- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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Editor's Note: This is Part I of ESPN.com's two-day series on the NBA's minimum age requirement. Check back Wednesday for the conclusion.
The search for Taj McDavid -- and the other prep-to-pro prospects who followed Kevin Garnett's model but failed to find his success -- tires the seeker.
Excluding the mentions of his decision to enter the NBA draft as an unheralded prep prospect more than 15 years ago, he's vanished -- in a contemporary sense. Unlisted phone numbers lead to frustrating chimes and, "We're sorry, but the number you have reached is no longer in service" messages from phone providers.
No Facebook page. No Twitter feed.
Google searches yield archives from the mid-90s and little else. His online footprint suggests he's lived off the grid following an unpopular choice to enter the 1996 draft. Yet he's still relevant in the ongoing dialogue about young men pursuing professional basketball careers.
From the barbershop to the boardrooms of NBA executives, McDavid and others like him (Korleone Young, Leon Smith, Ellis Richardson) provide the ammo for supporters of the NBA's minimum age requirement -- players in the NBA draft must be at least 19 years old and a year removed from their high school class graduation -- that the league implemented starting with the 2006 draft.
It was enacted more than a decade after Garnett sparked an era that sent dozens of preps to the NBA. Two other high school players skipped college to turn pro in 1996 along with McDavid. Jermaine O'Neal has played for 15 seasons. Kobe Bryant is one of the all-time greats in the game.
McDavid, however, lacked their accolades when he chose to follow the same route. He wasn't drafted after starring for Palmetto High School in Williamston, S.C. He tried to continue his career at Division II Anderson College -- the NCAA granted McDavid a slice of his eligibility -- but he struggled on that level, too.
"He had enough [criticism] on him back in the day," said Brenda McDavid, Taj's mother, when reached by ESPN.com. She declined to expound on her son's past or present.
The age requirement forced high school players to choose. Attempt to navigate the complex terrain of the European pro circuit, enter the NBA Development League for a five-figure salary (the D-League allows high school players to sign contracts) or go to college.
Most players have chosen the campus route, fueling the creation of the one-and-done generation -- players who leave after one season of college basketball.
When commissioner David Stern approaches the podium for the first time during the 2012 NBA draft Thursday in Newark, N.J., he'll call Anthony Davis to the stage as the first pick of the New Orleans Hornets.
Without the NBA's rules, Davis might have bypassed college. Instead, the phenomenal youngster led Kentucky to the national championship in his first and only season at the NCAA level, while earning most outstanding player honors at the Final Four.
Davis and his one-and-done predecessors -- Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Derrick Rose and Kevin Love included -- didn't stay long, but their talent helped the NCAA and the NBA. The latter earned additional time to evaluate prospects. But the future pros also justified the NCAA's $10.8 billion price tag for the NCAA tournament as part of a 14-year deal with CBS and Turner Sports that was signed in 2010.
Over the past six years, their presence has shifted the collegiate game. And it's also prompted questions about the sustainability of a system that challenges the stability college coaches crave.
"It certainly brought in a little more star power to the game and maybe a little more initial notoriety for the individual classes," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "But unless a player comes in and really wants to impact the team, the team doesn't necessarily get better."
And it all started with an idealistic kid in rural Mississippi.
Haywood challenges the NBA
In Silver City, Miss., Spencer Haywood saw civil rights workers comb the South seeking support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one that ended discrimination against African-Americans who'd been barred from voting booths around the country.
Haywood was inspired by their courage. An hour away in Jackson, Miss., prominent civil rights advocate Medgar Evers had been assassinated by a white supremacist in 1963, creating fear and paranoia for African-Americans who sought equal voting rights but worried about the danger attached to their ambitions. Yet, the men and women who'd traveled to Silver City and other parts of the South to uproot Jim Crow never wavered.
"I didn't know black people could stand up to white people. I didn't have any idea," he said. "I didn't even think we had that right as a human being."
He carried that fighting spirit with him throughout his basketball career. Haywood was a teenager when he helped the 1968 U.S. Olympic squad win a gold medal. That was the same year many prominent black athletes decided to boycott the Olympics in protest of injustices against African-Americans in the United States.
But Haywood, then a relatively unknown junior college player, viewed the Olympics as an opportunity to become a pioneer and attain an experience that seemed like a fantasy for a young man who'd been raised in extreme poverty. His family earned just $2 per day picking cotton. Haywood wanted more for himself and those close to him. And the Olympics helped him create the vision to achieve that goal.
After starring for the University of Detroit -- he was an All-America forward during the 1968-69 season -- he signed with the Denver Rockets of the ABA. He was the league's rookie of the year for the 1969-70 campaign. And then Sam Schulman, the owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, called and offered him a six-year contract worth $1.5 million.
The NBA made players wait four years after graduating from high school before they were allowed to compete. But Haywood signed with the Sonics three years after high school, a decision that led to a legal battle with the NBA. The case was ultimately decided in 1971 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which voted 7-2 against the league's four-year rule.
The decision not only affected preps with NBA dreams, but it also gave talented underclassmen a chance to pursue the pros.
"I took on such a fight I did not care if I played another basketball [game] if I freed up all of the LeBrons, the Kobes, the Kevin Garnetts, the Darryl Dawkinses, the Magic Johnsons, the Michael Jordans, Julius Ervings," said Haywood, who now owns a construction company in Las Vegas. "They all came through me. They wouldn't have had the chance if I had not made the sacrifice."
