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NBA Finals showcases eclectic mix of stars

LOS ANGELES – They lined up for the opening tip of the NBA Finals, five Los Angeles Lakers and five Orlando Magic forming an eclectic group like we've never seen in basketball's ultimate competition.

It used to be that you watched the NCAA basketball tournament for a peek at the NBA's future. Those who dominated there would eventually arrive here to play for a banner.

Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were stars during the 1950s at the universities of San Francisco and Kansas, respectively. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird produced the most-watched NCAA title game in history in 1979. Michael Jordan drained a championship-winning jumper at North Carolina in 1982.

That was then.

The 10 starters in the Lakers' 100-75 Game 1 blowout are defining a different era.

Four came to the NBA straight out of American high schools, including the series' two biggest stars, Kobe Bryant(notes) and Dwight Howard(notes). Two more arrived from overseas, Hedo Turkoglu(notes) of Turkey and Pau Gasol(notes) of Spain.

There were a couple who toiled in mid-major obscurity – Derek Fisher(notes) of Arkansas-Little Rock and Courtney Lee(notes) of Western Kentucky. There was even Rafer Alston(notes), best known for his street ball antics as "Skip to My Lou" at Harlem's Rucker Park and on the And1 Mixtape Tour.

In terms of the traditional big college route, the lone representative is the Lakers' Trevor Ariza(notes). If you don't remember his college career, don't feel bad – in his lone season (2003-04) UCLA went a dreadful 11-17.

Meanwhile former Duke guard J.J. Redick(notes) (Orlando) and Gonzaga forward Adam Morrison(notes) (L.A.), who once held a highly publicized duel for NCAA Player of the Year honors, spent most of the game politely cheering on teammates from their respective benches. Morrison doesn't even dress. Redick got some mop-up duty.

No less than eight players in the Finals even spent some time in the NBA's Developmental League, the same amount that played in college hoops' big six conferences.

Amid this trend a debate waged concerning the future of how (and where) young American players prepare for the NBA.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) took the floor of Congress on Thursday and demanded the league and its players association repeal the 19-year-old age minimum for American players. The rule has been in effect since 2005 and has sent most top players to the college ranks.

If anything, the age limit may lead to at least some return to the old way stars were built. Despite a number of high-profile NCAA scandals, it's served to provide a needed boost in star power for the college game.

Since the age rule went into effect, the NCAA tournament has showcased budding stars such as Derrick Rose(notes), Kevin Durant(notes) and Greg Oden(notes). Perhaps eventually they'll reach the Finals.

Cohen's comments were a reiteration of letters he sent Wednesday to NBA commissioner David Stern and NBPA executive director Billy Hunter in which he expressed "deep concern" over the rule on the basis of age discrimination.

The issue will come to a head in the next collective bargaining sessions, which are scheduled to begin later this year. The players association wants to bring the age minimum back to 18. Stern has talked about extending it to 20, but cautioned "it's not a deal breaker for us."

This issue will have a significant impact on all levels of American basketball.

"What [Cohen] didn't understand [is] this is not about the NCAA, this is not an enforcement of some social program, this is a business decision by the NBA," Stern said Thursday.

"We like to see our players in competition after high school," he said, noting there's also an age limit [25 years old] for the House of Representatives. "I don't know why our founders decided that age 25 was good for Congress, but I guess they thought that was about maturity. For us, it's different, it's kind of basketball maturity."

Of course, the starting fives of the remaining teams of a postseason Stern called "electrifying" doesn't bear that statement out.

And while he pointed that a player doesn't have to go to college (Europe or the D-League are options) Stern knows those either aren't exciting or even possible options for most players.

Still, he swears, "this is not about whether they should go to college or not."

The NBPA generally agrees, although not in the way Stern suggests. While it doesn't want to engage Stern publicly on the issue on the eve of negotiations, it sees the age limit as a way for owners to cut career length and labor costs.

The particulars of the NBA salary cap are confusing, but there is a rule that greatly discourages the signing of players to maximum contracts that extended past their 36th birthday (the team must pay extra against the cap).

Due to the common length of contracts (including the league-mandated rookie deal), by getting the entry age to 19, the NBA has made it impossible for some players to sign two max contracts. If the limit goes to age 20, even fewer could make it.

When framed that way – as a reduction in potential salaries for stars – the current players may dig in to get the age limit repealed. Past player polls show the majority is against the limit, which was an 11th hour concession in 2005.

Meanwhile no one is sure what Rep. Cohen will do. He's asked for a dialogue to get to the bottom of the issue but has not ruled out calling a hearing or even pushing legislation.

So we could have Stern in Washington dealing with an uncomfortable double team of politicians and labor leaders. He could also wind up flipping it around and winning the debate; the former trial lawyer isn't easy to box in.

That's the fight for the future though.

In the meantime, the open era of player procurement has come into its prime. These Finals are a reflection of the NBA before the age limit was implemented.

What's clear is that left to the will of the free market, college basketball can remain competitive as ever, but its days of producing future stars would be over.