense pressure, from their families, that are counting on them to succeed. Not just to pass their classes but to excel as an athlete in hopes that they can financially support the family. These student athletes have more than just championship titles on the line as their athletic success directly correlates to the hope their family has of gaining a better life. It’s of no surprise that many athletes from impoverished beginnings try to rush in to the NBA and abandon getting a college degree in hopes of making big sums of money quickly.

The assumption that a college scholarship is a great tradeoff for all student athletes is unfair and wrong. What about the athlete that has to provide for a two-year-old daughter back home? What about the student who had to start driving for Uber just buy school supplies?

If the NCAA were to start paying student athletes, like any other worker in America gets paid for their time, then attending college suddenly becomes a much more appealing outlet for everyone not just someone from a low-income family. Even if the age limit were not lowered, this is a plausible solution that would benefit kids who possess the talent to become basketball greats but don’t necessarily have the financial means to gain more experience.

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There’s a saying that goes “dreams don’t work, unless you do”. While it seems obvious, this quote is still written on motivational posters and classroom walls all around the country because it is understood that hard work is the keystone of success.

But what happens if hard work still isn’t enough to join the NBA? What are the options for a kid that has been so focused on joining the NBA early, that he hasn’t considered attending college and doesn’t have a ‘plan B’. Worse yet, what if he can’t afford college and now doesn’t know what to do?

The effects of poverty come in to play once again when an underprivileged athlete doesn’t get drafted as soon as they had hoped or at all. If the player cannot afford college or an international experience and doesn’t have a degree to help him land a job in the real world, he is left with very few options.

Often the only route to take is to go back home. Whether home is a one bedroom apartment shared with all of the siblings or a one-story rancher, ‘going home’ usually isn’t glamorous. These athletes resort back to the streets that raised them, not because they necessarily want to but because they don’t really have another alternative.

Watch any episode of “Last Chance U” on Netflix and you’ll see this trend over and over again. Sports provide something bigger than just the game. Playing a sport provides individuals with something tangible to work towards. They are given something positive to focus on day in and day out to improve, being guided by coaches, athletic advisors and other professionals along the way. Athletics can become a way of life for many kids and without them, the athletes don’t know what else to focus their energy on or where to turn for help.

If the NBA does lower the age limit, there needs to be an outlet for the athletes who do not get drafted in to the league and don’t have the means to enroll in a university. As it currently stands, the leagues’ answer to this is the developmental G League.

Founded in 2001, the G League is the NBA’s equivalent of the minor league in baseball. The MiLB, which is a hierarchy of many different levels of professional baseball leagues, is a revered outlet for players to develop and prepare for the major leagues. Every minor league operates as an independent business, drawing in its own fan base, creating jobs for the surrounding town and providing far more than just dollar hotdogs on a summer evening.

The G League on the other hand is not nearly as funded nor respected as the MiLB. Basketball players sent to develop in the G League often view their time as a disappointing circumstance and desire to rush in to the NBA even if they aren’t ready. However, investing more money and resources in to the G League would present the developmental league as a very rational and respected stepping stone towards the NBA.

Alternatively, if the NCAA were to pay athletes in college as mentioned earlier, the G League may not be as crucial. Students would be able to develop further at a big-name university. College in turn becomes a positive outlet for impoverished students whom may possess basketball talent but previously didn’t have the money to enroll in college. Not only does this keep these kids off of the streets, but it allows a substantial amount of athletes to receive their college degrees — AKA: a plan B if basketball doesn’t work out.

In an instant, life as you know it can change. Whether you have lost a loved one or been fired from a job, there is one predictable thing about life and that is how unpredictable it is.

When Greg Oden was selected first overall in the 2007 NBA draft, he never expected he would become known as one of the most famous “draft busts” in basketball history. Just months after being drafted, Oden underwent surgery of the knee which sat him out for the entire 2007-08 season. What followed were seasons of speckled play and a whole lot of sitting out. Oden was eventually let go from the NBA without much of a plan for what came next.

While this isn’t an everyday occurrence, draft busts do happen. If this happens to an athlete who never considered their backup plan, there is nothing for them to fall back on. The individual may not have stability to live off of or a degree to rely on because they chose to pursue basketball over college. While some argue that this is not the NBA’s responsibility as a business, it is still a situation that should be considered by the league and the NCAA about how to assist their players.

In life, no two paths are the same. Similarly with basketball, no two athletes take the same route to success. As the NBA continues to discuss its age limit policy, it is important that both the league and the NCAA recognize the many obstacles and contributing factors that mold the landscape of the basketball world.