It's not a new debate. It's not even a new subject. It's just that it's reached a new level. Wednesday evening, for the first time, someone who just got out of high school was the No. 1 pick in the National Basketball Association draft.
Kwame Brown, 19, was drafted by the Washington Wizards — and whatever his future in the NBA, he is going to be a very rich young man.
Should we be surprised? Not if you think about it.
The fact is that all of us achieve physical, emotional and intellectual maturity at different points in our lives. Every one of us peaks physically long before those other aspects of our character are fully formed.
Do we agonize over all those teenage Olympic swimmers and divers? Not much. Are we surprised when a 15-year-old appears at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open? Not any more.
Indeed, if we were to judge this issue solely on the basis of physical skills, there wouldn't be much of a debate. To be perfectly honest, much of what horrifies some of us about an 18- or 19-year-old playing professional basketball is the issue of money — the very thing that causes most of them to forego a college education.
Here is an opportunity for a small handful of young men, most of whom come from families with little or no money, to earn tens of millions of dollars — and we expect them to turn it down on the grounds that they may lack the maturity to handle that much good fortune.
The miracle is that some actually do.
Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning, who was drafted second in 1992 after graduating from Georgetown University, said he doesn't think players should enter the draft after high school — but he added on Nightline that it is their right to do so if they so choose.
"I really feel that there are a lot of young basketball players, 17-, 18-year-old players, that are capable physically to play at the professional level as well as [fellow Nightline guest and Indiana Pacers forward] Jermaine [O'Neal, drafted from high school 17th in 1996]," said Mourning. "He was capable physically of playing on a professional level, but he knew that he still had to develop."
Society, he said, puts a lot of pressure on young stars — and makes it hard for talented high schoolers to walk away from the jackpot that comes with a high-round pick.
"You know, I don't see what the big problem is," countered O'Neal, who said many young NBA players face the same problems, whether they're 18 or 24.
"The NBA has a lot to offer on the court and off the court," he said on Nightline. "I kind of used it as college 101. You can really kill two birds with one stone. You can do something that you dreamed about doing, that's playing in the NBA, take care of your family financially and also go back to school."
He said an age limit would be unconstitutional.
"If you're old enough to vote and go to war, you should be able to determine your livelihood," he said.
Making it Young
"To make it in the NBA, you need a one-in-a-million talent," says psychologist Joel Fish. "But you also need a one-in-a-million personality."
Fish says pro basketball players face special stresses and temptations, as well as time management issues and, of course, money issues.
"So, no matter what age you are, you have to have a special personality," he said.
In this year's NBA finals, the Los Angeles Lakers — led by 29-year-old Shaquille O'Neal and 22-year-old Kobe Bryant — squared off against a Philadelphia 76ers squad led by Alan Iverson, 25.
It was the highest-rated NBA finals since Michael Jordan's last game, and it was one in which the new generation had its chance to dominate. All three athletes "came out early," joining the NBA before college graduation.
Shaq played three years at Louisiana State, Iverson played for two years at Georgetown and Bryant turned pro after high school.
Patriarch of Young Players
It has been a generation since 1974, when Moses Malone proved that you didn't need a college degree to rebound and score. Malone became the original icon of super-success for "straight from high school."
But it has also been a generation since Daryl Dawkins in 1975 had acted out the second NBA career alternative — modest success, but more disappointment, inconsistency and immaturity .
Bill Willoughby played the third role: failure. His New Jersey high school game didn't translate at the NBA level.
Then, in 1995, Chicago high schooler Kevin Garnett was drafted high in the first round, followed by Kobe Bryant in 1996 and, in 1997, Tracy McGrady from North Carolina.
Each became not just good, but super, in less than 4 years after leaving high school for the NBA.
Fighting for Respect
That leaves Shane Battier sounding frustrated — and you can't blame him. He's everyone's pick as the top graduating senior, but he had to wait until Vancouver called his name at No. 6 — watching three high schoolers and a college sophomore get picked ahead of him.
