Boiling Point





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As the conversation begins to wander toward his favorite subject, Ben Braun's eyes light up.

The Cal men's basketball coach glances quickly around his office, but unsuccessful in his search, he settles to paraphrase what college hoops mean to him.

"I just finished (North Carolina coaching legend) Dean Smith's book, and do you know what's at the end of it?" Braun inquires. "He lists all his former players and what they're doing, whether they're in business somewhere, or coaching. He knows where every one of his former players is. To me, that's a program."

Sadly, that sort of concern for life after basketball is currently on the wane in the NCAA. Graduation rates have remained low over the last decade, just as the visibility and popularity of the sport have burgeoned.

The national four-year average for graduation rates in men's basketball stands at 43 percent, well below those of other collegiate sports.

Cal has fared even worse. The incoming freshman classes of 1989 through 1992 - the latest relevant data available - graduated at a rate of 25 percent, less than one-third of the student body average of 81 percent.

These numbers, along with rising fan concern for the future of the sport, have caused the NCAA to consider major changes to address the problem. It appears even that bureaucratic body may take action that could alter the relationship between academics and athletics in Division I basketball.

Showcase, Then No-show

The NCAA's reaction to dropping graduation rates has come as much as a result of a number of high-profile cases as the numbers themselves.

Just last year, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski watched for the first time in his 20-year tenure a number of his players left school early for the NBA. The departure of junior Elton Brand, the National Player of the Year and leading scorer on the Blue Devils' 1999 NCAA Finals team, was no surprise. Nor was sophomore William Avery's. Freshman and top reserve Corey Maggette's jump to the pros was.

The trio's decision was viewed as symptomatic of an increasingly dire situation in college basketball. Since hardship rules - which mandated that a player prove hardship to jump to the pros before his junior year - were struck down in the 80s, top talent has often used the college forum to showcase their games for a year or two before they jump to the NBA and its accompanying riches.

"That's what happens sometimes around the country," says Braun, who points out that Jason Kidd and Shareef Abdur-Rahim each left Cal years early for the NBA last decade. "Players go to a program to showcase their skills."

But early departures alone don't explain the low rates. The NBA Draft consists of only two rounds of 29 selections apiece. In ‘99, just 15 of those picks had stayed in college less than four years.

So what is the major culprit in the state of college graduation rates? It is, in fact, professional leagues, but those that make their homes in Sioux Falls or Barcelona rather than New York or Los Angeles.

There has been an explosion in the popularity of basketball around the world in recent years. The CBA has been joined by leagues in Europe and Australia as havens for college basketball players who don't quite possess the skills to make the NBA, but never lose that dream.

"Really the NBA is not the problem, it's all these other leagues that have formed internationally," says Cal Athletic Director John Kasser. "We try to encourage them that it's important for them to get their degree, and how important it is after those few years you play. It's still hard when somebody calls, and (the player) says, ‘Hey, I'll go to Europe for a year or so. What do I have to lose?'"

There's also concern for the unpreparedness of student-athletes. Minimum NCAA test scores have been challenged in the courts over the past year on the basis of racial bias, and it appears likely that they will go the way of the sky hook.

Debating Hoop Law

All of these concerns led the NCAA to form a working group to review the state of college basketball graduation rates last summer. Last October, the group released a list of proposals to member institutions for comment.

Since then, a multitude of proposals and counter-proposals have been offered by different schools and conferences. But a couple have distanced themselves from the others and grabbed some extra attention.

The most striking proposal would tie the number of scholarships a men's basketball program receives to its four-year graduation rate. One version would allow 14 scholarships for rates of 75 percent and higher, 13 for rates between 33 and 74 percent, and 12 for rates below 33 percent.

But attention hasn't translated into broad-based support.

"I've seen a very mixed reaction to that proposal," says Steve Mallonee, the NCAA's Director of Member Services and working group staff liaison. "The working group thought it was a good proposition, but other people thought there was a better way to achieve that goal."

