Hoops and Ladders

How sports are wrecking schools.

Neither of last year's draftees has so far distinguished himself. However, sports writers occasionally talk about Garnett as the next generation's Michael Jordan. As every Twin Cities teenager knows, Garnett now has a hefty shoe contract and appears in television commercials with the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kirby Puckett, and Paul Molitor. This year he played in his first NBA All-Star game.

Having robbed the cradle themselves, however, Timberwolves' management is quick to say all the right things about Garnett as a role model for high school kids. Rob Babcock, the Timberwolves director of player personnel, issues this warning: "You get these kids who say, 'This magazine called me one of the top four or five players in the country. I can do the same thing Kevin Garnett did.' They should realize that even among [that select group], Kevin Garnett is one in 100,000."

The Wolves, naturally, have scouted El-Amin, and Babcock is quite blunt in his assessment. "He is not ready for the NBA. He should make a concerted effort to go to college. There isn't a high school player in the country this year who is ready for the NBA. The players who are thinking about coming out will not go very high in the draft and probably won't get guaranteed contracts."

But don't lament El-Amin's fate. He is a simply a young man who has specialized at a very early age, but at least in vocational terms it was probably not an unwise decision. It matches his natural talents, and he has pursued his goal with ruthless dedication. He is going to college, and while he may end up coaching or playing in Europe rather than the NBA, given the runaway growth of the sports industry, he probably is among the one in 50,000 high school basketball players who will someday earn a good living from sports.

The true losers in this game are the millions of high school kids with only a sliver of El-Amin's talent, all those children whose imaginations ignore the rule and seize on the exceptions like Michael Jordan and Kevin Garnett. Much of the blame goes to the pervasive and cunning manipulation by the media and corporate America. But it also goes to the environment created by the schools. Everyone at North sees the throng of well-dressed white guys in the stands, the reporters and scouts scribbling in notepads. They all see El-Amin's file photo on the sports pages. Every student sees the television cameras under the basket, and they understand the power conferred: When El-Amin decides to make a statement, it goes out all across the Twin Cities. They hear about the agents in big cars and the money and the deals they offer under the table. And nowadays they see the occasional classmate turn into a millionaire right in their midst.

It is all those kids watching from the stands who pay the price for our obsession with sports. The real losers are those millions of children endlessly thumping basketballs on asphalt, Air Jordans on their feet, Starter jackets on their backs and pseudo-patriotic motivational tapes from Nike and Reebok looping endlessly through their brains: This is America, kid. Don't let anybody put you down. You can have the dream. The money, the fame, the women, the cars. All you have to do to be like Mike is want it bad enough and wear the right gear.

Clem Haskins's secretary doesn't bother to hide her wonderment. "Your timing must be incredible," she says when I call to verify some boilerplate facts from an interview with the Gophers' coach. "It's been crazy around here, and he's being [very selective] about who he talks to." Left barely unstated is her amazement that he's bothering to talk to a reporter from the local alternative press.

Actually, my timing wasn't that good. Haskins called back--twice. What she's not taking into account is that CBS and Sports Illustrated want to talk to him about basketball, and City Pages wants to talk about the place of athletics in the education of children, especially minority children. Let's be clear about this: Clem Haskins considers himself more than just a basketball coach.

Haskins was the media event of this year's NCAA basketball tournament. The horde of sportscasters, commentators, and reporters who swarm over the event thought they were interviewing the College Coach of the Year and then the first man to take Minnesota to the Final Four. They were stunned, a bit embarrassed for him, then ultimately enchanted when Haskins made it apparent that he thought his place in history went beyond this year's basketball accomplishments. He staked an open claim to being not just a coach but an educator and a pioneer of the civil rights movement (sports division) in his own right.

It is a claim with some merit. As the first black student in his Kentucky high school, Haskins experienced old-fashioned Jim Crow abuse, everything from spittle and curses to beatings. He couldn't play basketball at the University of Kentucky because Adolph Rupp, the school's legendary (and still-revered) coach, was also a virulent racist, but Haskins did become the first black player at Western Kentucky. From there he went on to be the first African American in every coaching position he has ever held. He still regards it as an important part of his vocation to give a chance and helping hand to the kind of underprivileged youth he once was himself.

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