Huge Salaries, Huge Hopes, Long Odds


Every time an NBA star signed another impossibly huge contract this week, Dave Koch's job got tougher.

Koch directs 400 teenage athletes at USC's National Youth Sports Program, trying to instill not only athletic skill but also an appreciation of discipline, long-term planning and the need for education. You can't rely on the slim chance of a big pro contract, he tells them.

Then came the wave of unprecedented pro basketball contracts, so fast that it was hard for the boys to keep the names straight, hard for them to conceptualize the dollars: seven years, $56 million; five years, $50 million; seven years, $98 million. By the time Shaquille O'Neal signed with the Lakers for $120 million for seven years Thursday, almost a billion dollars in free-agent money had been thrown around the NBA.

And Dave Koch's athletes, youngsters whose bodies have yet to catch up with the size of their feet, fantasized yet more about getting their share, getting it fast, getting it all in one shot.

"I'm a baller," insisted David Santana, 13, stretching to show his full 5-foot, 11 1/2-inch frame and size 13 shoes. "I want to be a professional ballplayer too. I can do it."

O'Neal will make about 500 times as much as a Los Angeles public school teacher. What coaches like Koch tell kids like David is that the odds of emulating the lowest-paid pro, let alone Shaq, are overwhelmingly long. First, David will have to make his high school team. That will cut the chances of making the NBA down to about 10,000 to 1.

"Kids read about these one-in-a-million athletes getting mega-million-dollar salaries, and it's hard to convince them that it's all right to be one of the other 999,999 individuals working hard to make a decent living," Koch said.

Word of O'Neal's deal zipped through the USC camp as the teenagers moved through their organized schedule, from basketball and swimming to discussions about first aid and AIDS. They tried to imagine the sheer size of the contract.

"Los Angeles is going to have the best basketball team," said Shangameir Sutton, 15. Yes, he admitted, he too has a secret desire to be a pro. "They wouldn't have to pay that much for me."

Alan Hatcher, 13, has the same dream, but recognizes that education comes first. "You need the experience of college," said Alan, who plans to be a pediatrician. Fourteen-year-old Ronald Pennington, who is a head taller than Alan and constantly told he is an NBA natural, also demurs. "I'm not good at it," he said shyly. He thinks he'll be a veterinarian.

Hours later, a few miles away at a midnight basketball league game at Harvard Recreation Center in South-Central Los Angeles, the unfathomable millions were again the topic among basketball junkies. Only here the players were older, 17 to 34, chastened by life, aware their glory days were over, playing for fun.

Here there was a realization that the boys at USC had yet to grasp: Somebody was going to have to pay the bill for Shaq's payday, and that somebody was the loyalists. The Lakers had already announced that the cheapest ticket at the Forum would rise to $21 from $9.50.

"That makes it impossible for many families to go see a game," said Marlan Morton, 35, a former member of the Harlem Globetrotters who was playing in the night game. Still, he acknowledged, "This is business."

Midnight basketball has been popularized around the country as a way to draw young men in tough neighborhoods off the streets at the most dangerous hours. The league at the Harvard center, which includes the Los Angeles Clippers as a main sponsor, began seven years ago as a way to persuade gang members to stay off the street. At first, gang members were among the players, as the organizers had hoped. Today, the gangs no longer come, only the connoisseurs of hoops.

The players of the midnight league complained that the professional game is no longer a people's sport, that they were being squeezed out of seats by corporations and celebrities. They expressed disappointment in athletes who grew up on these same rough streets but disappeared as soon as the ink dried on their fat contracts. They shared their shame over athletes from O.J. Simpson to Michael Irvin, who seemed to get caught up in a lifestyle that brought disgrace on their families. They suggested that Kobe Bryant, the Lakers' 17-year-old basketball phenom, sent the wrong message when he skipped college and went directly to the NBA from high school.

"Education goes out the window," said one player.

For the pros, the young men complained, basketball is about nothing but money.

Here there were no paychecks, only an intense love of the game among athletes whose bodies are finely tuned, if past their prime. It was almost 9 p.m. The first game of the evening was about to start. The sneakers squeaked on the hardwood floor.

"I'm one of the old guys," laughed Craig Washington, a 24-year-old UCLA lab assistant. "I have a 9-to-5."

Washington plays each week in a league with Byron Mayhan, a high-flying point guard, and Brian Bennett, a deadly outside shooter, both students at Los Angeles Trade Tech.

There is a payoff from playing in this league, but it is not financial. If you play here, you are less likely to be hassled by gangs from rival neighborhoods.

"People know us as basketball players and don't bother us," said Bennett, 23.

That's the difference between this league and the NBA, Mayhan said: "One is a way to survive. The other is show business."

Ed Turley, the league's assistant director, saw mixed implications in O'Neal's contract. Fine, let him get as much money as he can. But there was something disturbing about the language you keep reading and hearing as teams bid for these free agents. It reminded Turley of the auctioning of slaves.

"Free agents aren't really free," he said. "And this bidding sounds too much like some auctioneer asking: 'What will you give me for this big 7-foot-1 strong center?' "

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