"The (Pac-10) schools were split (on the proposal), and there were more schools that had reservations about it than not," Pac-10 Assistant Commisioner for Public Relations Jim Muldoon adds. "One big concern was in the implementation of it. It's tied to single scale as opposed to the schools' individual graduation rates. It doesn't take into account whether the basketball team is doing better than the rest of the school in terms of graduation rates."

Another proposal that has received some serious attention involves improving the preparation of incoming basketball players. It would allow financial aid for the student-athletes to take classes the summer before they begin school.

"It would have important implications for any athletic program at Cal," says UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for University Relations Donald McQuade. "It allows students to make adjustments from secondary school to the university. This represents a milestone in the NCAA's willingness to take the academic obligations of a student-athlete seriously."

But the most serious challenge to any proposal that singles out a single sport would come from the courts.

"The question is can one treat basketball separately on that basis - what's the implication," says Cal Faculty Representive William Lester, who sits on the Pac-10 council. "The point here is the high number of African-American athletes in men's basketball. Some people are raising that issue."

The NCAA doesn't have a long time to resolve these issues. The Management Council will convene in April to review comment from member institutions and vote on adopting one or more of the proposals under consideration, according to Mallonee.

A Modest Solution

But Cal isn't likely to wait for the NCAA's ponderous bureaucracy to take action. The problems here are as serious, if not more so.

The basketball team's 25 percent four-year rate is reflective of more than the national trend. Although the Bears have had their fair share of players depart to the NBA - Kidd and Abdur-Rahim are obvious examples - the program's instability has contributed far more to its lackluster rates.

For the past three years, the program has been under NCAA probation for recruiting violations that occurred under former head coach Todd Bozeman's tenure. Cal was stamped with the dreaded "renegade program" mark in the eyes of potential recruits, and was banned from the postseason in 1998.

"What you saw was a program that was coming out of the seams," Braun says. "You didn't see the consistency."

Braun has moved to improve rates by not only promoting stability in the program, but improving his athletes' performance in the classroom. Last year, junior college transfer Carl Boyd left Cal after experiencing academic trouble, and Braun doesn't want a repeat of that situation.

He is particularly excited about a proposal that has been discussed at high levels in the university administration. It is designed to address the problem of players who are on track to graduate in the spring of their senior years, but end up spending that semester training to improve their chances of being selected in a professional draft.

According to Braun, this fact of life goes a long way toward explaining the low rates. His solution is to have players on track to graduate the previous fall, so they can concentrate on preparing for the drafts during the spring.

The formula for realizing this goal would include encouraging players to use the summer session to complete basic requirements. But Braun doesn't stop there.

"Let's say (the players) are off from Dec. 14 to Jan. 14," the coach says. "That's a month. We put in two hours of practice a day, which leaves a lot of hours. What if they take a class twice a week? That's what I think players should do. The idea is to keep players ahead of schedule."

But the logistics of this proposed "intersession," which would be offered between fall and spring semesters, are complicated. There have been some high-level talks, but implementing the program would require keeping a sufficient number faculty and students on campus during the holiday season, a tricky proposition in itself.

"The practicality of doing it would be a big concern," asserts Lester. "And would the NCAA view it as an extra benefit if other students weren't around?"

Whatever the fate of the intersession, Braun was probably on the right track to improve the education and graduation rates of his athletes when he waxed eloquent over Dean Smith's epilogue.

Any program obtaining the level of excellence and stability of Smith's North Carolina dynasties is highly unlikely in 21st-century college athletics and its pressures. Just ask Mike Krzyzewski.

But attacking the issue on an individual basis comes closer to the root of the problem than any theoretical proposal grinding its way through the NCAA bureaucracy. Ben Braun and those like him will prove far more important to the future of collegiate basketball than a Ford Explorer full of working groups. For players to be prepared for life after basketball - which ends after college for most athletes - coaches must shoulder the responsibility.

"We're trying to establish a program," Braun says. "Anybody can put a team on the floor. You build a program with consistency and consistent people, and that's what we're trying to do."

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