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Friday, February 26, 2010
Two thoughts about players, agents and the NCAA

By Henry Abbott

Honest agents
Alonzo Mourning wrote a book called "Resilience" a few years ago. There's a passage where he talks about getting to know the doctor who would lead his recovery from kidney disease:
Somebody asked, "Well, Doctor, what are the odds of [returning to the NBA]?" And I remember Dr. Appel turned very serious.

"I'm a doctor, not God. I can do my best in terms of this, but a lot of things are not in our hands. A lot of this is totally guesswork as to what happens." It was a very humble answer. A very honest answer, from an expert in his field. That's why they call it medical practice. ...

We knew this was serious business and we knew Dr. Appel was going to be humble. He wasn't going to sit there and guarantee anything; he wasn't going to guarantee that he was correct and the other doctors were wrong. No promises. All he could do was work with me. If everything went right and we received a great deal of luck, then maybe. That was all he could offer -- maybe.

I guarantee you there are all kinds of people who would get up and walk out. Are you freaking kidding me? You're supposed to be the best doctor in the world and the best you can get me is maybe?

Me? I would think to myself that it's no wonder Dr. Appel is the best -- clearly he has two feet rooted in reality, which is a great starting place. I love the honesty.

I'm sure there are doctors who would tell Mourning that they could beat that thing, no sweat. But in my view, they'd be misleading him into a false sense of security. The reality is that his condition was dire. The reality is that nobody knew what the future would hold. Pretending otherwise might be nice for his short-term emotional state, but it was not nice as a way to help him understand his situation and make important, informed decisions. And why would you want to head down a very stressful and intense road with a tour guide who wasn't telling you the whole truth? That's a recipe for trouble.

A friend of mine is a real estate broker, and he's the same way.  He says that if you're trying to find somebody to help you sell your house, just about the worst person to choose is the agent who promises to sell your house for more than you think it's worth. That's a trick, to make you feel good, so you'll give that broker the listing. But it ends badly. It goes on the market too high, attracts nobody, and after months of losing your will, you agree to drop the price to what it should have been originally. Only now your house has been on the market so long it seems like damaged goods. The broker who tells you a lower sales price at the beginning ... that's someone who's being honest and professional. (That's also someone who's going to attract a lot of people to open houses, and get lots of people to fall in love with your place.)

But the point is, once again, when you're dealing with big life decisions, you are well served in the long term to be working with people who tell you the truth, even if it's not what you want to hear.

Which brings me to my annual obsession with how players select agents. It's getting to that time of year, when there is a lot of chatter about which agent is honing in on this or that lottery pick. I don't know what this or that runner, or this or that agent, has been promising to this or that pick. (I can get you drafted in the lottery! I can get you to the Knicks! I can get you $30 million from Nike!) But I have heard some stories. And I know they're just that, stories, because NBA teams do not know, in February, whom they will draft in June. They just don't. Some teams don't know on the afternoon of draft day.

Think about the NBA's "green room" invites every year. They have some good connections in putting that list together, and still manage to make major errors frequently.

Anyone who claims to know now what will happen then is lying. An honest agent will promise to try. An honest agent will show you what they have done in the past. But an honest agent will not promise ideal results, because that's impossible.

May 8 is soon
You know how I just wrote that no NBA team knows yet who they'll draft? They won't know by May 8, either. But this year, for the first time, that's the date by which college players will have to decide whether they're leaving for the draft or not.

This serves college coaches a couple of ways. First, it gives them a long time to plan how they'll use their scholarships for the upcoming season.

But more importantly, in my cynical view, it increases their chances of scaring a player into staying, who might have a chance to make it in the NBA.

On May 8, almost every player's draft position is insecure. Nobody knows who will be drafted where. It's easy to convince a player it's too risky to walk away from college. "Gosh, if you were a first-rounder, of course I'd tell you to go. But the reports I'm getting are that you could fall into the second round, or not get drafted at all." That kind of deal. On May 8, that's true of some players who'll end up going in the top 15. (And players that good, should they return to college, can really help a team make a strong tournament run, which has a strange way of getting coaches lucrative contract extensions.) After players fly all over the country meeting NBA executives, however, in June ... that case is harder to make.

And here's the part that gets me: Let's say I am a college sophomore on the bubble. And I declare for the draft. And I don't get drafted. And then I go to an NBA training camp, and still don't catch on with a team. If I then wanted to go back to college, play some more basketball and work towards my degree, would that be the worst thing? It would be inconvenient for coaches and college programs. It's not tidy. But is it really bad for education? What's the crisis? Who's the victim? What's the big rush to get people to commit to leaving school permanently? How does that serve the student/athletes?

I know the idea is that players who have had contact with agents and runners and stuff are somehow tainted, and unfit for college campuses. But if you think top players are protected from agents and runners on college campuses ... then let's just say I'm glad you're not my doctor.