In the few years following the Haywood ruling, all-star preps Moses Malone (who initially signed with the ABA), Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby entered the professional ranks after high school. But they were the rare cases.
High school stars continued to follow the traditional path until Garnett entered -- and changed -- the league in 1995.
Garnett inspires other preps
It had been nearly 20 years since any high school player had tried to make the leap from prep to NBA rookie. But Garnett's success spawned a multitude of imitators.
If he could do it, why couldn't they?
Plus, the lure of NBA riches enticed those who had no desire to play in college long-term. Like Haywood, Jonathan Bender viewed the NBA as an opportunity to alleviate his family's dire economic situation.
NBA scouts scouring the country for the next Garnett frequented the 7-footer's games at Picayune Memorial High School in Picayune, Miss. As the buzz about his NBA worth grew, Bender began to ponder a pro career instead of a freshman season at Mississippi State.
"As a young kid, the only thing we look at is fame and fortune and the quickest way to get there," Bender said. "I'm not saying in every instance that's the right thing to do, but at the time, it looked real good to me. And I don't regret it. That's the route I took."
Knee injuries shortened his NBA career, but Bender accrued the business savvy to maintain financial stability after basketball. He's an entrepreneur who's tried to inspire dreams through his business ventures, such as his "Courtside CEO" show on WebTalkRadio.net.
But he wasn't alone. Players such as Tyson Chandler, Kendrick Perkins and J.R. Smith evolved into valuable contributors on NBA rosters, avoiding the pitfalls of other preps without reaching the same heights as Garnett, Bryant and LeBron James.
Still, cautionary tales of high school players who struggled in the NBA helped spark the league's push for a minimum age requirement.
Yes, Garnett, Bryant and James enhanced the NBA's talent pool. But the league's owners and officials cited McDavid, Lenny Cooke and others in their plea for a rule change. They wanted more time to evaluate prospects, and college basketball would help the players develop the maturity they desired in their prospects.
Members of the players' association largely opposed the switch -- union officials argued that the age requirement affected prospects financially because it limits their potential to acquire multiple maximum contracts during their careers -- but used it as a bargaining tool for other concessions in 2005 collective bargaining talks with the league.
In 2006, the door closed officially for talented preps. The NCAA, however, welcomed the elite prospects with full knowledge that they'd only stay for a season or two. And they didn't disappoint.
Durant won the Naismith Award following the 2006-07 season. Greg Oden led Ohio State to the national title game the same year. Derrick Rose took Memphis to the brink of a national championship in 2008.
Still, consensus on the benefits of the NBA's age requirement for draft picks has not been reached among college officials.
Some coaches call it problematic. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski said players who go pro after one season add to the instability that the sport has experienced in recent years.
"What it has produced is one-and-done for kids who are not going pro, the amount of transfers we have in basketball. There are over 450 transfers. Kids don't stick to the school that they pick and they want instant gratification," Krzyzewski wrote via email. "It's not just those elite players that might be able to go after one year. There's just the mentality out there that if you don't achieve after one year, maybe you should go someplace else. For the one-and-done guys it's the NBA, but for the other kids, it's another school."
Texas coach Rick Barnes, however, sees positives for college basketball. He cited former Texas standout Damion James as a player who benefited from the NBA's minimum age requirement for draft entrants.
James might have considered turning pro after high school without the rule. And that would have been a mistake, Barnes said. His first year in Austin helped him assess his true NBA stock. James ultimately stayed for four seasons before the Atlanta Hawks drafted him in the first round of the 2010 draft.
"Very few guys can come out of [high school] and handle that," Barnes said.
High school players with pro potential are caught in the middle of the controversy. College is the most logical choice for the majority, but many enter school knowing that they'll probably have to make a decision by the end of the year.
And as they weigh their options, they can get sidetracked.
Coaches have also expressed concerns about possible academic ramifications. If a player preparing for the pros misses class time in the second semester, the school may suffer long-term with the new APR rules in place.
"The guys that go and take online classes in the second semester and withdraw, I don't agree with that at all," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who supports a two-year minimum for college players.
John Wall, a point guard with the Washington Wizards and a former Kentucky star, said he fulfilled his commitment to the Wildcats athletically and academically even as he prepared for the next level. He said he continued to attend class and trained in Lexington once he decided to turn pro.
"I think college on and off the court, made me become the best person," Wall said.
But he's equally confused by the current standards. He didn't have the option to turn pro after high school but believes it's a right that players deserve.
"I think you should give them a chance," he said. "If someone feels like they're ready enough, you give them a chance. You can pick the wrong college, too."
The conversation continues to evolve. The NBA may push for a two-year rule (players would have to be 20 years old to enter the draft). And the players' union could push to allow players to enter the league straight out of high school again.
"It's all going to follow the NBA's lead," Crean said.
Meanwhile, college coaches continue to debate the merits -- if any -- attached to the NBA's minimum age requirement. Dialogue, for now, is the only power they possess.
The pros control the movement.
In the first part of a two-day examination of the NBA's so-called one-and-done rule, ESPN.com takes a look at this history of the league's age requirements and how we got to this point.