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Jewish World Review Jan. 13, 1999 /6 Shevat, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Here's to the students who never hear a cheer -- EVERYONE SEEMS TO AGREE that a lesson must be taken from what has happened to a 19-year-old man named Leon Smith.

Smith--who last year was playing basketball for King High School in Chicago, who was "drafted" into the National Basketball Association by the Dallas Mavericks, and who now finds himself in utter turmoil, having been confined to two psychiatric treatment facilities after an apparent suicide attempt, suspended from his team, and brought before criminal court judges-- has been portrayed as the prime example of what can go wrong when a person just out of high school finds himself adrift in the pressured world of professional sports.

Smith's case is far from typical. He has been a ward of the state and living in various group homes since the age of 5. Many observers have said that what has transpired with him should cause pro sports leagues to reassess the idea of signing up athletes so young and so unprepared; others have said that Smith, because of the sad circumstances of his growing up, is an anomaly, and that other high school athletes should not be compared with him.

Whichever side is correct, it seems to me that there is another, separate issue worthy of discussion here. And those of us who work for newspapers and television and radio stations are in a position to do something about it.

Athletically talented young men such as Leon Smith, from the time they are barely in their teens, are covered and written about as avidly and as thoroughly as national politicians. Their every word, every move, is recorded and analyzed. It's not that sports reporters do a bad job at this; it's that they do such a good job. In the words of the Tribune's Barry Temkin, who has a superlative feel for and knowledge of the high school sports scene:

"In high school, (a star basketball) player becomes a rock star in sneakers, which it's doubtful he ever needs to pay for. He fields unending calls from player agents, street agents, recruiters, high school coaches talking transfer, traveling team coaches, shoe company reps, recruiting gurus and media--and that's before breakfast.

"He flies around the country to shoe-company camps and tournaments, plays high school games in college arenas, goes on TV . . . stands amid clusters of note pads and tape recorders even after unimportant games. . . . (He sees) sportswriters study his game as though they were art historians at the Louvre."

That's not going to stop; Leon Smith was given a $1.8 million contract at the age of 18, and the argument is that with such huge amounts of money being paid to high school athletes, the young players must be covered.

And they will continue to be.

But how about this--for those of us in the news business, how about this:

What if we were to try, for every story about a talented high school basketball or football player we publish, to go into a city public school and find and report on a talented young person who is not an athlete--but who is endeavoring just as hard to succeed as the athletes are?

It's much easier to cover teenage athletes--the arenas are convenient to find, the schedules are printed well in advance.

But the NBA and the NFL have very few job openings. Few high school athletes will get there.

Who will write about the boy or girl who's not a gifted athlete, but who goes home every day after school to an empty house where there's no one to say, `It's time to do your homework'-- and even with no one to provide that urging, works long and painstakingly at the homework anyway?

Who will notice the child who spends just as many hours trying to do well as does the basketball or football player-- the studious child who never in his life hears a cheer, and in some cases never hears a word of encouragement? Who will write that story?

The scouts from the NBA and NFL who gravitate to high school games, hoping to find the next generation of stars--they will keep coming to the schools, but what of the scouts from Sears, and IBM, and Marshall Field's . . . the scouts from the Illinois State Bar Association, and the American Medical Association? If only they would scout the public schools with the same fervor as the sports scouts . . . and if only we in the news business would report on the other, non-athletic children who try, and who manage to succeed--if only we gave those stories the same space and prominence we give to the young sports stars.

There's a lesson in the story of Leon Smith, all right. The lesson is that so many people know his name--and that there are so many students trying so heroically against such tough odds, and you will never know who they are. Because they do their work in solitude and silence, in an arena with no spectators, no applause.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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