Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And we change the temperature now from the snowy hills to the sweaty gymnasium. It used to be that the best high school basketball players could go straight to the NBA, never playing a minute of college ball. Now high school standouts have to wait a year before entering the NBA draft.

The league says it's all about developing experience and maturity. Commentator Frank Deford has a different take.

FRANK DEFORD: Do you know who Kevin Durant is? How about Greg Oden? Well, if you do, the National Basketball Association is happy. No, neither Durant nor Olden play in the NBA, but what the professional league hopes is that players like these two will build a reputation in college so that when they come to the NBA they'll be more marketable.

So the NBA changed its rules this past year, prohibiting American high school players from jumping directly to the pros without pausing to flirt with higher education. Ever since 1996, when Kobe Bryant went directly from high school to play for pay, many of the best U.S. basketball players have followed his lead. As a consequence, these callow youth have not used college to marinate in the spotlight and enter the NBA as ready-made drawing cards.

While it confounds me that the NBA, and the National Football League as well, can deny adult citizens of athletic merit the chance to make a living strictly on the basis of age, I certainly do agree that for almost all young athletes a year or two of seasoning in academia is beneficial for both their basketball and their personal growth.

Someone like LeBron James, who can move seamlessly form high school to professional stardom, is simply freakish. Too many young players were seduced into making the leap and too many teams were seduced then to grabbing this raw talent and found themselves with a raw deal as the teens found themselves out of their league and wasting away on an NBA bench.

So for the first time in a decade the best of last year's high school stars are incarcerated in college for a year. Oden, who is a seven-foot center, is sojourning at Ohio State. Durant, a nimble six-foot-ten is on course to be the college player of the year at Texas. Especially if they lead their teams deep into the NCAA Championships on network television in March, they'll enter the NBA next year as much more ballyhooed rookies.

If you don't think this kind of college display helps, do you know who Sidney Crosby is? No? Well, to a great many people in ice hockey he is merely the finest prospect since Wayne Gretzky. But Crosby had no college exposure before he came in to the National Hockey League, and so he remains fairly well unknown except to hockey connoisseurs.

By forcing high school players to sidetrack for a year of college, the NBA also hopes that if the best prospects spend a year or, heavens to Betsy, maybe even two years in college, they might actually learn to play basketball. In Europe, the top young players spend hours every day practicing. Here, our teen stars mostly just play games year round. As a general rule, the better they are, the more they just shoot and do what they feel like on the court.

In any event, by the time Oden and Durant are drafted this summer - almost surely one, two - the NBA hopes that you will have seen the product, read the reviews, and will be curious enough to sample it at they're box-office next year. The key to any league's success is attracting those fringe fans who, often as not, are more enticed by familiar names than by the sport itself.

Hey that's how works for Hollywood and it's really no different in the NBA.

MONTAGNE: The comment of Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford
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