Josh Selby: Just another Baltimore story?
Following his controversial decision to turn pro despite a mediocre freshman year at Kansas, the Kansas City Star dispatched a reporter to Baltimore with the mission of figuring out, once and for all, what this Josh Selby kid is all about.
The result is this sad, sweet little portrait of the boy using basketball to create a better life by J. Brady McCollough. There's a danger in writing this sort of story because it is cliche. There have been documentaries about the subject, as well as fictionalized accounts of how basketball can change a kid's life. This very theme is at the heart of some of our finest writings about the game of basketball, from The Last Shot to Heaven is a Playground to The Miracle of St. Anthony. Basketball as savior is such a well-worn meme that, in a way, it has circumvented the original point: people are so accustomed to the stories that they don't even resonate, let alone force action. Nobody, it seems, is shocked anymore that in some neighborhoods the only way a kid knows of to escape the drug war is to be really, really good at making an orange ball go through an iron hoop.
Selby's story, then, isn't entirely unique. But it is not without nuance. Selby talks about the way the "old thugs and old hustlers" looked after him from a young age because of his athletic talent. What a chilling thing to think about, the thugs and hustlers playing guidance counselor and doling out, alternatively, hope for a bright future and damnation to the streets. Selby also talks of seeing a friend pistol-whipped nearly to death. He was 12.
These stories are meant to soften how Kansas fans, some of whom responded to Selby's departure with repulsive vitriol, feel about a kid they never really came to know. Seems reasonable to think that a majority of them have never seen the sort of violence described by Selby in anything other than an R-rated movie; and you aren't even supposed to watch those until you're 17.
College sports fans -- who seem to expect more from their players, morality-wise -- have long had a skewed vision of the enterprise they're so enamored with. While it's certainly true that many players do play for the glory of whatever school the represent, there are many students who see the whole endeavor as a business transaction. They see the "chance" to play in college as nothing but an exchange of their skills for some advanced coaching (though that is unreasonably restricted by NCAA rules), top-flight competition and, well, the spotlight. They adorn themselves in the colors and symbols of their teams not out of pride but because all of that stuff is part of the deal.
That Selby turned out to be this sort of mercenary should surprise no one. Watch:
Perhaps Kansas fans had convinced themselves that Selby was indeed joking. Or that his pedestrian numbers -- 7.9 points and 2.2 assists per game -- would convince him that he still has something to prove. Even some very wise scribes took that approach, including CBS' Gary Parrish and SI's Seth Davis. And yes, Selby's play in college will and should have a impact on his draft position. But so will his previous play, which earned him the No. 1 ranking from Rivals.com heading into college (he was No. 5 according to ESPN.com's rankings). NBA scouts were there watching Selby at the top summer camps when he was young. They know what they're getting: a tough, athletic guard who appears too small to play shooting guard but not skilled enough to be an elite point guard. They aren't going to judge him solely on a scandal- and injury-plagued year spent playing with two veteran big men (the Morris brothers). They know what sort of potential Selby has, and have for years. Now, they'll evaluate how likely he is to deliver on that potential through interviews and personal workouts, then decide if he's worth a pick (NBAdraft.net has him going 33rd to the Pistons).
That Kansas fans seemed so hurt by his decision proves that Selby must have some value. They like winning, and know he'd help with that. But the school is trading in currency that does Selby no good. Free tuition was never something he desired, no matter how much it might appeal to the rest of us. He's known since the thugs and hustlers dubbed him "Little Future" that he had a way out. To return to college would make not only a mockery of the university as a whole but of the the basketball program, as well. He'd only be abusing the system.
Bob Knight, who long ago decided that anything he says is brilliant, bold and brash (though only about 20 percent of it makes sense anymore), slammed the one-and-done era at a speech in Indiana over the weekend. He erroneously accused Kentucky players of not attending class last spring (and after Kentucky issued a statement, Knight apologized; run to your bunkers, end is near) as he decried the shift in culture. But he also went on to admit that the system is the problem. By colluding with the NBA to prevent high school players from turning pro, the NCAA has given up the sanctity of its own game. People like Selby and Kentucky coach John Calipari simply work within the lines. Selby had no better option, and Calipari -- who has one of the largest contracts in college athletics -- knows that one-and-done players end up that way because they're good enough to do it. He needs to win.
In this situation, it's not guys on the street deciding how somebody's life might turn out. It's the NCAA trying to manipulate the best way for young players to turn pro while focusing not on the well-being of the "student-athletes" but on making sure that the best ones appear in their tournament -- which generates billions for member school -- for at least one year.
Exploitation isn't confined to the streets.