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Thursday, June 24, 2010
The cautionary tale of Matt Walsh

By Dana O'Neil

Five years ago, I sat in Matt Walsh’s suburban Philadelphia living room. The place was packed with friends and family eager and excited to celebrate Walsh’s soon-to-be NBA fame, and a local television crew was there to document the fun.

Before the NBA draft began, I talked with the Florida sharpshooter -- at the time known as much for his Playmate girlfriend as his basketball -- and he explained to me that he left school after his junior season because he expected to go late in the first round or, at the very worst, early in the second round.

And then the draft began.

Picks came and went and suddenly the end of the first round was near. The Miami Heat were on the board. Walsh smiled easily. He thought this was the one. Instead the Heat took Kansas’ Wayne Simien. Still, Walsh was OK as the second round began, convinced that he would be among the first to go here.

And then the pickings grew slimmer and Walsh still waited for the phone to ring. High school players and Europeans no one had heard of saw their names called and still nothing for Walsh. When Alex Acker went to the Detroit Pistons with the final pick, the show was over and Walsh was left undrafted.

The party had gone quiet and the same eager friends and family that had congregated to celebrate earlier, quietly let themselves out the door. No one could find Walsh.

A little while later his father explained that Walsh had gone for a walk and if it was OK, he’d prefer not to speak with me. I more than understood and left the house.

I say this not to pick on Walsh. He isn’t the first player to get bad advice. Sadly, he’s not the last.

Tonight, John Wall will become a multimillionaire and the family that has supported and loved him through so much tragedy and upheaval will rightly celebrate. But someone will be Matt Walsh.

Someone will begin the night with party music and finish it with a dirge. Someone will have left college early, promised and baited into believing that his game was more than ready for the NBA and instead find that he jumped too soon.

The lure of the NBA and the promise of its riches are hard to turn down, especially when the alternative is the serfdom of the college game. For some guys -- Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Favors -- staying makes absolutely no sense.

For others, though -- for the ones like Walsh -- I have to wonder, what’s the hurry? Walsh’s career didn’t end. He has bounced around Europe during the last five years, parlaying his game into a steady paycheck. But he could have done that anytime. But what did he gain by coming out early, except an awkward house party?

As much as I remember the uncomfortable hours in Walsh’s living room, I also remember another more private conversation I had that same year. Villanova’s Randy Foye thought about leaving after his junior season but in the end, elected to remain in college.

He told me he wanted to get better and stronger and didn’t think he was ready for the NBA. When I asked him about walking away from all that money, Foye -- whose father died when he was two, whose mother abandoned him when he was in kindergarten, had been raised by a grandmother in the toughest part of Newark and arrived at Villanova with little more than a duffel bag filled with his belongings -- just looked at me.

“I’ve been poor all my life,’’ he said simply. “What’s one more year?’’