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Wishing the system hadn't tempted Miller


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2000

Mike Miller's basketball skills, 20-year-old physique and sophomore mind are a few grits short of an NBA feast.

Billy Donovan, his coach at the University of Florida, was being honest, not self-serving, in advising the boyish South Dakotan, "You need at least one more college season." Even the kid admitted, "I'm not ready for the pros."

Didn't matter.

Draftniks agree, the 6-foot-8 caterpillar will be snagged no later than 12th in June's first round, urging Miller to premature birth as an NBA butterfly. Miller will be guaranteed a three-year deal worth about $5-million.

Who needs geometry, botany and the ability to diagram a sentence? Mike can turn in his books, drop off a UF dorm key and head for the Porsche store. Too bad, it appears, in long-run ways. But what decision would we have suggested if Miller were our son?

This is not a young man with poverty scars, a survivor of fierce city streets, desperate to rescue family members. Miller is middle class, Middle America, and both parents are educators in a little town named Mitchell.

Pro hoops gold can be more tempting than a warm glazed bear claw on a cold morning, especially when you're a cinch to immediately make an NBA roster and get rich before achieving a single professional basket.

* * *

I wish it weren't so.

There is, of course, the risk of a college whiz becoming badly injured. A ruptured knee or a dismantled back that can leave a once-sizzling prospect limping through pickup games in the concrete outdoors rather than schmoozing with Shaq, Grant and The Admiral.

Don't boo Mikey.

Shame is, he'll never know, nor will we, how much he might have grown as a human being and an athlete with another Gainesville season, even two. His impact on Gators wins and losses does not particularly belong in this debate.

Mike could have used more undergraduate years in pursuit of becoming a fuller, smarter, better-prepared person while enhancing his basketball in the arenas of Lexington and Knoxville, rather than a dollar-driven premature leap to East Rutherford and Oakland.

Miller, at times, showed swatches of NBA flair. Flying down court, handling a basketball with the touch of a point guard, then making a darting move to deftly bounce a layup off backboard glass. Pulling up, hitting a three. Scraping a rebound off the ceiling. But too often he looked overwhelmed and confused, and was ineffective and overmatched.

Miller will study as a bench-riding NBA extra, trying to adjust to 100 games a season instead of 35, traveling among 30-year-old pros rather than 20-year-old peers. Getting a couple of court minutes at game's end, bouncing into Karl Malone or Charles Oakley instead of string beans from Arkansas or South Carolina.

This is not, in case you're wondering, intended as a pick-on-Mikey column. Miller doesn't at all disgust me. What's bad is a system that terribly tantalizes teens. Causing dribblers on playgrounds in Baltimore and Biloxi to believe they can quickly become the next Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett, vaulting from high school to high NBA living.

They don't embrace the odds. If you scream "Get an education!" the rebuttal might well be "Get lost!" even though for every Kobe and Kevin, 5,000 misfires will be apt to wind up bagging burgers or swabbing floors, making $6 an hour rather than $6-million a season.

That's another facet. For now, can we fire our ire over the college quickies? Shoving some lanky, gifted youngster into enduring just one season at Iowa State or two at Florida before bellowing "I'm going pro," many of them not so assured of financial goodies as Miller.

It would be good, if maybe too much to ask, if the NBA and NFL would cut a deal with the NCAA similar to Major League Baseball's agreement. If a lad enrolls in college on a baseball scholarship, he becomes ineligible to jump to pro baseball for three years.

Comparative sanity.

"It's both football and basketball that show up far too early to take budding college stars and make them professionals," said Jeremy Foley, director of UF athletics.

"For the good of not only college sports, but truly the pro leagues as well, and above all the young men involved, it would be really good if the NBA and NFL would make the same commitment as Major League Baseball."

You wonder if, challenged in court, the baseball deal would hold up. "Far as I know, it's legally sound," Foley said. If so, it's time both public and media barraged the executive sultans of big-time pro basketball and football. Lambasting. Pleading. Working to assure at least a three-year peace for a jock who signs with a university.

NFL and NBA player unions, having retooled the craft of greed, will oppose any such movement. Can we scream loud enough, often enough, to cause serious rumblings in Congress?

"Junior" is not a bad word.

"Senior" is better.

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