Is NBA's age limit bad for young hoops stars?
March 3, 2007 1:37am CST
It was gruesome and grotesque and almost impossible to forget – Shaun Livingston, his left knee virtually torn in half, crumpled and writhing in pain Tuesday. There is virtually nothing positive that can come from a potential career-ending injury to the likable, determined Los Angeles Clippers point guard. Yet perhaps Livingston can serve as a reminder to the supposedly sound, wise voices who always are telling these young athletes about the benefits of staying one more year in college, the ones defending the NBA's ridiculous age limit, the ones more concerned about their own entertainment or profit than the fact that even the brightest of basketball futures rides on a single, skinny ligament. Because while the NBA's window of opportunity closes, colleges never do. Because while you might get just one shot at draft day millions, an education is there forever. If the TV announcers and establishment defenders, when imploring the stay in school mantra, always are going to bring up some bust from the past – are we still talking about Korleone Young? – then let Livingston serve as the unfortunate (yet fortunate) poster child for the other side, the take the money and run route. He turned down a scholarship to Duke in 2004, choosing at age 18 to jump to the NBA where his fabulous yet fragile body was drafted fourth by the Clippers. He had a contract that guaranteed him more than $10 million in salary even before Reebok signed him to an endorsement deal worth millions more. The kid from Peoria, Ill., instantaneously was set for life. Yet there still were those who cried he should have gone to college. And if he had they'd have begged him to stay and play the same way they do right now with Kevin Durant and Greg Oden. But it seems Livingston never was meant to last. The body that allowed him that insane crossover at 6-foot-7 always was cursed. In three seasons in the NBA he's been a hobbled medical mess – dislocated right knee, sprained right ankle, torn cartilage in his right shoulder, a stress reaction in his lower back. Then came Tuesday, when the knee just ripped apart while he went for a simple layup. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament, posterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and lateral meniscus. It is a wonder the thing stayed on. “It's probably the most serious injury you can have to the knee," Clippers physician Tony Daly told reporters. "He might miss all of next year. It's a freak accident, that's for sure.” The freak part was there was no contact to set off the injury. There was no awkward cut on the floor. There was no reason for it to happen. This, essentially, was what the 21-year-old's knee was destined to do. This is what his body was about. And so all Livingston can do is rehab, pray and rest assured that he not only made the wisest choice of his life when he jumped to the league but also that David Stern hadn't decided that his marketing plans were more important than Livingston's individual rights. Had Livingston gone to college, he never would have gotten out, each injury serving as a red flag to the NBA that would have kept him from being drafted. And eventually Livingston's knee was destined to fail him. It just would have been in Cameron Indoor rather than the Staples Center. Instead he got when the getting was possible, and smart, savvy and mature, he then protected his money. One of his business advisors said Wednesday that Livingston has perhaps $6 million in the bank. He is set to earn additional NBA and shoe company millions while he rehabs over at least the next eight to 12 months. He probably will play again. But even if he doesn't, even this is a worst-case scenario and he never sees another minute in the NBA, he forever has changed the economic realities of his family. And, of course, that worst case would include the chance to do what so many think is the best case to begin with – go to college. Livingston still can get all the education the world can offer because the SAT doesn't care much about lateral quickness. So maybe you should hear about Shaun Livingston when the college announcers are barking their self-serving slop about how the NBA's age minimum is such a great thing for these young stars, for the game. Or how another year is always the good, safe option. The age rule may be good for a lot of people, but college players aren't among them. Having institutions take the freedom of choice away from individuals never can be a positive. Especially when the risks are so great, the money so grand and a college education always, eventually, a possibility.