Lefty Driesell, Maryland basketball coach, declared yesterday that the National Basketball Association "is biting the hand that feeds it" by signing college basketball players before their college eligibility has expired.
Reacting angrily to the decision of his standout center, Buck Williams, to forgo his final year at Maryland to play professionally, Driesell asserted that the "NBA is making a mistake by pulling guys out of college early."
Over the long haul, he said, professional basketball will suffer most from the practice. "The greedy usually destroy themselves. They can't even get their playoffs on national television," Driesell said at a news conference at Cole Field House.
At one point the NBA and the colleges had an agreement that no college basketball player would be signed until his four years of eligibility had expired and either he or his class had graduated.
But that rule was struck down in a 1971 lawsuit involving Spencer Haywood, a University of Detroit and Olympic basketball star who signed with the Denver Rockets of the old American Basketball Association after two years of college, then jumped to the Seattle SuperSonics of the NBA.
The NBA sued to bar Haywood from playing, citing the four-year rule, but the courts agreed with Haywood's argument that the measure was a violation of federal antitrust laws.
At his news conference, Driesell said, "I'm disappointed, but I can't say that I blame Buck. As soon as he signs, he's going to be a millionaire. sI wish him luck in the NBA."
Driesell admitted, "Up until last week, I was positive he'd be back. Buck hadn't indicated until five or six days before the deadline that he'd go.
"Then Bob Ferry (Bullet general manager) came out and said that Buck might go as high as second in the draft. So, he (Buck) started checking out the market -- and got a million dollars."
[The Associated Press reported that before the conference Driesell said, "I think he may have been talked into it a little by his attorneys."]
Driesell, when contacted at home last night, refused to confirm or elaborate on that statement. David Falk, the attorney that handled the negotiations for Donald Dell's law firm, could not be reached for comment.
In Kansas City, David Berst, director of enforcement for the NCAA, said that, according to a report in Monday's edition of The Washington Post outlining the chronology surrounding Williams' decision, the player would be deemed to have had an agent and therefore would have lost his final year of eligibility anyway. But, Berst said, "You don't know what facts (we) would be aware of today if he hadn't decided to come out (and apply for the undergraduate draft)."
Noting that three of college basketball's top players are turning professional next year, Driesell said their defection hurts college basketball.
"I think it's unfortunate that college basketball will be without Buck Williams, Mark Aguirre (De Paul) and Isiah Thomas (Indiana)," Driesell said. "I don't think those guys are going to go into the NBA and turn the NBA around. No way those guys are going to have an impact on gate receipts or televison. Those players would be bigger attractions for the NBA with one more year of college. If Moses Malone had gone to college for four years he might be drawing more than he is now."
Williams reached his decision to turn pro late Saturday night, only minutes before the midnight deadline, when he won guarantees from the Detroit Pistons and the New Jersey Nets of a contract totaling $1.5 million over the next four years as one of the first three players to be chosen in the June 9 NBA draft.
Decisions by Ralph Sampson of Virginia, Dominique Wilkins of Georgia and Sam Bowie of Kentucky to forgo the pros next year, moved up Williams' standing in the draft lineup, increasing his bargaining leverage. Washington Bullet Coach Gene Shue said yesterday that Indiana's Thomas and Williams could easily be the first two picks.
Driesell, who had counted on Williams as the centerpiece of his season next year, said the timing of Williams' decision makes it difficult to recruit a replacement. "I would have liked to have known about it when the season ended," he said.
Nevertheless, said Driesell, the Terrapins will have a strong basketball team next year. "Any time you've got a program that's built around one guy, then you're in trouble," he said.