Monday April 27th, 2009

Six months ago, a runner for a sports agency based on the East Coast called James Tyler, the father of 6-foot-11 high school basketball star Jeremy Tyler, with an offer to "take the pressure off" of the Tyler family.

The Tylers would incur a lot of expenses when Jeremy ultimately enrolled at Louisville, James Tyler recalls the runner saying, and he offered to pay for flights, hotels and more. James declined the offer in a later phone call, to which the runner allegedly countered with a more direct overture:

"James, name your price?"

Around the same time, coaches at Louisville and other schools began reviewing Jeremy's transcripts. They looked for ways to get him into college next fall, a full year ahead of schedule for a student in the class of 2010. "They went through his grades and wanted to help set up a program with online courses and other things," James Tyler said. "These schools have their ways of getting things done. They were saying, 'Let's see how we can get him a year early.'" (Louisville declined to comment, citing NCAA recruiting rules.)

The overtures by the agent and the push by the colleges to get Tyler a year early need to be considered when passing judgment on Jeremy's decision to forego his senior season at San Diego High and play professionally in Europe. The announcement has shaken basketball at every level, and depending on how you look at it, Tyler is either a pioneer, representative of the decline of high school and college basketball or a pawn. ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale told the San Diego Union-Tribune, "I'm really frustrated and very disappointed. When are kids going to realize that being a kid is an important part of life? Some of them want that instant gratification and want to chase that dream of being a pro so quickly they forget about the most important years of their life."

Vitale and others who constantly bemoan the decisions made by kids like Tyler, who as a junior averaged 28.7 points a game, often seem as if they don't really understand the landscape of basketball today. Agents and their runners began courting Tyler more than two years ago, James Tyler says, and the pressure from the shoe companies has been equally intense.

The most important years of Jeremy Tyler's life have been infiltrated by people with little regard for letting him being a kid. Thus, his decision to turn pro so early is merely a way of taking control of the situation.

Another way of viewing his choice is this: rather than play along with the charade that he is just like any other kid for another 24 months, Tyler is fulfilling the destiny of a player born so big and athletically gifted. His AAU coach, Gary Franklin, said the most common refrain heard from people seeing Jeremy play for the first time is: "He's a pro." In other words, he was meant to be a professional basketball player. If his following of a path he was meant to take is incongruent with how Vitale and other protectors of the amateur game see the world, we need to ask who they are looking out for because it is certainly not Tyler and his family.

"What good does it do him to play another year of high school?" James Tyler said. "Let him go now to a place where he can grow as a player. I'm not saying this move is for everyone, but when it is a special case like it is with Jeremy, a kid who is nearly 7 feet tall and 260 pounds, it is a no brainer."

Critics will no doubt point to Sonny Vaccaro's involvement as proof that he is being used. To be sure, Vaccaro is on a quest. Since NBA commissioner David Stern placed an age minimum on players entering the 2006 draft, Vaccaro has looked for ways the best players could get around spending a year in college, which he considers a waste of time in terms of basketball development and potentially damaging to their professional prospects. He first investigated opening an academy for the best high school players, something along the lines of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and then looked into sending players to Europe. He helped Arizona recruit Brandon Jennings earn a contract with a team in Italy last fall and pushed Tyler to do the same even a year earlier in his career.

Jennings' move appears to have worked (he is projected as first-round pick in the June draft), but the move with Tyler is even more vital to Vaccaro's goals, and he knows it. Jennings didn't appear to have another option since he hadn't qualified academically to play as a college freshman, but Tyler was expected gain his eligibility to play for Louisville. By pushing Tyler to Europe, Vaccaro is taking a special talent away from the NCAA, his long-time nemesis, and creating a road map for others. He says it might be his most important contribution to the sport -- no small statement considering he convinced Nike to sign Michael Jordan -- because it could force sweeping changes.

In Vaccaro's perfect world, Tyler's move would force the NBA to rethink its age minimum, allowing the best players to again go straight from high school to the NBA. Or perhaps the NBA would create a developmental academy where the top high school players could attend, something along the lines of what IMG has done with the residency soccer program. The best talents would live and go to school at the academy but still retain their amateur status. Some would then migrate to the NBA while others would go on to college.

"I'm not saying take away the college option for kids," said Vaccaro. "That should be an option and going to the NBA should also be an option. Also, the NBA and the NCAA have talked about how all the middlemen, the agents and the runners and the shoe company people, ruin the game. Well, putting all the best kids under one roof, giving them a good education and a good instruction, it would circumvent all of those people."

Vaccaro acknowledges that the biggest potentially nasty byproduct of Tyler's decision is that it gives a legion of sports agents new ammunition to seduce kids. They can now approach the parents of high school players -- and even middle school kids -- and promise buckets full of Euros from a team overseas. But Vaccaro, who has communicated with eight teams about Tyler, says that the demand for just any talented young player does not exist, which parents would quickly find out.

"These teams in Europe aren't in the business of growing players," he said. "They don't want to, as one team put it to me, start 'breeding' players. They are only going to sign kids that they truly believe can help them win right now, kids who are ready to be professionals, kids like Jeremy."

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