When stardom ends in college
In four years at Kansas, Keith Langford scored 1,812 points, won three Big 12 regular-season titles and played in two Final Fours, a remarkable run of collegiate success that earned him a lifetime of free drinks and adulation in Lawrence.
Yet for a long time after his KU career ended, the last place Langford wanted to be was Lawrence. The place where he made a name for himself had become his discomfort zone. The community that embraced him instead made him feel unworthy.
It's not what anyone did. They still treated him the same, asking for his autograph, slapping him on his back.
It's what they said, unwittingly cutting to his core with the simplest of questions:
Why wasn't he in the NBA?
An honest query, those six words instead felt like daggers to Langford because, in them, he heard the implication:
What's wrong with you? You did so much in college. What happened? You're a failure.
"It becomes too much to explain," Langford said. "On campus, in your hometown, you're just so ashamed that, for a while, it's easier to just not be around."
It's ludicrous, really, to think that someone as accomplished as Langford could ever feel like a bust.
Statistics tell us that only 2 percent of all high school athletes earn Division I scholarships. Only 15 will be named All-Americans (that's including first, second and third teams) and only five to an All-Final Four team, like Langford was. Far less will play in a Final Four and an infinitesimal percentage will play in two national semifinals, as he did.
By any normal number crunching, he is the elite of the elite. Yet on the basketball yardstick, which measures one to D-Wade, he felt like he came up short.
If only Langford were unique.
Ask any college coach and he will spin you a similar tale of a wildly successful college player who, for a time, didn't come around because he was embarrassed, ashamed that his professional accolades didn't match his collegiate accomplishments and convinced that, because he didn't make it in the NBA, he was little more than a failure.
"It's NBA or nothing," said Xavier guard Tu Holloway, who grew up in New York, where the pressure begins on the playgrounds. "If you're not in the league, you didn't make it. Period. That's what people think. That's how you feel."
It wasn't always this way. There used to be a pedestal reserved for great college players, guys whose games didn't translate into the pros or who were too vertically challenged to find a position.
But today, from the day that kids first see their names in some version of national rankings -- and that can be as early as middle school -- one drumbeat sounds in their heads: Get to the NBA, make it in the league, get to the NBA, make it in the league.
It is an all or nothing proposition that has left everything else in its wake. College careers are all but devalued and lucrative overseas deals viewed with snobbish disdain.
"I see it all the time," said former Michigan State All-American Mateen Cleaves. "Guys don't want to show their face. They want to seclude themselves. It makes no sense. These guys have accomplished so much, but if you don't make it to the NBA, you think you're a failure."
Holloway can imagine how it would feel to be one of those guys. He just hopes he doesn't experience it.
The Xavier guard is on the precarious cusp -- he's projected as a second-rounder but could slip out of the draft depending on the whims of NBA general managers.
"I'm nervous," he admitted. "I believe even if I'm not drafted I'll get phone calls, but I don't want my family to worry. I know how everyone envisions how their life can be different, and I don't want them to watch the draft and be devastated."
It is those external pressures, sometimes even more than the internal ones, that make an undrafted reality so difficult to accept.
Guys come up in their neighborhoods, pegged as future stars at a young age. The attention intensifies through high school, especially if they're tabbed an All-American, and reaches a crescendo in college, where friends, family and fans often presume a direct proportion between collegiate success and NBA riches.
If only it worked that way.
"People ask me all the time, 'You averaged 20 points per game, what happened?'" former Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen said.
What happened, players quickly learn, could be any of a number of things -- too short, too slow, too many people at your position, too little need for your talents on a particular team. After the first few picks, the ins and outs of a draft are rarely so neat and tidy as he who played best in college wins.
But no one wants to hear about the business of basketball, not when it's much easier to unilaterally declare a player a flop.
"We live in a very opinionated world," Cleaves said. "I go on Twitter and almost every time, someone will hit me with, 'Oh you're a bust. You didn't do nothing in the NBA."
A player who three times was named a college All-American, who earned most outstanding player honors at the Final Four and who still ranks atop the Big Ten record books for assists in a game, a season and a career.
That's a bust?
"I laugh about it now," said Cleaves, a TV analyst for the CBS Sports Network.
But it's not always so easy to laugh. The players get as wrapped up in what they are "supposed to do" as the outsiders, losing sight of not only the NBA reality but also of what they've already accomplished.
It's easy to understand why. Langford remembers his first day on the Kansas campus. He was playing in a pickup game with future teammates and former pros. He made a sweet pass, one that Drew Gooden immediately labeled a "league pass."
One season and a Final Four run later, Gooden punched his ticket with a No. 4 pick to the NBA. So when the following year Langford helped take the Jayhawks back to the Final Four, everyone assumed his turn was coming.
"The message boards were on fire," he said. "All your peers around you are first-rounders. You're playing against guys like Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony and they're first-rounders, so everyone's like, 'OK, he will be, too.' Then it says you're the 46th pick projected or whatever and people start asking, 'What's wrong with him?' It gets overwhelming."
Langford was never drafted and for a long time believed he was, in fact, a failure, swimming through what he referred to as "basketball purgatory," jumping from D-League teams to the USBL and back again.
He blamed his agent, blamed the system, blamed everyone but himself and, worse, turned up his nose at the thought of playing overseas. He turned down more than one contract in Europe, convinced he could latch on in the NBA.
Finally in debt after taking a loan from his agent, he sat down with an overseas agent and actually listened. He signed his first overseas contract.
"It wasn't until I got over there that I finally bought in," Langford said. "That's when I realized I'm still a professional basketball player."
Not that everyone else sees it that way.
After seven years of sewing together a pretty steady and lucrative overseas career -- he's played in Italy, Moscow and Tel Aviv -- Langford still is treated like a semipro.
"I could walk in to talk to a couple hundred kids and if you picked any guy who was playing for the NBA minimum, he'd be the one, the guy they think they're supposed to listen to," Langford said. "Or someone will ask me if I want to work a camp to make a little extra money. I want to yell, 'Hey, I'm a millionaire, too,' but it's not worth explaining. Guys ask me all the time, 'Don't you want to go pro? I'm like, 'Man, I am a pro.' But it's just NBA or nothing."
That's the real kick, the reality that most every player eventually comes to -- even if outsiders don't. The NBA isn't the only professional basketball avenue and it should not be held as the lone barometer for success.
Pullen could have waited to see if an NBA team decided to sign him, but with the lockout looming he instead went to Italy, where he flourished.
Playing for Pallacanestro Biella, Pullen finished fifth in the league in scoring. He'll work out this summer for NBA teams and perhaps try to land here, but he's wised up. If the choice is an NBA minimum salary versus a hefty deal in Italy, he'll say ciao in a heartbeat.
"The money is green at the end of the day," Pullen said. "I can come home, buy the same nice car, the same nice house. Sure, I have dreams of playing in the NBA, but I also have dreams of taking care of my family."
Eventually most players come to terms with all of it. They learn to ignore the critics and be proud of what they accomplished in college and what they are accomplishing as pros, whatever professional avenue that might be. They go back to campus, heads held high.
In other words, they grow up.
But with the draft looming, they know that someone else will soon be moping in their shoes. He will question his worth and ignore his successes.
And from the vantage point of a few years down the road, they have one simple bit of advice:
"Don't hold your head down for nothing," Cleaves said. "You went to college. You got your degree or you had some sort of success. There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Man, we won. We're winners."
Editor's Note: Andy Katz recalls 10 players who had a major impact in college, but whose skills simply didn't translate to the NBA.
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