On the Road to 'March Madness'

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In the aftermath of "March madness,'' a fresh crop of young basketball stars dreams of playing for the top college teams and leaving behind careworn communities. For many, though, prowess on the courts will not be enough to earn a coveted college scholarship. In The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, Darcy Frey, a contributing editor at Harper's, examines the college basketball industry and its treatment of young players.

By chronicling a year in the lives of Russell Thomas, Corey Johnson, Tchaka Shipp, and Stephon Marbury all of whom played varsity ball for Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island, he offers poignant commentary on the unnatural pressures exerted on young men. In this excerpt, Frey questions the integrity of a system that seems to punish those who could benefit most from academic assistance.

Sports psychologists and guidance counselors who work with inner-city athletes often talk about an essential triangle in a player's life formed by his family, his neighborhood, and his schooling. The rule is that a player can triumph over one weak point in that triangle, maybe two, but almost never all three. Tchaka has at least the first two in his favor--stability at home and in his neighborhood. Russell, Corey, and Stephon, however, all come from families that can't seem to escape their tenancy in the Coney Island projects. The neighborhood itself--with its armies of drug dealers and unwed teenage mothers--may be the least stable place in New York City in which to grow up. And now, as they face the hurdle of the S.A.T.'s, it seems that years of bad schooling are coming back to haunt these athletes just when they need their educations the most. This may handicap them throughout their lives; on the immediate level, it means that while Tchaka is being taken on personal tours of the arenas and locker rooms of the Big East, Russell and Corey have yet to go on a single campus recruiting visit, and their prospects of doing so look increasingly grim.

The [National Collegiate Athletic Association] and the college-basketball industry have done much soul-searching in recent years over the S.A.T. requirement, as well they should. The N.C.A.A. instituted the 700 threshold, known as Proposition 48, in 1986, after coming under pressure to show its commitment to education as well as to athletics. But the requirement has proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to thousands of black players like Russell, Corey, and Stephon with poor educations and no experience in taking standardized tests. Of the players who have gone to junior colleges since the rule was instituted (they are known as Prop 48 casualties), 9 percent are white, 91 percent black. Some critics have suggested that if the N.C.A.A. is so concerned about the education of its student-athletes, it should allow a college to award scholarships to players who don't pass the S.A.T.'s, as long as they stay off the team until the school brings them up to speed in the classroom. Or the N.C.A.A. might eliminate freshman eligibility across the board so that every player's first year in college would be devoted entirely to schoolwork. Or it could deny a school its coveted Division I status if its players didn't graduate. Then, the argument goes, instead of punishing educationally disadvantaged kids like the Coney Island players, the rules would punish the colleges with a weak commitment to academics.

At the very least the N.C.A.A. could examine indications of a player's scholastic potential besides standardized tests--high school transcripts, say, or attendance records. But so far the N.C.A.A. has yet to embrace any options that might compel colleges to educate their players, only ones that flaunt the organization's lofty commitment to academics while they actually prevent many hardworking but poorly schooled athletes from getting a college education. Russell's school average of over 80, his practice of sitting in the first row of class and asking provocative questions, the estimation of his remedial-math teacher that he works harder than any student she has had in 30 years--all of these things speak volumes about Russell's determination to succeed on the college level, but unless he gets a 700, they alone will get him nowhere.

Vol. 14, Issue 28

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