It's now painfully obvious that the new hip phrase among sports analysts is "impact player." Colleges and pros are desperately seeking impact players, ones who can immediately shape the destiny of their teams.
In baseball, if you could somehow pry Dwight Gooden loose from the Mets, you certainly would have yourself an impact player. In college football, this year's main impact player had to be Jamelle Holieway, the freshman quarterback who ran the wishbone to perfection at Oklahoma. In the NFL, you might select Kevin Mack, Cleveland's 1,000-yard rusher, a defector from the USFL. At draft time, you will hear that Bo Jackson is a sure-fire impact player.
Who's the No. 1 impact player in basketball? Is it Patrick Ewing, the first prize in the NBA lottery? Is it Pervis Ellison, Louisville's 6-10 freshman center?
For sheer and sudden impact, there is one basketball player miles above, and distinctly miles apart from, everybody else: that Dominican dandy, Tito Horford. He's widely regarded as the best young big-man prospect in college basketball. The trouble is, he can't seem to get into college.
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You want impact? Tito Horford has impact. Not necessarily positive impact, but undeniable impact. We're sure that at least one school, Houston, cheated to get him. The NCAA specifically forbade Horford from playing there -- not once but twice now, turning down Houston's recent appeal to sign him. After being barred from Houston, Horford enrolled at Louisiana State under circumstances that were not simply cloudy, but so socked in with fog that the airports were closed. Depending on whom you believe, Horford or Dale Brown -- how's that quinella? -- Tito either jumped or was pushed from LSU before playing even game one. Earlier this week Horford tried to enroll first at Kentucky, where he was told thanks but no thanks, we're already under investigation, and then at UCLA, where he also was given the bum's rush. Tito Horford, a million-dollar baby, is suddenly persona can't afforda.
Why don't they want him?
Just a wild guess: How about because the school that takes him is going to be studied closer than game films? Speaking realistically, only a spotlessly clean program can admit Horford now. And even then, that school has to weigh the deleterious public relations effect of making room for someone who would appear to not care a fig for actually being a student. It's obvious that Horford wants to go to college strictly to play basketball. He's not looking for a university as much as a trade school.
It's amusing how schools such as LSU, Kentucky and UCLA suddenly got righteous over Horford. My own opinion is that Horford is a victim of fashion rather than justice. In the wake of major scandals at Tulane and TCU, there's a religiosity sweeping the NCAA: Get clean and keep clean.
This, too, shall pass. Tito Horford simply was caught in the wrong time. Now, he's a convenient pariah. Had he come along five years ago or five years hence, he'd be in high cotton.
Horford is not without options. He can make lots of money playing overseas. He can play in the CBA; Michael Graham probably could give him the phone number to call. He can apply for the NBA draft. Apparently he prefers to play big-time college ball. I suppose when he exhausts the more suspicious places, eventually someone will take him in. Yesterday, Horford reportedly was interested in Miami (Fla.), Louisville and Baylor. Tomorrow it may be UDC, Radcliffe and West Guam.
It's hard not to feel sympathetic toward Horford, even if he does have his hand out. Although he's nominally an amateur, as a club player in the Dominican Republic, Horford has legally received living expenses for many years. And make no mistake, a dominant 7-footer will have a much higher standard of living than a 6-4 sub. All his competitive life, Horford was taught that you played ball for money. Why should he think that would change in an American college? Had it for Kenneth Davis, or the beneficiaries of the Kentucky handshake?
Horford's an easy target. For one thing, he's a foreign athlete, and there's increasing sentiment to curtail the importing of athletes. For another, Horford makes no pretense of being a full-time, four-year student. NCAA members can point to Horford and congratulate themselves on self-policing. But the problem isn't Tito Horford. Tito Horford is symptomatic of the pervasive greed that pollutes college sports from the top down. By passing Proposition 48, the NCAA enacted a culturally biased punitive strategy but didn't address the more pressing issues: revenue-sharing and freshman eligibility.
Colleges have sold their souls to television; they're in it for the money. True self-policing would reduce the incentives to cheat. Until the NCAA agrees to prohibit freshmen from playing Division I football and basketball, and until the NCAA agrees to equally divide the television booty, athletes will arrive on campus with their hands out, and coaches and boosters will be only too eager to fill 'em up.