“Hi, I’m Jamal Sampson, your 2003 NBA Rookie of the Year.”
That’s the thing that must have flashed through former Cal freshman and current Milwaukee Bucks second-round, second-thought Jamal Sampson’s head when he made the most momentous decision of his young life: to enter the NBA Draft after just one year of college.
Who can really blame him? A 19-year-old kid who has known nothing but adulation and fame since he was the tallest boy scout on the block. A kid who fully admitted he “didn’t have to practice hard in high school, didn’t even have to play hard most of the time.” A kid who won the MVP in the first college tournament he played in.
With all that behind him, how could he think anything bad could happen? He was compared to the wunderkind of last year’s draft, high schools stars who were three of the top four picks and are now making millions. So what if all three spent most of last season carrying bags and listening to their new coaches explain everything they didn’t know about the game? At least they were living The Life, right? Escalades, ice and the more, ahem, adult perks of the big leagues.
Sampson, on the other hand, had to go to classes every day and even pay attention. He had to travel to Pullman, Wash., and Corvallis, Ore., instead of New York and Chicago. And above all, he had to watch those other guys on SportsCenter on a nightly basis when he just knew he belonged alongside them.
Only he didn’t. Those who watched Sampson play on a regular basis saw a physically gifted player who had almost no offensive game against players his own size, a skinny kid who was abused by any post player over 250 pounds. Anyone who was paying attention could have told him that he wasn’t ready for the NBA, not even close.
That’s the most amazing thing, thinking about the geniuses who gave Sampson the advice, “Of course you’re ready. Get thee to the next level.” Did they actually see him play? He hired an agent, cutting off any chance of a return to college ball, where he could have developed his game. Did that agent actually tell him he would be a first-round pick, the only way to guarantee a contract?
You hear a lot of college players say they can’t live on what schools give them. Let’s see: free tuition and books, free housing, two training table meals a day, and a little bit of pocket money. I remember my college days, and they certainly didn’t include any of those perks. I was happy when dinner consisted of more than a package of Top Ramen and a soda. The most exciting day of the year was when the school bookstore bought my books back, meaning enough money in my pocket for Burger King and a few cold ones at the friendly neighborhood pub.
So now Sampson finds himself stuck in beautiful Milwaukee, the NBA’s answer to Bakersfield. And that’s if he’s lucky enough to sign with the Bucks, who will plop him at the end of the bench and use him for practice fodder. If he doesn’t, he ends up playing for the Pennsylvania ValleyDawgs for a little more than minimum wage, or if he’s feeling adventurous, somewhere in Eastern Europe, where they throw coins at the visiting players and it’s mighty hard to find a decent hamburger.
Think American Studies 101 is looking so boring now?