Class of '79 started 'Silver Era'
If you love the history of college basketball as much as I do, watching ESPN unveil its Silver Anniversary Teams the past week has been great fodder for debate, not to mention a chance to reflect on all the great players who've performed in the eight conferences the network has covered since 1979.
As the players were announced each night, it sparked interesting debate and brought back memories of great players relegated to "retro jersey" status. But, if you want to know what is wrong with basketball today, take a look at the high school seniors playing during the first season of ESPN college basketball coverage. I did just that, and found at least 42 players from the Class of '79 who went on to play in the NBA -- two of whom became Hall of Famers -- as well as five guys who became NBA head coaches.
Now, try to find a high school class over the past decade with similar numbers. Good luck. Which is exactly why I say the Class of '79 shows just what's wrong with today's game.
Think about recent NBA drafts, which have become the equivalent of Major League Baseball's amateur draft. It is a draft of future prospects, not established players, with so many young, unprepared players with little experience. But, unlike MLB, there is no organized minor league system to develop these players. Otherwise, Darko Milicic would be playing in Huntsville, Ala., waiting for a call-up from the NDBL. And, when do you think you will hear Ndudi Ebi's name in a meaningful NBA sentence?
Now, go back and take a look at some of the players from the Class of '79. In today's environment, Ralph Sampson and Sam Bowie would have never stepped foot on college campus. In fact, it's possible that the pair would have been taken No. 1 and No. 2 in the 1979 NBA draft over that guy in East Lansing without a position -- Earvin Johnson.
Here are the top high school seniors from the Class of 1979: Isiah Thomas, Indiana; Ralph Sampson, Virginia; James Worthy, North Carolina; Sam Bowie, Kentucky; Steve Stipanovich, Louisville; Dominique Wilkins, Georgia; Antoine Carr, Wichita State; Cliff Levingston, Wichita State; John Paxson, Notre Dame; Byron Scott, Arizona State. Quinton Dailey, San Francisco; Clark Kellogg, Ohio State; Darrell Walker, Arkansas; Jon Sunvold, Missouri; Terry Cummings, DePaul; Rod Foster, UCLA; Mark West, Old Dominion; LaSalle Thompson, Texas; Sidney Green, UNLV; Rodney McCray, Louisville. Darren Daye, UCLA; John Bagley, Boston College; Thurl Bailey, NC State; Randy Breuer, Minnesota; Sedale Threatt, West Virginia Tech; Kevin Williams, St. John's; Michael Holton, UCLA; Craig Ehlo, Washington State; Bobby Hansen, Iowa; Sidney Lowe, NC State. Dirk Minnifield, Kentucky; Dale Ellis, Tennessee; Jeff Malone, Mississippi State; Rick Carlisle, Virginia; Carlos Clark, Mississippi; Pace Mannion, Utah; Granville Waiters, Ohio State; Jim Thomas, Indiana; Larry Micheaux, Houston; Howard Carter, LSU. Leo Rautins, Syracuse; Paul Thompson, Tulane; Ken Austin, Rice; Stewart Granger, Villanova; Rob Williams, Houston; Bruce Kuczenski, UConn; Mark Jones, St. Bonaventure; John Pinone, Villanova.
But, as we know, Sampson stayed four years and was the No. 1 pick in 1983. Bowie, meanwhile, stayed five years at Kentucky and was selected behind Hakeem Olajuwan in 1984.
I will grant you that Bowie's -- and to a lesser extent, Sampson's -- NBA careers didn't pan out like most people expected. But in large part, both saw their careers curtailed by injuries. Remember, Sampson's first three injury-free years in the league were brilliant. And, as late as his eighth year in the NBA, a healthy Bowie provided the New Jersey Nets with 15 points and 8 rebounds a game.
But, more to the point, look at what kind of memories Sampson provided for college basketball fans. You don't have to be from my era of college basketball to remember or know all about the effect Virginia's three-time national player of the year had on college basketball in the '80s. His titanic battles with Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas in 1982, and those memorable matchups with North Carolina in the ACC, remain among the best in the game's rich history.
But there were many from the Class of '79 who would wind up filling the first round of the 1983 NBA draft after stellar college careers. We'll never know if these players were ready for the League a few months after their senior prom, but they became solid four-year college players who enjoyed productive pro careers.