"The nature of the business is such that now the younger guys have more upside than the older guys," he said. "I'm trying to dispel the rumor that, at age 22, I've plateaued as a player, as ridiculous as that sounds."
Adding to the frustration, Battier knows that for each spot he falls in the draft, the value of his first professional contract will likely drop as well.
But don't cry for Battier. His All-American image, backed by all-American performances for four years at Duke, backed by an off-court presentation as polished as his game, make for a potential endorsement package greater than his hoops salary.
And probably bigger, at least for a while, than the endorsement accounts of Kwame Brown — the high school student who went first in the draft, to the Washington Wizards.
Brown says being picked first, straight out of high school, came with its own set of problems. For example, he had to go back on a pledge to Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan.
"Man, it was tough, because I sat there and looked him eyeball to eyeball and told him I was gonna come to his school," he said. "And that was tough for me to have to turn around and say the opposite, that I'm not gonna come to his school."
In fact, Brown said he really wanted to go to college, but, as one of eight children in a family familiar with the concept of making sacrifices, he had to make the right decision.
"He comes right out and says, 'I'm not doing this because I want diamond-encrusted jewelry. I'm not doing this for my boys. I'm doing this because I'm one of eight children, and we don't have anything and I need to go to work,'" says Michael Wilbon, sports columnist for the Washington Post. "And, you know what? How can you tell that kid he can't do that if it's available to him and his family?"
But on the other hand, Wilbon says he worries — worries that now, many other kids will be trying to chart a course from high school to the NBA.
Brown, for his part, says he plans to attend college at some point, hopefully to attain a business degree.
The Flip Side
Eddie Curry, a high schooler chosen fourth by the Chicago Bulls, says missing college won't hurt him at all.
"Just going to the pros out of high school is an experience in itself," he said. "It was either I miss out on the college experience, or I miss out on knowing what it's like to go out of high school."
But Billy King, general manager of the 76ers, disagrees with Curry's choice, and backs a league proposal that would exclude teenagers from the NBA.
"I think that every kid should go to college, if they have the opportunity," he said. "I think that 20 years is a good age limit. I mean, some people say there are not age limits in this world today, but, if you'll look, you can't drive a car in most places until you're 16, you can't vote until you're 18. There's even an age limit when you can become president. So just because people say they're ready to play pro basketball, sometimes, mentally or socially, they might not be."
Wilbon says he's concerned about all the kids who don't make it.
Two years ago, George Washington University shooting guard Sir Valiant Brown finished second among all college scorers. Last season was a disaster for him and his team.
Next year, he says, he wants to play in the NBA.
"I'm not going back to school," Brown said. "People in college, they have to worry about too many things — schoolwork, papers. I just want to focus my time, my soul, on basketball."
But Brown was not drafted in the first two rounds, and Wilbon says his name is not on the lips of the NBA personnel making the choices. He says he's worried about Brown, and other undrafted players.
He said it's a matter of simple math: more kids leaving college early, or skipping school altogether, and only so many slots in the draft.
"Where are these people gonna go?" he asks. "What are they gonna do?"
Young and Younger
The Los Angeles Clippers, one of the league's youngest teams, got even younger when it drafted high schooler Tyson Chandler at No. 2. Coach Alvin Gentry says in his 13 years in the NBA as an assistant and head coach, he's seen his job change as his players get younger.
"We have to try to look after our guys a lot more. We try and stay on top of their eating habits, we try to make sure that socially they don't feel isolated, things along that line," he said. "Now, basketball-wise, we have to spend more time on basic fundamentals than we normally would. We spend a lot of time on weight training, because now, of course, you're not dealing with 22-year-olds, you're dealing with 18-year-olds."
But he admits that even zealous oversight can only do so much.
"We want to give him a support system, but there's a catch-22: at what stage do we back off and let him be his own person and have his own privacy?" Alvin asks. ABCNEWS' Ted Koppel and David Marash contributed to this report.