Jonathan Abrams, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution (2016)
by Chris Foss
This brand-new book from the long-time NBA writer and ex-Grantland contributor Abrams is a masterfully-reported mosaic of stories about the men who jumped (and attempted to jump) straight from high school to the league prior to the 2005 collective bargaining agreement which mandated an age restriction of 19 on draftees for the first time. This is generally a story of breadth rather than depth, and readers interested in one or two particular stories will have to wait for biographies and autobiographies to come out on the key players. Abrams has nevertheless done a good job through interviews and original reporting of gleaning new insights into what he calls the “prep-to-pro generation”.
Abrams starts at the beginning by discussing the antecedent of the 1995-2005 wave of prep-to-pros: a small class of individuals who made the jump in the mid-1970s. In 1974 and 1975, Moses Malone, Bill Willoughby, and Darryl Dawkins came into the league. Malone went on to a Hall of Fame career. Dawkins played many years and was a fan favorite for his dunking ability. Willoughby’s career was more pedestrian, and he ended up overseas after a few seasons. Taken together, their body of work, Abrams contends, was an augur for later prep-to-pros.
But as we have noted in The Tattered Pennant, in the 1970s (see Alex’s articles from a few weeks ago), college basketball was a major platform for players to build their public profile and, theoretically, increase their viability for future earnings. But the college product had dramatically declined in stature by the mid-1990s. All it took was for one player to make the gamble and to be the next Moses Malone. As Abrams shows, that player was Kevin Garnett in 1995. When Kobe Bryant followed in 1996, the prep-to-pro tidal wave was open. By 2004, eight prep-to-pros were drafted in the first round, headlined by Dwight Howard going No. 1 to Orlando.
The most fascinating facet of Abrams’s work, however, is not in his reporting about the successful prep-to-pros, but the glimpses he provides into the lives of those who did not become headline stars. From Kwame Brown, to Korleone Young, to Leon Smith, Abrams covers the gamut of players who made the transition, yet for one reason or another, did not turn into superstars. As this sampling shows, however, Abrams discerns that not all “failure” stories among these players were either made equal, or turned out the same.
Kwame Brown was drafted No. 1 by the Washington Wizards in 2001 after an undistinguished high school career, wherein he was judged more by his raw ability than actual results. A strong McDonalds All-America Game performance catapulted him to the attention of Michael Jordan, then a Wizards stakeholder about to un-retire and join the team. As Abrams reports, Brown suffered under the weight of Jordan, whose mood swings either praised or bashed the young man perceived to be the franchise’s long-term savior. Perhaps Abrams’s most startling reporting reveals that at one point, Jordan lashed Brown with a tirade of homophobic invectives that in today’s NBA would have had His Airness grounded by suspension and fines, perhaps permanently. Coach Doug Collins chastised Brown for his lack of effort and heart. Indeed, Brown never developed into a franchise player, and departed the Wizards several years later. Yet he carved out a decade-long career as a solid defender and role player, earning over $60 million.
Earlier in the prep-to-pro generation, Korleone Young represented a much starker failure. Abrams devotes a number of pages midway through the book to a comparison with Young and Al Harrington, both of whom were drafted out of high school in 1998. A prolonged lockout in 1998-99 that nearly saw the season cancelled threatened to derail both brittle careers before they got off the ground. But Harrington received vital life coaching and attention in Indiana from veteran forward Antonio Davis and his wife, and went on to a solid and long, if undistinguished, NBA career. Young, meanwhile, never found the same mentorship in Detroit, despite the presence of superstar Grant Hill—disappointingly, Abrams doesn’t elaborate on whether Hill and Young had much of a relationship. Young appeared sparingly in the 1998-99 season, then was cut loose.
Leon Smith, meanwhile, is revealed to be a distressing cautionary tale both for individuals and teams undertaking the prep-to-pro gamble. At the age of five, Smith and his brother were homeless. One night they were picked up by the police when their mother lost track of them (she eventually would lose custody). Abrams writes in an almost painful tone that Smith “had never seen anything so new, so clean. He did not want to leave the police station, with its revolving doors and shiny benches.” He was shuttled from one orphanage to another, sleeping on the streets at times even while becoming a prep star. Never taught a work ethic, Abrams contends that Smith, like many other prep-to-pro would-be stars, was used as a springboard by coaches and agents toward their greater fame, while being shuttled through his classes by a broken education system, his precarious mental health never coming under much scrutiny by anyone along the way. Drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in 1999, Smith responded to an early benching by attempting suicide. He would eventually play in the NBA years later with Atlanta and Seattle, but as Sonics assistant Jack Sikma recalled, “‘he just threw in the white flag one day’” and, according to Abrams, his closest friend has not heard from him “a few Christmases ago.”
After relating these and more stories, Abrams narrates the denouement of the prep-to-pro generation, arguing it to be the result of the perception of the NBA as degenerating into a hip-hop culture, its young (code: black) players culturally incompatible with a white fanbase shelling out up to hundreds of dollars per game. Sagging attendance and TV figures, combined with the Pistons-Pacers brawl of November 2004 (prominently featuring prep-to-pro Jermaine O’Neal) factored into the negotiation into the 2005 collective bargaining agreement of a new age limit, one which led to the current “one-and-done” phenomenon that dominates the league today. In hindsight, however, was the league right to impose an age limit? Abrams makes a strong, albeit nuanced, case near the end of the book, in which he explores the intriguing ways in which players have attempted to circumvent one-and-done.
Abrams also covers players’ individual stories, but also the career arcs of those non-players who profited from prep-to-pro, such as Nike (later, Adidas and Reebok) executive Sonny Vaccaro, and Arn Tellem, an agent for many prep-to-pros. These men are not portrayed as blood-sucking villains, however—Abrams provides a refreshingly nuanced take on them. Coming off less favorably, however, are NBA commissioner David Stern and players’ union head Billy Hunter, who are portrayed as either powerless or wont to put their heads in the sand in terms of coming up with a policy regarding prep-to-pros that satisfies all sides in the debate.
In all, Boys Among Men is a satisfying read, a definitive journalistic take on the overall prep-to-pro generation. Those wary of the oft-pretentious and sometimes analytics-heavy approach of Grantland need not worry, however. Abrams writes with compassion about his subjects, while also providing a very humane and balanced analysis of the prep-to-pro issue. Those asking whether from a standpoint of math and science if prep-to-pro succeeded will come away from this book disappointed, but that’s not what this story is about. This is basketball journalism at its best. In the tradition of expert New York Times sportswriters like David Halberstam and Harvey Araton, Abrams has crafted a superb work that will provide for a satisfying and thought-provoking summer read, one which should inform future CBA negotiations between the NBA and the players’ union.