An Alternative to the NBA

Bruce Stern likes professional basketball about as well as the next guy. He likes college ball even better. He’s just not one of those diehard junkies.

“People will come in talking about who was traded to whom, and it goes right over my head,” says the Washington, D.C.-based lawyer.

But you don’t have to be a basketball fanatic to understand opportunity and options, two things the 35-year-old Los Angeles native is selling these days as he prepares to launch the National Rookie League (NRL), an unaffiliated minor league for the National Basketball Association. He likens the system to professional baseball and hockey minor leagues. Stern’s league, open to young men ages 17 to 24, will be based in six East Coast cities (Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, New York, and Hampton Roads, Virginia), playing from June to August to avoid conflicts with NBA and major college games.

Mainly, though, the NRL is Stern’s answer to two things he thinks are ailing college and professional basketball, both on and off the court: the academic obstacle course athletes must run to get to the NBA, and growing public alienation from the professional game.

For now, college basketball remains the main path to the NBA, a club already so exclusive that the chances of getting in are on a par with winning the lottery or being struck by lightning–twice. NCAA academic standards have shut out many would-be players, a disproportionate number of them African American. And too many athletes who do get into college aren’t there to learn, he says: “Top athletes coming out of [high] school don’t go to college to get a college education. . . . Many are there for as long as it takes them to make it into the NBA or NFL. I don’t blame them. I just think there should be a better way.”

Stern’s “better way” includes something like a GI Bill for NRL players. In addition to paying yearly salaries of $20,000 to $25,000, the NRL will set aside $7,500 for college for each year an athlete participates, he says. The league also will offer life skills training and has already established a link with the University of Colorado at Denver to offer courses there.

But this high-stakes, high-powered money game is also about business, a fact that doesn’t escape Stern. He has about 100 investors, has put up nearly $200,000 of his own savings, and gave up a chance to be a law firm partner to pursue the NRL. “Nobody’s expecting to get rich, but this is a business,” he explains. Through stock ownership and cheap seats–$5 to $12–that families can afford, he hopes the league will break even in three years.

Finally, in a game that sometimes seems to be as much about race as it is about competition and money, the fact that Stern is a white lawyer trying to build a league that almost certainly will be fueled by African American talent has posed some interesting questions. “I’m white, there’s no getting around that,” Stern says, adding that several league boards have a majority of black members, and he expects many of the coaches to be African American.

Stern hopes the NRL will provide young men with more options than ever before. If he sounds idealistic, that’s OK, he says. If he doesn’t, he challenges his critics to wait and see what happens. High school baseball and hockey players can choose to play in the minor leagues, he says, and “if you play tennis in high school, you can turn pro or you can go on to college. But basketball players don’t have that option. All we want to do is provide athletes with an option, and they can make a choice.”

Part of January-February 2000 cover story section.

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