Grantland was the best website to read basketball stories. Zach Lowe wrote detailed explanations about a team’s make-up, specifically their offensive and defensive tendencies and philosophies. Bill Simmons wrote extended commentary about what kind of mark a certain player would leave. Jonathan Abrams wrote stories about the successes and failures of several NBA players. He wrote about Joakim Noah, Mike Conley and the late Eddie Griffin. His powerful stories came to life. The emotion, the detail; Abrams displayed it all in his 10,000-word masterpieces. Once Grantland folded, Lowe joined ESPN’s NBA coverage, writing weekly columns. Although Simmons hasn’t written anything in almost a year, he records three podcasts a week. Abrams spent his post-Grantland time finishing a book. “Boys Among Men” hit stores March 15. I finished it over the weekend, and I knew I had to share some thoughts.
Abrams details the lives of many high school players who made the jump to the NBA. From Moses Malone to Amir Johnson, Abrams explains who made it, who didn’t and why the NBA no longer allows 18 year old boys to play against grown men. The pioneers, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, have in-depth pages explaining their upbringing and basketball ability. Abrams goes behind the scenes leading up to the 1995 NBA Draft where the Minnesota Timberwolves decided to select Garnett as the first high school student drafted in two decades. The outspoken Bryant wanted to be the trendsetter, the one to breakthrough to the NBA through high school, but he was one year too late. Abrams uncovers exactly what happened the summer of 1996 where Kobe shockingly fell to 13 overall. Kobe had it all, even at 17. It was well documented how good Kobe was. It’s even rumored that Kobe beat Philadelphia 76er Jerry Stackhouse one-on-one while Kobe was at Lower Merion High School. The New Jersey Nets, who opted for Villanova’s Kerry Kittles instead, wanted Kobe in the top-10. The reason why they didn’t select Kobe was answered in the first several chapters.
Abrams has an impressive talent. He didn’t just write a blurb about every prep-to-pro player; he made it flow into a story with a plot and actual meaning. An example was the 1998 NBA Draft’s three high school players: Rashard Lewis, Al Harrington and Korleone Young. Lewis and Harrington found NBA success. Lewis was an All-Star and Harrington averaged 13.2 points per game in a 16-year career. Young, however, scored 13 career points. Opportunity mattered. Harrington developed strong relationships with veteran players (Harrington also had a guaranteed contract because he was a first-round pick) and Lewis, despite being a second-round pick, just did what he was asked. He humbled himself, and even though it took sometime he became a NBA star.
Abrams scatters cautionary tales throughout the book. So many players had parents, agents, coaches or family friends that provided poor advice or didn’t truly have the boy’s best interest in mind. Days before Kwame Brown was selected first overall he admitted he wasn’t ready. Some players could handle the physical aspect of the NBA game, but the emotional and mental aspect of being alone hindered players’ careers. During several instances it was difficult to read how far certain players fell. Brown ended up having a very solid career, but he’s labeled a bust. The expectations of high school players usually were higher than those who decided to go to college, and the top pick was no exception. These players were named prodigies at such early ages that it was nearly impossible to live up to lofty expectations.
Players signed endorsement deals and shoe contracts before stepping foot in a preseason game. Nike and Adidas offered exclusive camps to top recruits. If a player dominated one of those camps, he could be the next Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant. The hype was massive. ESPN began televising LeBron James’s high school games, and that’s when the hype was at its peak. Sports Illustrated featured LeBron as The Chosen One while he was still a junior in high school. He was labeled the best high school player ever. But he wasn’t the only player hyped that way. The book explains several other players, some at points considered better than LeBron James, who failed to even make the NBA.
The book touches on several more aspects. How the prep-to-pro era affected college coaches, the issue that some players before the rookie contract scale changed, like Tracy McGrady, were drafted and developed by a team only to see another team sign that player in free agency and how Kevin Garnett’s contract created the NBA lockout to end the 90s.
I didn’t want to give too much more detail because if you’re an NBA fan you should read this book right now. It’s a little over 300 pages. Abrams, of course, writes about Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone to begin the book. Malone was the first high school player in the NBA, while Dawkins was the first high school player drafted. Both died in 2015, so hearing antidotes about two absolutely dynamic people who recently left us made the book even more worthwhile.