Mastering The Game

by August 19, 2008

by Cub Buenning

In addition to being one of the most intellectually eloquent analysts for both CBS and ESPN’s coverage of college basketball, Len Elmore is a practicing lawyer in Brooklyn, the former head of the Retired NBA Players Association, and quite possibly the most insightful individual in the game today.

After an outstanding career at the University of Maryland, which was draped in All-ACC and All-American accolades, the New York City-native was drafted with the 13th pick in the 1974 NBA Draft by the Washington Bullets. When his ten-year professional career came to a close (which included a two-year stint in the ABA) Elmore’s professional life and involvement with the game and the five boroughs was just getting started. Boston was just a brief stop along the way, as Elmore graduated with his law degree from Harvard in 1987.

He has been a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and just recently threw his full support behind the NYC-based Academics in Motion, an inter-city high school program designed to use sports as a vehicle for personal, academic, and cultural growth.

AIM’s Director, Jim Presby viewed Elmore’s own life story as the perfect positive example for a large section of our nation’s inner-city teenagers. Presby dropped something akin to “you could hear a pin drop” when describing the key note address given by Elmore at AIM’s annual banquet last spring.

The 56-year-old Elmore apologized through out our 35-minute talk for fear of being too long with his responses, but I assured him brevity was nothing that I desired. Believe me when I say, that Elmore is probably the most engaging, candid, and intelligent individual that I have come across in the basketball world.

I wouldn’t doubt that the prefix ‘Commissioner’ will front his name at some point in the near future.

SLAM: Give me your quick feelings on last year’s college season and how it culminated in the finals?

Len Elmore: I thought that last year was a very competitive year where you had ten to twelve teams that had a chance if they were able to go on a run and play consistently had a chance to win it. Of course, the best equipped team was (North) Carolina, but they went out and laid an egg in the semifinals against a Kansas team that had a scare against Davidson, but ultimately overcame that and played with confidence. On the other side, Memphis was very dominant, but it came down to a couple breaks. That’s usually what determines most NCAA championship games, the team gets the breaks and minimizes the mistakes and Kansas was able to do that. More than anything else, I thought it was a very competitive year and one that I certainly enjoyed, because that’s what I am about, seeing a lot of teams with the capability to win that thing.

SLAM: Can you give us an idea about your stint as the president of the Retired-NBA Players Association.

LE: I still love the organization; I love what they stand for, which was crystallized during my tenure, helping our own while helping others, community responsibility in a global sense. We looked to align ourselves with charities that have the same mission as ours, helping as far as health, children, and education issues. I think the visibility of former NBA players works because the popularity of the game remains high, particularly internationally.

SLAM: Were these issues a bit of a springboard into how you got involved with Academics in Motion?

LE: I heard about it through my nephew, who had gone through a relatively tough life. Through him, his teachers and his Development Coach (AIM coach that is placed in schools to help structure the athlete’s academic life in a way that prepares them for moving forward towards college) was how I was introduced.

I did a little research and saw that it was pretty much aligned with my philosophy as it concerns to young men and women, particularly young men and women of color. They have recognized that sports are a way to reach kids in the development stages. It gives them focus and also gives them a medium to teach life skills. DuBois once said, ‘The mission of education is not just to teach one work skills,’ I am paraphrasing here, ‘but also to teach life skills.’ Learning things like commitment, leadership, the ability to solve problems, good judgment, and things like that. Sports transcend into life and that’s what these kids need.

They need more than just the equivalent of x’s and o’s—testing skills, skills for school, –they need life skills. You look at most of our major cities; the drop out rate exceeds the graduation rate. With a program like this, they have already proven that they can get over 95% of the athletes involved to meet the academic eligibility requirements and that three out of four graduated and went on to enroll in college.

SLAM: How to you stand on the one-and-done rule for college to the NBA?

LE: I think it is better than before when you could just leave high school and go right to the pros, but I think now what we are seeing is guys are just marking time for one year so they can jump. Here is my issue. My issue here is not with the prodigies, as far back as KG, Kobe, and LeBron, all the guys that were successful; I don’t have a problem with that. My issue is with the thousands and thousands of kids that think they are like that and ultimately don’t have the skill.

Originally with the one-and-done rule, I thought, ‘it’s not a bad idea,’ because once you get these kids into college, you can get these kids focused because most of them know they won’t get into the NBA if they aren’t eligible for that one year of college. The prodigies are going to be discovered after year one and they’ll go and they’ll go high in the draft. Now those thousands of others that think they are will be told that they need to go back and work for another year or two. Keep working on your game. As I like to joke, but I am dead serious about, pretty soon after three or four years, somebody just might get an education, imagine that!

Now, I am getting to the point with this idea of leaving high school and going to Europe. If we are going to take it to that extreme, if we have forces that are battling my philosophy (the American college route) then I think the NBA and the union would be better served to legislate just three years, period. I think the high school baseball rule as it pertains to basketball is a huge mistake. The reason is because, disproportionately, we are talking about the impact on young kids of color, and I think we need some paternalism because that’s what many of them lack. There are so many guys that haven’t developed enough skills on a foundational base upon which to build to be successful in the NBA. There are so many guys coming in after a year and they play and then they languish. Yeah, they make some money, there is no denying that. But, have they maximized their potential? And that to me is the operative phrase, ‘Maximize your potential.’

I believe now that they should just go to three years (minimum) or leave after high school and go to Europe like Sonny Vacarro is beckoning all these kids to do. The problem with that is that it will eventually bottleneck. So many kids are going to think they are going to get to Europe and there won’t be many opportunities left. Now they won’t be left with any other choice but to pass the clearing house, to get enrolled in school, remain eligible and that is what this is really all about. They need that paternal guidance, they need that kind of tough love, and again, it’s not the prodigies. They are going to make their money, because they are one in a million, it’s the other 999,999 kids that I hope will do all they can to achieve the requirements necessary to get into college.

SLAM: Do you see the Brandon Jennings as the start of this trend?

LE: I think it is a trend that will eventually bottleneck. I think Jennings is in for a rude awakening over there. You look at the Olympics right now and you look at the quality of play. You wonder if a high school player is going to compete. Look at the international teams and the quality of play. And he’ll be playing against men. Maybe not of the level of NBA players, but certainly guys that are going to test him.

Now you are talking about cultural differences, the need for maturity, it’s going to be a struggle. Only special young men can do it, and that’s not to say that those that can’t do it won’t ultimately be special or are some how flawed. No, they are just young men. It’s a difficult adjustment for guys that were seniors in college to go over there. But do I see it as a trend in the short term? Probably. In the long term, I think it ultimately backfires. But there are a lot of people out there who could care less because they are making money off of these kids. Whether it’s acting as agents or go-betweens between the teams over there and the kids here, it’s just another way to make money for those who choose to exploit these young men.