DOTTED AS IT WAS by people who can't vote, drink, or get decent rates on car insurance, and by other people from places like Kiev and Athens where they nail backboards to the sides of dachas and the playgrounds are on cobblestone, the reverberations from the NBA Draft held this past Wednesday are all about the league's emerging identity, uh, situation.
The face of the league is changing. In the draft's first round two of the first four players selected were college freshmen and six of the first nine were either freshmen or sophomores. Two high school teenagers were among the first 17 players taken and five of the 29 first-rounders were foreigners. Greece, with three, had more players taken in the first round than the ACC, with two.College seniors - once the draft's backbone - made up barely more than a third of the opening round. The first senior didn't go until No. 8, and of the 11 seniors taken, John Wallace of Syracuse, the 6-foot-8 forward who stayed in college an extra year to improve his game and led his team to the Final Four, wound up going a distant 18th - after both of the high school kids.
Forget BYU. In today's NBA, Shawn Bradley would have skipped Emery High School.
One of the draftees, Pennsylvania prep star Kobe Bryant, 17, is exactly half the age of Michael Jordan. When Kobe was born, Gary Payton was in the fifth grade, John Stockton was a senior in high school and Robert Parish had finished his third season in the NBA. This winter, if Parish stays around, all these guys will be able to order pizza together.
Bryant just didn't want to wait around as long as Stephon Marbury, the New York City guard who spent his first year out of high school at Georgia Tech. After he was the fourth player taken on Wednesday, Marbury choked up so completely at the announcement that he couldn't proceed with a television interview. All he could do was whisper, "I've waited 20 years - 20 long years!"
All those days of biding his time through infancy, adolescence, the teenage days, the battles with acne, learning how to drive a stick . . . finally . . . over.
Predrag Stojakovic's long wait - longer than Bryant's but not quite as long as Marbury's - ended Wednesday as well. Stojakovic, with a reputation as the best of the young Europeans, is a product of the hardcourts of Greece. He's 18 and he's paid his dues: He can now fly alone on an airplane and doesn't need a representative of the airline checking him off at the other end.
For these first-rounders and others, the pull of the NBA was stronger than the pull of any other orbit, especially one that involved beginning algebra and a language requirement - or, for that matter, play without pay. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a 7-foot-2 player from Lithuania, could have been a member of the Lithuanian Olympic Team, but that would have meant staying home the past month and a half and going through training camp. Instead, he came to America and during May and June attended all the pre-draft workouts he could find, where his height was verified and his stock rose accordingly. He went to Cleveland as the 20th pick. He said his "boyhood dream came true" - and while he was still a boy!
Such a giddiness was everywhere this week in the wake of what amounted to the youngest and most cosmopolitan draft in NBA history. What will be interesting next is to see how long the giddiness lasts once the new guys, who will make up about 15 percent of the league this coming season, merge with the established guys - guys old enough to be their, well, take your pick - father, uncle, stock broker, probation officer.
The transition involved just might include the basketball equivalent to the kind of condescension that baseball player Jason Kendall, a young catcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates, experienced earlier this season.
Kendall, 21, is a Pirate rookie who recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of a conversation he had during a game between himself and Pirate pitcher Danny Darwin, who is 40.
"It was a key situation in the game," Kendall said. "I thought about what he was going to throw. I said, `What's up? Fastball or slider?' And he said, `I don't know, kid, but you've got 60 feet to think about it. Now get out of here."
Darwin smiled as the kid left. Twenty years he'd waited to do that - 20 long years!