Missouri teammates Steve Stipanovich and Jon Sunvold were both first-round picks in the '83 NBA draft. Stipanovich was the second overall pick behind Sampson, while Sunvold was the 16th overall pick. The Class of '79 also included first-round draft picks like Byron Scott, Antoine Carr, Randy Wittman, Jim Paxson, Jeff Malone, Dale Ellis, Thurl Bailey, Sidney Green and Roy Hinson. Others players in the class who were not taken in the first round, but became excellent contributors in the league, were guys like Craig Ehlo, Bobby Hansen, Mark West, Rick Carlisle, John Bagley, Cliff Levingston and Sidney Lowe. As a group, these guys utilized their college experience to help them become solid citizens and true professionals.
Some NBA scouts believe this upcoming NBA draft will be the weakest ever. Most of the top talent in college basketball -- which, for 50 years, has been pro basketball's minor leagues -- has already been sucked dry by the NBA. Carmello Anthony stuck around for one year. Dwyane Wade and T.J. Ford graced us with two brilliant seasons. In fact, because there are so few draftable college players, I project as many as seven high school players will be selected in the first round this year -- including the overall No. 1 being another prep, with Dwight Howard of Atlanta following LeBron James' footsteps to shake David Stern's hand.
While the infusion of international players in the NBA has become another source of talent procurement, it has led to its own problems. Because teams are looking for the next "Stojakovic," more young foreign players are getting overvalued and most will not be ready to contribute to an NBA team anytime soon.
We can argue about whether it is better to have a young player in the League learning the NBA game from great coaches, even if it means just practices and individual workouts, with little game experience. Some NBA guys smugly suggest that these teens will develop more this way than playing in most college systems. Most, however, recognize the lack of college game experience is, ultimately, detrimental to their development.
Even the players from the Class of '79 who did leave early for the NBA left an indelible impression on college basketball. Isaiah Thomas left after his sophomore year at Indiana with a national championship. James Worthy did the same after his junior year at North Carolina. And Dominique Wilkins joined Worthy and Thomas on the NBA's "Fifty Greatest Players" team.
Terry Cummings was the No. 2 pick in the 1982 draft after Worthy and played 18 seasons in the league. Clark Kellogg and Rodney McCray declared for the draft, but seemed mature beyond their years. Quinton Dailey, ironically, one of the real gems of this class, left San Francisco early but ran into off-court difficulties during his career.
I can reminisce all I want, but the sad fact is we'll never return to this "Silver Era," and basketball at every level suffers for it. The NBA, for all its greatness, has more immature, unprepared players than ever. More players are drafted on long-range potential which requires projecting three to five years out on a young player. That leads to too many "hit or miss" mistakes.
Agents and a player's "hanger-ons" tell these young players they need to get the "clock" started on their first NBA contract, so they can hit the "lottery" on their second contract. The NBA's collective bargaining agreement locks in a player into a team for up to four years. So, when a Donnell Harvey leaves Florida after only a year, he may get late first-round money, but he is not ready to make an impact. Instead, he finds himself playing for his fourth team in four years with no big second deal in sight. It fact, he might need to learn Italian because that, ultimately, may be where he ends up playing.
Yes, this decade-long gamble on potential has produced Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Amare Stoudamire and LeBron. But, these guys are a rare breed. Guys like Kwame Brown, Jonathan Bender, Rickey Davis, DeSagona Diop, Eddie Griffin, Donnell Harvey, Kendrick Perkins, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Gerald Wallace, Mo Williams and Jamal Sampson are more the norm.
Whether a player stays a season, or four seasons, playing college basketball is no longer a goal. And, this is also a sad fact. Players may talk about winning a national championship as the reason for playing, but it's the exposure and golden ring of the NBA that means more than any ring they may win in college. In fact, players often feel like they are doing a coach or school a favor by making a "pit stop" on campus before jumping to the League. And, if a player doesn't have instant success on campus (see: enough touches), everyone in their extended family blames the college coach.
Secretly, if you ask a college player and his "people" whether they'd like to have been a starter on a national championship team or lead the nation in scoring, guess what they'd choose?
Yes, it's a fact that nothing ever stays the same. But, it's been a quick 25 years for me. My first Division I assistant's job came in 1980, so I've watched all this unfold from the court. And while I love the fact that college basketball is more popular that ever, not everything about the game is better than it used to be.
Oh well, I've always got my son's Dereck Whittenburg's "retro" North Carolina State jersey to look at in the closet.
Fran Fraschilla spent 23 years on the sidelines as a college basketball coach at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico before joining ESPN and ESPN.com as an analyst last season.
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