Since he was 12 and could dribble a basketball behind his back, John Taylor has been labeled one of those "can't-miss" athletes by the dozens of area junior and senior high school coaches bidding for his services.
Taylor, a real person, but a fictious name, fulfilled that great promise and was selected All-Metropolitan and All-America his junior and senior years.
The college coaches came flocking around and John Taylor picked a school.
On the first day of registration, Taylor tried to find his new coach. But he had a problem. He couldn't read the signs in the halls or even the map in the campus directory that would have led him to the athletic department.
Too embarrassed to ask where to go, he went back to the airport and flew home. He never returned to college.
What happened to Taylor happens every year to significant numbers of the nation's finest young athletes, black and white. The dream of professional stardom, spawned on the playground and neutured by hign school and college coaches, is often shattered when school days are over.
Far more often than not, there is no pro contract after college. In the meantime, the college and high school years have been devoted more to basketball than books.
And who wants to hire someone who can't read the handwriting on the wall?
The whole process was called a perversion of the educational system by James Michener in his book, Sports in America.
"The damage starts in junior high school and is compounded in high school," wrote Michener. "It is down-right shameful to contemplate the number of potentially gifted blacks whose entire education is perverted in junior high school, where overenthusiastic coaches start them in the downward course of athletic specialization, indifference to scholastic accomplishment and dedication to a dream that can never be realized.
"For a few years of adolescent glory, he surrenders his chance for a lifetime of meaningful participation in the community."
The exact degree to which academics are sacrificed for athletics in college is difficult to document. One of the best and most recent studies of the problem concerned black athletes in the Big 10. Statistics compiled at Michigan State University for that survey showed black athletes had a more difficult time getting through the university than the average MSU student while the white athlete's chances were much greater than the average.
Of 156 football and basketball players, wrestlers and trackmen who enrolled at MSU between 1960 and 1964, 113 were white and 43 black. Of that group, 83 per cent of the whites had graduated by November, 1970, the survey found. Only 46.3 per cent of the blacks got diplomas in that period.
The MSU data also showed that it took the blacks 1.4 more terms to finish school than it did whites.
The primary reason for the disparity, according to the Big 10 report, was that coaches, teachers and students did not expect academic success from the black athletes.
In a survey conducted in 1974 in pro basketball, 71 of 200 players in the NBA had not earned their college degrees. In the old ABA, 42 of 104 players had not graduated.
The NEL does not have precise figures, but a league spokesman said approximately 35 per cent of the players do not have college degrees.
One of the landmark cases of academic short-coming of black athletes was recalled by Michener.
It involved members of the 1966 NCAA championship basketball team at Texas-El Paso.
To maintain their eligibility, they were urged to take easy courses that enabled them to get passing grades but which did not count in their major study toward a degree.
Over the last 10 years, because of the publicity generated by that school and several others, black educators say the situation has improved somewhat, but not enough. And in high schools, they say, it's getting worse.
"Kids are still coming out of high school and can't read beyond the fourth-grade level," said Roscoe C. Brown a professor of education and director of the Institute of Afro-American Affairs at New York University. "Education uses sports as an outlet for kids but doesn't go to the next step of using that interest as a catalyst for other learning activities. So many people think black kids can't learn so they give them a ball to tranquilize them and keep them happy rather than confronting the real issue - make schools better.
"For so many youngsters, school is so unrelated to their now life and their future life," Brown said.
Many educators, administrators and coaches are convinced that academic requirements for participating in high school athletics are too low.
In District schools, a student needs to pass only three one-credit subjects to be eligible each semester. For instance, he can pass history, math and science with Ds (next to failing) and fail physical education, English or any other subject on his schedule and still be eligible to play.
"Is it any wonder our kids can't pass a college board exam?" asked Frank Bolden, director of physical education in District schools. "That rule hardly inspires them to seek any kind of academic achievement. Until that's changed, many kids will do just enough to get by."
Academic requirements to maintain eligibility are no stricter elsewhere in the area. In Fairfax County, a student needs to pass four subjects the previous semester. D is passing.
In Montgomery County, an athlete cannot fail more than one course. He can get four Ds and an F and still remain eligible, however.
Prince George's County has no academic requirements at all, although the county will, next year, according to athletic director Jack Willard.
"Right now, all they've got to be is a bona fide, registered student attending classes," said Willard. "Of course, individual coaches can also set standards and many of them do. But under the county set-up, there are no eligibility rules."
"Once a kid is out of high school, the adjustment to being just another John Q. Citizen instead of the star he was in junior and senior high is unbearable," added Bolden. "And if he isn't academically prepared for college, he really feels like he is nobody.
"Once he returns home, the only thing for him is the streets and the peer group that once worshiped him. To remain a folk hero, he sometimes falls in with a bad group and ends up afoul of the law and eventually incarcerated."
Many area coaches do insist that their athletes pass each subject to be eligible. Theodore Roosevelt football coach Jim Tillerson is one of them.
"I keep a close check on the player's academic progress," he said. "Very few will make it to the pros, we know that.But I want each one of my seniors, if he wants to, to at least have the opportunity to go to college. That's why I stress good grades. Many of our kids just don't have any values or priorities. And in many cases, it's not their fault. A two-minute session with each kid can work wonders sometimes."
Probably the area's most ambitious - and formalized - student-athlete eligibility system is conducted at T. C. Williams High.
Athletes at the Alexandria school carry "eligibility cards" that must be signed each Thursday by the student's teachers. If the athlete's academic effort has been subpar, the teacher doesn't sign the card. If the teacher doesn't sign, the athlete doesn't play for a week.
The promises and dreams that go hand in hand with professional sports often are enough to convince the average athlete that he too can buck the odds and become a pro.
