COMMENTARY : Stay, Just a Little Bit Longer

WASHINGTON POST

Many thanks to John Thompson for putting the issue of when Allen Iverson will play in the NBA on the front page of the sports section.

Now we all know that Iverson will go pro when Thompson tells him to.

"If Allen Iverson leaves, be assured it'll be because I told him to go," Thompson said the other day.

At least Iverson will go to the NBA.

Other Georgetown players have been told to go to the French Foreign Legion.

Apparently, part of Thompson's motivation to discourse about Iverson's future was a recent mention in The Washington Post prior to Georgetown's final regular-season game last Saturday. Thompson was miffed at reading the line: "This will be the last home game for seniors Othella Harrington and Jerome Williams -- and perhaps for sophomore Allen Iverson, a potential NBA lottery pick who will have some serious choices to make about his future after this season."

Following the Villanova game Thompson made a point of saying he "resents" speculative references about Iverson's future plan; Thompson says they "solicit" Iverson to leave school. A few days later Thompson came out with The State of the Iverson message: "Allen's not going anywhere unless I tell him it's time to go."

I am invariably amused at Thompson's instinct to villainize the media in moments like this -- to make it seem as if nobody would be sniffing around Iverson, but for a throwaway line in the 13th paragraph of a story. From the moment Iverson stepped on the Georgetown campus anybody with a lick of basketball sense has asked the same thing: How long will he stay?

A few years ago the same question was asked of Chris Webber at Michigan, Anfernee Hardaway at Memphis and Shawn Bradley at BYU. And it is being asked now of freshman Stephon Marbury at Georgia Tech and junior Keith Van Horn at Utah.

I can see a man with Thompson's sense and sensibility wondering if this speculation about Iverson wasn't a bit selective. Nobody ever asked whether the great Duke players, such as Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill, would leave early; people took it for granted that Duke kids stayed four years. So why ask it now with Iverson? Georgetown players have always stayed four years, even the greatest ones, such as Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning.

The difference is the current climate. The bar was raised last year when Joe Smith, Jerry Stackhouse, Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace left school for the NBA after their sophomore seasons; they were the first four players drafted -- and a high-school kid was fifth.

With that in mind, now you ask "How long is he staying?" of everybody. (We'll see if the rookie salary cap dissuades underclassmen from coming out. With lower salaries mandated the first few years, it may encourage players to jump to the NBA even quicker, to burn off the first contract and hit the big money.)

Of course a lot of this hubbub about Iverson is just Thompson being Thompson; he was born under the sign of Contrarius. There have been times when, much to Thompson's surprise, I have agreed with him on a particular issue, and he has said he has been tempted to reconsider and take the other side!

Thompson knows perfectly well Iverson will make up his own mind when to leave; one of the benefits of a sound Georgetown education is the confidence and clarity to make a well-reasoned decision about one's own life. The mischievous Thompson probably brought this up on the eve of the Big East tournament to take the focus off Iverson and put it on his own broad back. Now who will dare ask Iverson about his future, and risk the wrath of John?

Like Bobby Knight, Thompson is a control freak. He hates it when you speak to his players. He wants to speak for his players. He wants to tell everyone what to do. Heck, he wants to write this column.

A small, private, Catholic university like Georgetown is the perfect place for a man such as Thompson. He can circle the wagons and make everyone outside the walls the enemy. Though Thompson has often said he is a coach, and not his players' father, everything he does indicates he sees himself as a father figure. It works for Knight, albeit in a more-tempestuous manner. And it works for Thompson. Players who can't tolerate the biosphere are encouraged to leave; Knight and Thompson have seen many transfer. Those who remain stay loyal for a lifetime.

But this is beside the point. The point is when will Iverson go pro? Make no mistake, he can go now and be drafted among the top five picks. The Bullets would have picked him at No. 4 last year.

The jury is still out about the wisdom of going to the NBA after two years of college. We must leave aside this year's rookies because it's too soon to tell. But two years was enough for Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. It seems to have been enough for Jason Kidd.

But players such as John Williams, Ennis Whatley and Rex Chapman might have benefited from another year in college. The success rate seems to be higher for players who spend three years in college. We can list Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, James Worthy, Clyde Drexler, Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway in that group. No great player ever lost money staying a third year.

Emotionally and physically, the longer you can stay in school the better your chances of a smooth transition to the NBA. From a physical standpoint the NBA game is so much quicker, and takes so much more strength to play; plus, it's 80 games, not 30.

Iverson is slightly built. Not that in another year Iverson will look like Shawn Kemp, but you can't underestimate what a grind the NBA is on young bones. Forgive me for being a pop psychologist, but it may also behoove Iverson to stay in the nurturing environment of Georgetown for a while. He has had a rougher adolescence than most -- having been in prison. At Georgetown there is lots of support, lots of cushions to land on. In the pros, you're on your own. It's a harsher world, and your coach won't shut the locker-room door and make the world go away.

So if I were Iverson, I'd sign on for a third year at Georgetown.

Um, if it's okay with John.

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