After losing Buck Williams to the NBA two weeks ago, Lefty Driesell held a press conference to criticize the league for biting the hand that feeds it by raiding colleges for undergraduates players. The system, he said, should be reformed.
The system has been reformed. In the last 10 year since the NBA first began drafting undergraduates -- under court order -- the rules regarding undergraduate players who wish to have their names placed in the draft have changed drastically.
So, too, have the numbers. In 1976, the last year undergraduates were required to show financial hardship in order to be drafted, a total of 26 players applied for the draft. This year, five players applied.
There are two basic reasons for the precipitous drop: the failure rate of undergraduates -- of the 87 players who have entered the draft as undergraduates, only 23 still are in the NBA. Remember Johnny Neumann, David Brent, Skip Wise and Norm Cook? What's more, when a player now renounces his eligibility, there is no turning back. Until 1977, a player could put his name on the hardship list, then withdraw it any time up until draft day.
Still, there are abuses. The NCAA rule that stipulates that any player retaining an agent loses his eligibility is routinely ignored. The rule is virtually unenforceable because as long as nothing is signed between player and agent, the agent can say he is acting as a "friend."
The deadline for declaring eligibility is 45 days before the draft. Driesell thinks the date should be earlier so coaches who lose players can have a chance to recruit replacements.
Each year, as the deadline for declaring nears, furious negotiations take place. A year ago, Albert King turned down a multiyear contract offer from the Chicago Bulls. This year, offered a similar contract by the Detroit Pistons and New Jersey Nets, Williams made the move. So did Mark Aguirre of De Paul and Isiah Thomas of Indiana. They also are believed to have guarantees from NBA teams.
"I think everyone agrees that before a player makes a move as important as this one he should have as much information as possible," said Joey Meyer, assistant coach at De Paul and an unpaid, unofficial adviser to Aguirre the last two years. "I don't think a coach can help a kid in dealing with something like this the way a lawyer can.
"The best thing for everyone involved would be just to bring the thing out of the closet. That way, if the player wants to come back and consult with his coach, he can. As it is now, we don't want to know what the agents are telling them because, in effect, that makes us accessories to a crime."
North Carolina Coach Dean Smith, president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, concurred. "I think any young man making a decision like that should have the advice of counsel," Smith said. "I don't think it has to be an agent. It can be a family attorney or a longtime friend who genuinely has his best interests in mind. The players who have left school early and had problems are, for the most part, the ones who left without really knowing what they could get."
According to the NCAA, the minute anyone -- friend, relative or otherwise -- says anything to a pro team that can be construed as negotiation, the players loses his eligibility.
"As soon as a team mentions a figure and the player's representative mentions another figure, that's negotiating," said Hale McMenimin of the NCAA enforcement division. "But enforcing that is very difficult. Most times, it's almost impossible to establish that the lawyer has acted as an agent."
The notable exception to that rule was Jeff Ruland of Iona, who signed with an agent and was forced to declare himself eligible for the draft last year when his agreement with the agent became public. Ruland was taken on the second round by Golden Skate and traded to the Bullets. He played in Spain last year and may join the Bullets for the 1981-82 season.
If Williams had opted at the last minute to remain in college, he might have faced a more difficult problem, said David Berst, another member of the NCAA enforcement division. According to published reports on Williams' activities on the final day, attorney David Falk of Washington acted as an agent for Williams, Berst said. If the NCAA had learned of that after Williams chose to stay in school, he might have been declared ineligible for college play. He also would have been ineligible for the NBA draft, the deadline having passed.
Smith had one of the early hardship players, Bob McAdoo, in 1972. Following Smith's advice, McAdoo negotiated a clause in his contract that would give him a $50,000 bonus if he received his college degree by age 29. Now, Smith says, he would make a different recommendation.
"Bob never got the degree because it was three years away and that seemed a long way to go," Smith said. "If he had a clause that awarded him $10,000 for every course he passed with a C or better, he could have come back each summer knowing he could make $40,000. That would have been more incentive."
Smith has two players on his team, freshman Sam Perkins and sophomore James Worthy, who may find themselves under pressure to turn pro next season. He says that if either could get a guaranteed contract for a lot of money, he would probably encourage them to turn pro. In 1977, Smith encouraged Phil Ford to turn pro after his junior year.
"He was an all-America, the team had gone to the national final, he had received a lot of exposure," Smith said. "I knew he would come back to get a degree so I told him it might be a good time for him to go. But he said he had promised his parents he would get the degree first."
Many coaches despise the agents, viewing them as vultures. Driesell is a longtime friend of Washington attorney Donald Dell, whose firm represents Williams, Moses Malone and John Lucas.Dell has had access to the Maryland locker room for years.Lately, Drieselll has been saying he's not so sure that was a good idea.
"It hurts my program when I find out at the last minute that a Malone isn't going to enroll or a Williams isn't coming back for his senior year," Driesell said. "Of course, I've always said if a player can get big money and a guaranteed contract, he should go.
"But the agents are working on the kids now. They aren't just advising them; they're telling them they should go. Remember, they don't get no money if the kid stays in school. Naturally, they're going to influence the player to go out. That's the only way they get paid."
The agents say that isn't so. "In most cases, we don't like to deal with undergraduates at all," said Falk, a member of the Dell firm and the man who negotiated Williams' contract. "Generally, we encourage the athletes to finish college because we know they can only get the pro money for so many years.
"But for some players, the junior year or, in a rare case, the sophomore year, is when you are in your best bargaining position. If the player can get the kind of contract Buck can get, he has to seriously consider it because you never know what the situation is going to be the next year."