"There are hundreds of people who are advisers to these kids who have no idea what the athletic system is all about," said John Thompson, Georgetown University's basketball coach. "The only thing the kids know is they are getting all this recognition. Very few people can tell him how to deal with it."
The theme of Thompson's basketball program sits on a shelf in his office. It is a deflated basketball. "Once you're finished with basketball, then what?" Thompson asks his players.
"Our present education system is not prepared to deal with this problem, giving these kids false hope. After many of them fail to become pros, they think so little of themselves, they just about give up."
Thompson, an avid recruiter of area athletes, sends out a letter each year to area junior and senior high schools urging "each potential athlete to channel hsi academic efforts in a direction that will be beneficial to him and his future."
Still, by the time many youngsters are 15 years old and soaring above the rim, they also are several reading levels behind.
"It's unfortunate so many of our parents are too busy just trying to live that they neglect to give their children the basic foundations of learning to bring to school," said Mazaline Baird, a former teacher and now principal of Raymond Elementary School in Northwest Washington.
"Our teachers must spend so much time instructing the kids on manners, respect and other social needs. Before you know it, they are behind in subject matter. And in most cases, once you fail behind, you stay behind."
Adds another high school teacher:
"I've had many athletes in my English class who didn't know which end was up in a book. Many were failing, not because most of the time they never showed up.
"I must admit, I buckled under the insistence of coaches and even the assistant pricipal who asked me to just give the kid a D and he'll make it up later. How in the hell can he make up in a day what he missed the first 17 years of his life.
"I know I was wrong, but who wants to be known as the teacher who failed the star player? Even if I did it, the grade could have been changed. They do that, you know."
Several coaches concurred.
"I see what happened in the halls. A lot of ball players think they're different breed - that the school owes them something because they're players," said Mo Janigian, a former coach and athletic director who has been at Bell Vocational High the past 21 years.
"They don't go to class and the coaches take care of it. They go to teachers and ask if kids can make up tests or get extra work so they won't fail. I'm sure it happens all over the city."
Dave Brown, the grand old man of interhigh athletics, is another coach and advocate of the no-study, no-play philosophy.
"When I was coaching, if you didn't pass, you didn't play, I didn't care who you were," said the man who, for the past 32 years, has coached hundreds of young people, including Elgin Baylor at Spingarn High School.
"Public education is at the point now where you get lost in a hurry unless you get the right guidance or know what you want. Our kids are immature and need academic advice.
"Kids are good at what they want to learn. He can bank a pool ball five times before it goes in the pocket for a dime but he can't add five and five. We have hundreds of kids out here who didn't make it, for every Elgin or Dave (Bing) or Adrian Dantley or Austin Carr. They are on the playground right now and can do everything with a ball except eat it. They just don't know the odds are against them."
Paint Branch all-America Tracy Jackson, one of the most highly recruited athletes in the area, has been the beneficiary of sound advice.
"I got into ball so much in the ninth grade that I fell behind in my work but that quickly changed," said Jackson. "My parents made me study until it became something I did without forced to do it. In school, any coach [Hank Galotta] saw to it I was getting my studies. At home, my parents did.
"Sure, I'm thinking about the pros. But I'm aware of the odds of me not making it. I'm getting a degree and when I graduate, the day I know I won't be a pro I'll be ready to do something else. I'd like to stay in touch with sports, maybe journalism or radio-TV, but right now I'm not throwing all my hopes into pro ball."
Arthur Ashe, the pro tennis player, shed some light on the plight of the black youth chasing the "Impossible Dream in an open letter to black parents in an article published by the New York Times last month.
"While we are 60 per cent of the NBA, we are less than 4 per cent of the NFL, we are 11 per cent of brick-layers and carpenters, while we are 35 per cent of major league baseball players, we are less than 2 per cent of engineers.
"For every hour your son spends on the playground, let him spend two in the library.
"If a school or coach is indeed serious about educating the youth who has forgotten about the academic side of life, invite a bench-warmer or a player who didn't make it to the pros rather than the successes to talk to your class.
"Ask him does he sleep at night. Ask him whether he graduated or what he would do if he was disabled tomorrow. Ask him where his high school buddies are now."
Added Thompson of Georgetown: "I tell kids you can get $125 for two hours work being a basketball official and they look at me like I'm crazy. "They don't even know about these other options. They can be statisticians, public relations people or law-years in sports."
Dr. Brown, of NYU, a Dunbar High graduate, says the black community is partly to blame for black youths believing sports is the only way to achieve.
"We have to discipline ourselves and stress to our youth they can excel in other fields besides sports," he said. "But we can't depend on coaches to monitor the system because many of them have been the main beneficiaries. The trend now is for a high school coach to go right along with his star player to college and become an assistant or even the head basketball coach. So why shouldn't a coach make sure his ticket to fame stays eligible to play high school ball?"
Once in college, many play four years of ball without as much as getting close to a degree or learning enough about any one field to net a well respected job.
"Most kids run to a particular school with just playing ball in mind. They don't think about any academics," said Dr. Vincent Reed, superintendent of D.C. public schools. "There's nothing wrong with being a fine athlete as long as he doesn't forget the real reason he went to school. Everything's immediate to our kids. They can't see in the future."
Since many coaches are aware of the difficult adjustments to college, academically and socially, they occasionally steer their players forward junior colleges. Those two-year schools serve as vehicles to teach students how to study. They also help them adjust to life away for the inner city, a major change for those athletes who have never ventured far from the friendly confines of the neighborhood.
"Regardless of where a youth attends college, the door should always remain open in the high schools for counseling and guidance from his high school coach," added Reed, who holds a degree in physcial education and was a coach before going into administration.
"The student should always feel someone at home is still interested in him. After all, he is a product of our system."
Next: Athletes in trouble