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Going for It

The awkward relationship between pro sports and school athletics resurfaced recently when Marcus Camby of the University of Massachusetts, Allan Iverson of Georgetown University, and other less-publicized college stars chose the National Basketball Association draft over graduation.

They are upperclassmen, but they were joined this year by a number of sophomores and freshmen, and even by an outstanding high-school player, 18-year-old Kobe Bryant from Pennsylvania.

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A lot has been said, much of it negative, about these youthful decisions. Is the lure of big money eclipsing the value of an education for these young men and perhaps countless others? Are youngsters barely out of their teens, or still in them, capable of dealing with the high-pressure world of big-league sports? Is American education at fault for failing to hold these kids? And, on a pointedly pragmatic note, shouldn't basketball develop a minor league so that institutions of higher learning don't have to serve that purpose?

Such questions deserve careful thought. But they are probably not much on the minds of young athletes contemplating a jump to the pros. There's the drive to see if the talents they've been honing for years can stand the ultimate test. And, yes, there's the promise of a huge payoff, enough to take care of themselves and their families indefinitely.

The financial windfall eludes most college and high-school players who long for the NBA. Even with expansion teams, the pro basketball ranks can absorb only a relative handful of new prospects each year. But for players of Camby's or Iverson's quality, the prospects are good.

Moreover, what they and others are doing - interrupting their education to try out a career - is hardly uncommon. Thousands of young Americans do it each year, though their field may be acting, journalism, or software design, instead of sports.

True, athletics can be a very short career. But that may be an argument for trying it early. And the precedents are many in basketball and other sports. Wayne Gretzky and Mickey Mantle, for example, both turned pro before they reached 20.

The extraordinary talents destined for stardom are, however, rare exceptions. They prove the rule that for most young people, the student side of the "student-athlete" label will ultimately have far more value.

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