Albert King is a prime example. As a junior, he was ACC player of the year and a first-team all-America. The Chicago Bulls were willing to pay him $350,000 a year for four years, but King stayed in school.
Last season, his scoring average and shooting percentage dropped, the Terps went from first to fourth in the ACC and Kind didn't even make first-team all-conference. He may not even be among the first 10 players chosen. Last year, he would have been fourth. NBA sources say he may have cost himself as much as $500,000 by remaining in school.
"That's the danger if you stay," Bullet General Manager Bob Ferry said. "Just because the money is there one year doesn't necessarily mean it will be there the next year."
Players now want to know exactly what they're worth. And, they want to see it in writing. Many players who turned pro early in past years have been stunned to find out that their market value isn't very high.
"There isn't a player who is starting for a major-college team who isn't sure that he's one of the guys who can make it," Georgetown Coach John Thompson said. "The thing we have to do as coaches is help them find out exactly what they're worth . . . You need legal advice.
"The hardest thing, though, is trying to gauge whether the kid is ready mentally, psychologically for the NBA. It's a known fact that you can lose $5 million in about a minute if you are immature or not ready for the lifestyle you're forced to adapte to."
Thompson is about to face many of those questions.When 7-foot Patrick Ewing enrolls as a Georgetown freshman this year, he will be watched closely by the pros from the begining.
Virginia Coach Terry Holland has gone through that the last two springs with Ralph Sampson. First, there was the circus-like atmosphere of the Red Auerbach Show, the Boston Celtics' president all but demanding that Sampson turn pro so the Celtics could draft him.
The NBA took steps to keep that from happening this year by pushing back the date of the coin flip until after the date for renouncing eligibility. bThat way, no one team can pressure a player like Sampson because no one team is guaranteed of having his draft rights.
"The thing to keep in mind is that this draft is not a voluntary thing," NBA Deputy Commissioner Simon Gourdine said. "We draft undergraduates because the courts have ordered us to do so. We don't want our teams doing anything that will disturb the environment on college campuses.
"But under the court rulings, we can't do anything that would be viewed as restricting the athletes. We want a good relationship with the colleges. But, frankly, in the long run, we fear the courts more than we fear the colleges when we sit down to talk about how to handle the situation."
This year, Holland and Sampson asked the two teams flipping for the first pick, Detroit and Dallas, to come to Charlottesville once, make their pitch, and leave. No lawyer was present at the meetings. Many coaches point to Holland's handling of the situation as ideal. And, by holding off announcing his decision until the last minute, Sampson prevented the pros from coming back with a counter-offer. l
NBA officials say they would like to see all players remain in college for four years. But, under a 1971 court ruling that came about as a result of Spencer Haywood's jump from Denver of the ABA to Seattle of the NBA, the league is requirfed to allow any player whose high school class has draft.
Initially, the NBA required the players show financial hardship. But in 1976, another court case involving Oscar Robertson forced that rule to be changed to allow any undergraduate to enter the draft simply by renouncing his eligibility.
In the early years of the hardship draft, players jumped frequently. Malone's decision to skip college completely and sign with the ABA Utah Stars in 1974 led to similar decisions by Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby.
By for every Malone, Julius Erving and Robert McAdoo, there was a Cyril Baptiste, a Joe Hammond, an Eddie Owens, a Cliff Pondexter. Players found that while they might have been ready physically, they were not ready mentally or emotionally for the NBA.
"Don't forget that when these negotiations are going on, the player is under extreme pressure," said Phoenix General Manager Jerry Colangeo. "He's being influenced by his agent, by his family, which sees an opportunity to live a lot more comforably, and by the people around him at school. Personally, I would encourage all these kids to stay in school."
Many college coaches, Drisell included, maintain that the NBA hurts itself by taking players out of the college ranks before they have a chance to peak, before they receive maximum publicity.
"That does happen," said Bob Ferry. "I think in the case of someone like Buck Williams, he might be more of a draw if he stayed at Maryland another season and had a big year. One of the resons you want guys in college four years is to give their publicity value a chance to peak.
"But in the case of a guy like Sampson, he's at his peak now. Whatever year he comes out, there's going to be tremedous interest in him."
Ferry also said he sees nothing wrong with pro teams negotiating with undergraduates. "I don't think it's immoral," he said. "Knowing more is what's best for the kid. I'm like everone else: I'll do anything to win that 's not immoral."
NBA teams want the best players and they want them as soon as possible. The colleges want their players to stick around four years because they have an investment in them. A late-April decision to leave can create recruiting chaos because it is such a late date and because the best players sell tickets. The agents want the best deal possible for their players.
"The day I decided was the longest day of my whole life," Buck Williams said. "I knew no matter what I did, I would have questions and so would the people I care about most."
In an ideal world, those questions would not exist. Players would go to college for four years, graduate and choose a profession. That doesn't happen.
"It starts when the players are in high school and they're being recruited," Colangelo said. "The coaches set the tone then -- some by offering them money, most by making it clear that they will, in effect, be paid in college.
"By the time the good ones are 17, they think of basketball as something they will get paid for, not something that will further their education. As long as that goes on, I think it's kind of hypocritical to say we're biting the hand that feeds us."
It is unlikely that the NCAA will ever pass a rule endorsing or even allowing student-athletes to have agents. That means the clandestine negotiations will go on. Coaches with outstanding players will be left wondering what is going on as the deadline approaches and they find it more and more difficult to get in touch with the player to learn what he is thinking.
"Obviously we can't and won't try to tell the colleges what to do," Gourdien said. "But the rule regarding agents is a tough one. It may be like prohibition -- unenforceable."
There is one difference between the negotiations and the anguish connected with the undergraduate draft and prohibition: the undergraduate draft isn't going to go away.