Jeff Van Gundy on College Basketball Players and Paul Hewitt's Response
It started yesterday when Mikes Greenberg and Golic were reacting to Mark Cuban's comments about the "one and done" rule (which is the NBA's rule, not the NCAA's) and the NBA's developmental league. That led former Knicks' coach and current TV commentator Jeff Van Gundy to comment that the college basketball system is broken, that there's no need to require basketball players to take an academic curriculum and that college should offer trade schools because some of the players, perhaps many of them, aren't ready for an academic curriculum or aren't qualified for it. This from a guy who transferred from Yale to a DIII state school because he wasn't good enough to play varsity in New Haven but was in DIII.
Mike Golic vehemently disagreed with Van Gundy, calling his entire idea ridiculous. College is college, and only nine players last year applied for the NBA draft after a year's eligibility. Eight were drafted. Golic then argued that it would be ridiculous for schools to alter their mission to accommodate nine players, a tiny percentage of those who play college basketball at any level. Besides which, Golic countered, colleges have academic missions, period. Basketball shouldn't change those missions (news flash for Golic, though: some schools do give academic credit for playing sports, particularly football -- yikes!).
Then enter Coach Hewitt, who has known Van Gundy for thirty years, thinks of him as a mentor and friend (it could be that Hewitt played for Van Gundy at St. John Fisher; later, Hewitt interviewed for a job with the Knicks, only to lose out on an assistant's job to Tom Thibodeaux). And I think Van Gundy's a decent guy, too, so it goes to show you that even decent guys can have bad ideas. Hewitt played a tape of Van Gundy's talk on the subject to his players, who were offended. Offended because there is a stereotype that scholarship DI basketball players take joke majors, have to be dragged to class, aren't smart enough to take meaningful subjects and all of that. Hewitt coached Chris Bosh and Thad Young, excellent students at Georgia Tech, and then has a player on his roster now in his master's program. Sure, Hewitt offered, the players are kids and not all kids have the same attitude toward their studies, but many do have good ones, especially once they realize that they won't play ball for money. He used the tape to talk to his players and invited Van Gundy to visit with the team.
Paul Hewitt showed that he's more than "just a coach," he's a teacher and a mentor of young men. Out of one of his mentor's worst ideas came something good. We shouldn't think that just because players focus a lot on their sports that they aren't capable of good things in the class room. It may be that their prowess at their sport helps gain them admission, and it may be that the academic standards for some players for admission are lower than that of the students who do not gain admission for their athletic prowess, but that does not mean that they aren't serious about their academics or should not be.
The difference between the D-League and college is that while the D-League might be able to focus more on basketball, the D-League teams can be located in remote locations and play before less pressured and much smaller crowds. It's probably the case -- given D-League salaries -- that the kids are better off in more controlled college environments, will get better trainers, better medical attention and better food. Put simply, they'll be in a more supportive environment. For the NBA to be serious about the D-League as an alternative to college, they'll have to play the players more, ensure a supportive environment, good medical care and good food. Right now, the bet here is that players live in tight quarters, don't get great medical attention and too frequently eat fast food.
As Hewitt pointed out, it is the NBA that mandates that players either spend a year in college or the D-League before heading to the NBA. That doesn't have to happen. I don't think that it should. No one prevents major soccer teams worldwide from signing fourteen year-olds (and younger) to their development squads, tennis players for skipping college or baseball players from signing with agents in high school in order to play Major League Baseball off their colleges in order to get a great signing bonus. The NBA's paternalism was questionable enough, but now proposing the D-League as an alternative without more money or better conditions is somewhat laughable. The NBA has plenty of money and helps its owners make a lot of it -- if it wants a serious D-League, it can make it so.