Monday, November 11, 2019

The Wiseman Case

Posted By on Mon, Nov 11, 2019 at 9:10 AM

James Wiseman should be starting at center for Memphis. By this I mean James Wiseman should be starting at center for the Memphis Grizzlies.
click to enlarge James Wiseman - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • James Wiseman

The 7'1" 18-year-old, merely months removed from East High School, was a giant among men — a god among mortals — in his college debut last Tuesday for the Memphis Tigers. In merely 22 minutes on the floor, Wiseman scored 28 points and pulled down 11 rebounds, delivering one thunderous dunk after another to answer any doubts about the hype that preceded his arrival under the FedExForum lights. Then Friday, surely playing in a complete mental fog, Wiseman contributed 17 points and nine rebounds in the Tigers' victory over UIC. He did so a few hours after being declared ineligible by the NCAA for a payment his current coach, Penny Hardaway, made in 2017 to help Wiseman's family move from Nashville to Memphis.

Here we are. A man clearly capable of playing in the NBA — and earning upwards of $10 million as a Rookie of the Year candidate — is not allowed to because he's not yet 19 years old and a year removed from his high school graduation. And now, according to the NCAA, he's not allowed to play college basketball because his family benefited from $11,500, courtesy of a college booster. This scenario is passed off as logical by those who run the basketball factory we know as the NBA and NCAA. Making money at one life stage: illegal. Making money at another life stage: legal, but only under factory conditions.

When I find myself attempting to process the NBA's draft-eligibility requirement, I inevitably turn to rock-and-roll. Imagine if the music industry refused recording contracts to those too young, in the industry's view, to handle it. No deal for you, Justin Bieber, until you're old enough to legally toast your sales. Imagine if concert promoters froze out Greta Van Fleet until the boys are of an age where they can fully appreciate the millions they're earning. Lunacy, right? But this is the way professional basketball works in these United States. James Wiseman would make the Memphis Grizzlies better today. But he's not allowed to until he spends a winter as a "student-athlete," dipping his toes in academia while posterizing over-matched competition to the benefit of a college program.

Which brings us to the case the University of Memphis — and notably, attorney Leslie Ballin — now has to manage. As hard as it may be, we must disconnect Hardaway and his current gig in evaluating the legality of the check he wrote for the Wiseman family's move. As recently as 2017, Tubby Smith was under contract as the U of M basketball coach. The "recruiting" of James Wiseman by Hardaway went no further than the desire to see Wiseman in an East Mustangs jersey. (And this cannot be denied. It's hard to envision Hardaway parting with so much as $11 for Wiseman's move were he not the basketball player we know.) So was the transaction a violation of NCAA law?

Ballin's case sill surely boil down to the definition of "booster." The NCAA sees the million dollars Hardaway donated (a decade ago) for the Tiger Hall of Fame — a building that features Hardaway's name above the entrance — as the act of a booster, and enough to classify Hardaway as a booster to the present day. Whether or not Wiseman enrolled at the U of M — and whether or not Hardaway became the Tiger coach — this would be a no-no. If Hardaway can be classified as a booster of the program he now leads. The more I consider, the more challenging I find that "fact" to prove.

A banner hangs in the rafters of FedExForum for the 1985 Tiger team that reached the Final Four, but had the appearance "vacated" retroactively as punishment for finanical impropriety under coach Dana Kirk. Another banner is missing, the one saluting the 2008 Tiger team that also reached the Final Four, punishment for the NCAA deciding Derrick Rose had cheated on a standardized test before declaring him eligible for the 2007-08 season. Now this? Why shouldn't the university dig in its heels? What's to lose? Basketball games? Fans watching Wiseman and his talented freshman classmates play will know what they see. They'll know the results of every game. The young man is already an example of all that's wrong with the NBA and college basketball. Should he be made a one-year pariah on top of that? Here's the ball, Mr. Ballin. Take it to the rim. 

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