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  •   Graduating to the Pros

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    By Kevin Merida
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, July 1, 1999; Page C1

    As rites of passage go, the journey from college ball to the NBA is like leaving Buffalo for Paris. And so you gotta prepare.

    Baron Davis, the gifted point guard from UCLA, figured he should be wearing a tailored ivory suit when his name was called at MCI Center. After all, he was one of the country's top prospects, one of only 16 invited to Washington to walk across the big stage last night, tug on his new team cap, shake Commissioner David Stern's hand and smile for the national television cameras.

    A big moment.

    And so he met with Beverly Hills clothier Troy McSwain a week ago. Picked out a nice ivory suit, cut long. McSwain is what they call in the sports business a suit guy. He did Kobe Bryant's draft-day suit. He does suits for many professional athletes you've heard of. He offered to do Davis's for free – a nice gesture made for a kid who spent just two years in college and just turned 20 this spring and is about to make millions of dollars but doesn't know much about custom-made suits. The gesture was in the interest of building a long-term relationship.

    Except the suit came back in the wrong color – blue. "I can't wear this," Davis told McSwain. And thus began the Baron Davis Draft-Day Suit Crisis. It was McSwain's fault, in that one of the people working for him messed up. So he got on the phone and asked his tailors to make the right suit this time. In a day. The tailors worked for 12 straight hours, and at 4 a.m. yesterday the right suit was flown from Los Angeles to Reagan National Airport. And at 11:30 a.m., McSwain (in town attending to details and scouting business) went to pick up the suit. He brought it back to the downtown Renaissance Hotel so Davis could try it on and be properly outfitted and be happy on the most important night of his life.

    "What it represents for them is a day of recognition," observed McSwain of the first-round draftees. "It's kind of like their birth into the world. From now on, they're celebrities. Some guys take it and run with it, other guys take it and fall. Everything they do from this day forward is going to be put under a microscope – how they act, what they wear, how they drive."

    There were no diplomas handed out at MCI Arena last night, but it sure seemed like a graduation. And how ironic. Of the top ten players chosen in the first round, seven were non-seniors. Most are finished with school forever. By being drafted in the first round, in a sense they earned the highest degree basketball confers. Ron Artest of New York's St. John's University and the Queensbridge projects explained his two years in college this way: "I didn't have academics in mind. Just basketball."

    This is not the kind of sentiment that endears athletes to educators and parents of impressionable children. But as Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams said last night, "That's where it is right now. I hope it changes."

    Neville Waters, marketing director for the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, noted that the NBA draft hoopla has replaced the cap-and-gown ceremony for some families. But here's his caveat: "While it's great for the kids who make it, unfortunately we're getting a misperception because we're talking only about 20 kids who get drafted and can command enough money to be able to say, 'I can take care of my family for my entire life.'"

    Last night was not the night to settle the debate about whether too many kids are taking the A-train to the pros before they're ready. Last night was a night for celebration. For hugging and shouting and crying like Artest did after being selected 16th in the draft by the Chicago Bulls. Tears pooled in his eyes, and he pointed to a corner of the arena where his own personal rooting section was making some serious noise.

    Artest had arranged for a bus to carry folks down from Queensbridge – "Everybody's got to pay $18. I gotta get some of that money back" – but the bus seated only 45. So others took the train and came in cars. "And some people are sleeping in a van, I think."

    They had to be there.

    The Green Room is the symbol of the draft-day right of passage, a kind of holding pen off the arena floor from which the elite draftees emerge to be escorted into the gleaming lights. Each player is alloted 10 guests, and they all sit at a round table waiting to get the word, waiting to burst into joy. Mothers wait to squeeze their sons. Brothers wait to slap the hands of brothers they used to slap upside the head.

    When Baron Davis heard the Charlotte Hornets had made him the third pick in the draft, he felt nothing but relief. He hadn't slept in 48 hours. He was up until 6 a.m. yesterday playing dominoes with a friend. In the Green Room, "I couldn't hug everybody," he said. "They said I didn't have enough time."

    There were a lot of folks to hug – and not just in the Green Room.

    Davis had invited 22 people to D.C. to share the thrill with him, including his high school coach, his AAU coach, a couple of his friends from home, his aunt, his girlfriend, his sister, all the important people except his grandmother, who "doesn't fly. She doesn't go out of L.A."

    "There are a lot of people who have roles in your life," he said. "You want to invite them all . . . It's not just my day. This is a day for all of us. This is a day for south-central L.A. because I'm one of the guys who made it out."

    It is hard to know what to make of these young men at this point, as they hurl themselves into their new lives. They are being shuttled from interview to interview. They are stopped by autograph seekers. So many strangers want a piece of their time or have a service to sell. The agent, the lawyer, the accountant, the suit guy, the jeweler, the car guy.

    Baron Davis has already found the car guy. His name is Marc Laidler, CEO of 310 Motoring Inc. of West Los Angeles. Davis has already ordered a pearl white Lexus GS 400, equipped with a DVD player, two TVs in the head rest, Sony PlayStation, hidden camera (so he can record people up to two miles behind him) and 20-inch custom wheels.

    Some car. It'll be waiting for Davis in Los Angeles, in time for his party next Tuesday, another celebration of his basketball graduation.

    How fast a kid's world can change.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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