A limit that defies logic

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NEW YORK – A year ago, David Stern kept calling, looking for a marketing lifeboat to rescue a LeBron-less, star-less draft that had the potential of being a bore. Apparently mature, well-rounded, All-American college players such as Emeka Okafor can take you only so far.

Stern wanted Sebastian Telfair, a prep prodigy from nearby Brooklyn who had train-wreck potential if he slid toward the draft's second round, in the Theatre at Madison Square Garden for draft night. Telfair and his agent, Andy Miller, weren't biting. They weren't going to let the NBA get television ratings off them.

"Knowing that the Knicks didn't have a first-round pick, and that there was no LeBron-like star in the field, and that analysts were calling this among the weakest drafts ever, Stern called Miller and told him he wanted Sebastian in the house," according to "The Jump," Ian O'Connor's excellent book detailing Telfair's decision to go from preps to the pros.

"Telfair represented the sexiest story line of the draft. Would he fall? How far would he fall? … Stern needed Telfair to pump life into an otherwise limp event."

A year after Telfair watched his name get called 13th overall from the sanctity of a hotel suite overlooking Central Park, Stern has squashed all of that, hypocritically swinging in the public-perception breeze to slam the door on ready-to-run high school kids.

The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement announced last week will require that, starting in 2006, American-born players must wait one year after their high school class graduates to be eligible for the draft.

Tuesday's NBA draft will be the last for high school stars such as Martell Webster and Gerald Green.

This was a play to those who for some reason can't stomach poor kids like Sebastian Telfair getting rich without paying their so-called dues – a childhood in a dangerous Coney Island project apparently not the equal of a year of under-the-table payments at Old State U.

The result will be a dog-and-pony show of academic commitment designed to launder a NBA image that is misperceived to begin with. Some of the players will have to pretend to be interested college students. Some of the colleges will have to pretend they don't know this.

Everyone but the kids will get rich, and then, somehow, after one year everything will be deemed OK.

"This keeps our scouts out of high school gyms," said Stern, whom sources within the NBA say became obsessed with the fact some of the American public view his league as too young, too immature and too loud for its own good.

His solution is a slap in the face to LeBron James, Shaun Livingston, Kevin Garnett, J.R. Smith and a generation of solid citizens who made the prom-to-pros jump with ease.

The sad part here is Stern knows all of this. He should have been strong enough to stand up to public criticism of his game, some of which undoubtedly is rooted in racism and comes from people who never, ever will be fans anyway.

Does one year post-high school turn a kid into a mature man? Should it matter at all? Is there anything wrong with a kid being a kid?

Take Marvin Williams, who spent Stern's desired one season at North Carolina and now is slated to be the No. 2 pick in Tuesday's draft. He was asked what he would be doing Monday night.

"Watching TV," Williams said. "I like cartoons. Anything on Nickelodeon."

Nickelodeon?

"I like SpongeBob," Williams said. "SpongeBob is OK."

SpongeBob SquarePants?

This is maturity?

No, this is just an un-American, if not unconstitutional, rule that also is completely illogical.

Everyone who has been to college understands that time on campus can have a value that money can't measure. They also know that forcing someone who doesn't want to be there (athlete or not) rarely produces that value.

You can spend six years at college and still be fascinated by a cartoon for little kids. You can be fresh from the high school ranks and be ready to run your own multimillion-dollar business.

Neither one makes you better than the other.

It is about the individual. It is about the opportunity. It is about the American ideal of letting an adult fail or succeed on his own merits.

It's not about scoring PR points by pretending to protect the young.

A year ago, David Stern had no problem trying to set up one of these supposedly disadvantaged prep players for potential national-television embarrassment if it served his bottom line.

The kid was too smart to fall for it. Sebastian Telfair didn't need college to know better.