Banking on the future

Updated: April 23, 2004, 5:20 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

As LeBron James takes his high-school diploma straight to the NBA and immediately wins Rookie of the Year honors over a guy who spent a single year in college before bolting for the pros and the millions, the rising pessimist in you sees what has become of the NCAA's once-formidable basketball program and wants to wince out loud.

And then there is Emeka Okafor. And you know what? It ain't all bad.

Emeka Okafor
They aren't all Emeka Okafor, at left with Jim Calhoun, but wouldn't it be nice if more were?

There will always be room in college athletics for a story like Okafor's, even at places where sports are undertaken at the highest levels and with the greatest expectations. There is still a place within the NCAA's labyrinthine and at times inexplicable system for the athlete who leaves high school not as a finished product, but as a work in progress.

As long as that's true, the NCAA will never be fully farmed out, no matter how often the business of the NBA stops by to harvest without bothering to re-plant. There will always be room for people like Emeka Okafor. And that's the saving grace, really.

What happened on Tuesday, the coincidence of timing and events, was just impossible to ignore. On one side of the basketball realm, the prodigiously talented James, a person essentially made by his ability to play the sport, completed one of the most difficult transitions imaginable by taking the NBA's Rookie of the Year award over Carmelo Anthony -- who himself went pro after leading Syracuse to a national title in his only year at college.

They were the players the NCAA might have had, basically, if the pro business weren't so much more bankably lucrative than the college business. They were the players, thinking about it nostalgically, who once might have graced universities with their talents and their personalities for three or four or five straight years -- all the while, at least theoretically, being themselves exposed to the new ideas and new horizons and everything else that a college education can suggest.

And on the other side of that realm stood Okafor, inside the Basketball Hall of Fame at Springfield, Mass., creating history of his own at perhaps 1/100th the buzz. With Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun looking on, Okafor became the first college player ever to have a locker dedicated in his honor at the Hall.

It was a singular distinction for a player of singular stature. Okafor, after all, didn't merely lead UConn to a national championship, he did so while staying on track to graduate a year early with a degree in finance. He isn't just the outstanding player of the Final Four, but a 3.8 grade-point average student who might just as easily could have been a Rhodes Scholar as the NBA lottery pick he is destined to become this summer.

He is leaving UConn as a junior not because he's done playing, but because his degree will be in hand in May. If that rising pessimist in you weren't such a constant companion in matters concerning the NCAA, you'd be tempted to suggest that the notion of a true student-athlete isn't yet dead.

Maybe this is college basketball's future. Maybe the future for NCAA programs lies in coaches like Calhoun identifying and pursuing people like Okafor, players who find themselves drawn to the university life for reasons that don't relate 100 percent to hardwood and leather -- players who are not in high school what they yet might become in college as athletes and, not to get overly dramatic about it, leaders.

Calhoun saw in Okafor back then more promise than anything else -- and it's both an art and a science, no doubt, trying to figure where that promise lies and where it might go. The University of Texas could have pursued Okafor out of his high school career in Houston, but instead went after current NBA'er T.J. Ford, and you could justify coach Rick Barnes' decision on about a hundred levels at the time.

It doesn't even look wacky in hindsight, really. Ford's gift was more obvious. It just took Okafor a while longer for that promise to find its level.

And there is still room for that in college basketball, which stands right this minute as a perfectly valid argument in favor of the idea that the NCAA may have some kick left yet. They aren't all Emeka Okafor. They don't need to be. As long as the Jim Calhouns of the world are still looking, they'll turn up.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com