It’s always been an interesting quirk that the uber-capitalist, free-marketing loving, USA have the most socialist sports financial arrangements with salary caps, minimum pay rates and other restrictons. As part of collective bargaining between team owners and player unions, rules have often been accepted which prevent athletes from playing in a major league until a set period of time has passed since they graduated from high school. Even then, the player can’t sign for whoever he likes, but rather is assigned a team through a draft! Great for preserving competitive balance, not so good for the guy who has no choice but move his life to a random city.
Prior to 2005, the NBA didn’t have any post high-school restriction (other than an age minimum of 18) and therefore high-school students were eligible to declare for the NBA draft without attending college. Despite a few high profile cases in the 1970’s, no players followed this route for 20 years until Kevin Garnett was drafted with the fifth overall pick in the 1995 NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Over the next few years, a number of future legends would follow in Garnett’s footsteps with Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire, LeBron James and Dwight Howard among them. There were also plenty of players however who never made it and whose lives never quite recovered from the failure to live up to the hype.
Boys Among Men takes a detailed look at the careers and lives of many of the high school players who jumped straight into the NBA – both the successes and failures – and those who tried to do so but went undrafted. Abrams describes how Garnett broke the mould and how his success led other teams to overcome their initial reluctance to draft direct from high school. In particular, after Kobe Bryant dropped to 13th pick, a number of teams realised they had missed out on a Hall of Fame level talent and were determined not to repeat their mistake.
Abrams makes clear that there was no one factor which could determine whether an 18 year old would be able to make it in the NBA. It could be that players overestimated their own talents or lacked the work ethic to reach the standard or had been exploited by unscrupulous adults. Some came from such difficult backgrounds that the money and fame was too much for them to handle. Others simply didn’t mature physically as they may have expected or hoped. Those players that did succeed often came from equally difficult backgrounds but had usually gotten, and accepted, much better advice and managed to adapt quicker to the higher level of play.
In telling the story of the ‘prep-to-pro’ generation, Abrams also tells the story of the NBA’s transition from the Jordan era to the LeBron era. The generation of players that arrived in the NBA during this period would go on to dominate the sport with many having incredibly long careers. Howard even managed to play in the NBA in his teens, 20s, 30s and 40s! They were instrumental in helping the NBA recover from its post-Jordon slump (in attendance and viewing figures), and again becoming a major league on a par with the NFL.
The book is exceptionally well researched and its clear that Abrams interviewed a vast number of players, agents, coaches and other insiders like the legendary Nike and Addias executive Sonny Vaccaro (subject of the great 30 for 30 film Sole Man). As an experienced beat writer, Abrams is brilliant at recounting on-court details but the key focus on the book is the mindset of the players – what factors go into their decisions, how did they approach the step up to the NBA and why do they believe they succeeded or failed.
As well as telling the story of the players, Abrams also considers how both the pro and college game have responded since the age limit was increased to 19. He includes a range of viewpoints – both positive and negative – and avoids reaching a firm conclusion. What’s clear is that the decision had a profound impact on college basketball with one-and-done players becoming ever more common and certain colleges, like Kentucky, responding much better to that trend.
The book is at its best when chronicling the stories of those who never quite made it. The exploits of Garnett, LeBron and Kobe Bryant are well known. The stories of Lenny Cooke, Korleone Young, and Leon Smith were unfamiliar to me but just as interesting. I suspect had I been given millions of dollars at 18 years of age, I’d have had a pretty hard time doing anything but partying!
Boys to Men is a really interesting and enjoyable book. Abrams doesn’t take sides, but simply tells the story from a range of viewpoints and perspectives. It’s a book that would be enjoyed by any basketball fan.