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.