A little more than a decade has passed since the NBA closed its doors to players fresh out of high school, and with Kobe Bryant’s career coming to an end, now is a good time to reflect on the preps-to-pros era in the NBA.
Few are as qualified to chronicle it as Jonathan Abrams, previously of Grantland, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, whose ability to expertly weave numerous stories and perspectives into an enthralling narrative was on display in his debut book, “Boys Among Men.”
Rather than writing a collection of short stories, Abrams fits everything together, showing how each narrative built on another—from the first to make the leap in Moses Malone and Bill Willoughby, to Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and the draft class featuring Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, and Eddy Curry.
Each page is saturated with interesting nuggets, whether it be forgotten trivia like Darius Miles being the first prep player to be named to the All-Rookie team, or pre-draft anecdotes like Tyson Chandler wanting to play a perimeter style game in the mold of Rasheed Wallace (before settling in his current role; one that has seen him take 10 three-point attempts in 14 years), or a look at the free agency decision of Tracy McGrady.
While a majority of the book is focused on the success stories, Abrams also makes sure to allocate time toward some of the players who didn’t pan out and the reasons for their relative lack of success. Leon Smith, Lenny Cooke, and Korleone Young all have different reasons for their lack of success and subsequent heartbreak.
He even describes how players who eventually found success, including Chandler and Kwame Brown, to a lesser degree, didn’t have as easy a road as others that became near superstars from the start of their career. Abrams expertly shows as much empathy for these players as joy for the ones who made it.
It wouldn’t be a book detailing the prep to pros era without a lengthy look at the controversy surrounding the age limit and the opinions surrounding the eventual language in the collective bargaining agreement.
David Stern had to go through great lengths to convince the player’s union this was a feasible option for all sides. While some owners benefitted big from high school players, too many others felt as if the benefit wasn’t worth the risk and fought hard for the age limit when high school players they drafted didn’t pan out or needed extra attention to make the transition to adulthood. Though the events are well documented, Abrams is able to shine new light on the topic and provide great insights.
Guys like Brandon Jennings and Jeremy Tyler, two players who had varying levels of professional success after spurning college to go the international route, talk about their non-traditional routes to the professional game after implementation of the age limit and how they were met with a certain level of vitriol both by their international teammates and the NBA as an entity for trying to circumvent the age limit and go outside the NCAA.
Abrams also describes how the marriage between ESPN and high school sports came to be when they made the leap to broadcast a game featuring the hyped phenom Lebron James. While we now accept high school games as part of the sports lifestyle, and information that we often crave, the initial broadcast was met with widespread controversy as Abrams discusses in length. Fans want to find that future superstar at a younger and younger age each year so there is no escaping the ever burgeoning youth sports scene and you will see how that became engrained in our culture through the prep to pros movement.
This book is a must read for anyone interested in how your favorite prep players matriculated to the league and for those who have wanted to know more about the origins of the age limit and why the NBA pushed so hard for it despite having some of its most successful players of all time come straight from high school. While the prep to pro path is currently blocked off, the book will become a critical part of a serious NBA fans knowledge as it describes a generation of players that defined almost two decades of the league’s history.