Last night I had a dream centered around what will soon be reality. Well, somewhat. It’s June and I’m sitting in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center among the fans, fellow media members and the one-and-done’s every NBA GM is drooling over. All of sudden the crowd erupts and in my eerily accurate dream, current NBA commissioner David Stern’s successor, Adam Silver comes out to bellowing boo’s that signal his acceptance. Then Silver says the following:
“With the first pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Toronto Raptors select… Andrew Wiggins from Florida A&M University.”
The FAMU reference was faint in my dream, as any college alma mater is when draft picks are announced in real life. But it resonated enough that I woke up thinking what if Andrew Wiggins, the unanimous number one NBA prospect, playing for a Historically Black College instead of Kansas was more than a dream?
We’ve long ago let go of the notion that players on the level of Wiggins, or Kentucky’s Julius Randle or Duke’s Jabari Parker compete collegiately on the court to receive a free education. They’re mini-celebrities who get wooed by colleges and sneaker companies alike from the time they’re 15-years-old (or younger) until they sign one year contracts at big schools like North Carolina and UCLA. What if one “one-and-done” prospect decided to shake up the machine and force NBA scouts, kick company reps and T.V. networks to pay attention to the MEAC/SWAC for a season. And I do mean force.
We don’t know for sure just how good any of them will be on the pro level, but right now they have the upper hand because of the word amateur evaluators love: potential. The freshmen deemed lottery picks in this years draft have it by the boat load and that’s what makes them so appealing. How else could you explain the rumor that adidas would be willing to offer Wiggins an $180 million shoe deal once his Kansas campaign is over? Or the huge ratings ESPN received last week for their Champions Classic held in Chicago last week that showcased the freshmen big three? Everyone wants, and will eventually get, a piece of what these players have to offer.
Athletes are always in position of the public eye because of their visibility. This is especially true of basketball players because they’re faces aren’t covered like their football counterparts and they play a sport that is now more global than ever before. However, the modern day athlete seldom chooses to use that platform for more than anything but pumping products. Cashing in and conforming are two different things, yet I can’t recall the last time a group of African-American athletes used their influence (publicly) to challenge the status quo.
Actually, that’s a lie. I remember it vividly. In 2008, several NBA players, including the two biggest at the time, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, were prepared to use the summer Olympic games in China to speak out against the host country’s funding of the genocide in Darfur. The pride and astonishment at seeing MY heroes take a social stance on a global issue, instead of simply suggesting I indulge in whatever new item some company paid them to convince me I need in order to be down, was like a breath of fresh air. Not since the days of John Carlos’ and Tommie Smith’s gloved fists at the ’68 Olympics or the refusal of Mohamed Ali, to whom all athletes claim reverence, to fight in the Vietnam War, which was backed by the likes of Jim Brown and Bill Russell, had African-American athletes said something in this manner. But that breath was cut short when suddenly each player, in a seemingly scripted matter, decided preparing mentally for the (meek) competition was their only focus and bringing about awareness to the masses about the hundreds of thousands who faced underserved slaughter might be a distraction to the best team the United States had assembled since the ’92 Dream Team.
Let’s be clear: this isn’t an opus to knock LeBron, Kobe or any other super star athlete down for their choices. Nor is it to place the burden’s of the world on the shoulders of 18 and 19-year-old kids for picking a college, a choices that should absolutely be based on where they feel comfortable. It is, however, a challenge to think differently and understand that the word influencer has a deeper meaning than what some hypebeast puts in his twitter profile to get free sneakers.
James undoubtedly understands this, because his infamous “Decision” to make the move to South Beach was heavily crafted after he, and current Miami Heat teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh shook up the NBA by taking over Miami together. Miami’s Big Three faced heat from the press and fans because they stood against the norm and paved their own way toward a championship. Their story was written by them, not some crapshoot luck or hope that another great player would come to their respective city to help them win. Now you can’t find a franchise in the league not trying to craft a big three of their own.
Look at that, power in numbers.
College kids understand this. Randle is a part of the newest, and arguably most talented, wave of top recruits who could all easily go to a school to be “the man,” but opt to buy into the idea that there’s strength in numbers. The best prospects go to a school like Kentucky together, compete for a national title and walk right up to that stage on draft night. Now, imagine what it would mean if this historic recruiting class that Kentucky coach John Calipari was able to secure deiced to collectively head to North Carolina A&T.
Better yet, what if it were Randle, Wiggins and Parker, the consensus leaders of this once in a decade class, that went to an HBCU as a package deal? What a statement it would make if in the coming years, a few players of their magnitude, which is what it would take to make this work, decided to bring their prominence, their instant enrollment boost, their continuing ties to big athletic brand sponsorships to a school that could use the funding way more than that of a BCS school. That would be historic and like the famed freshman five dubbed fabulous once did, they’d shock the world.