Darius Washington has until June 18th to change his mind and return to the University of Memphis for his junior year. Here's hoping -- with the help of his parents, coach, or the mother of his child -- Washington comes to his senses.
Let me stress: this has absolutely nothing to do with the value Washington might bring the 2006-07 Tiger basketball team. Nothing. With star recruit Willie Kemp arriving to man the point guard position (backed up by Andre Allen), Washington's role would shift to that of a shooting guard, where he'd have to share minutes with sophomore-to-be Antonio Anderson. That move to the periphery of coach John Calipari's rotation is certainly a factor in Washington's decision to leave college (and the reason you haven't heard a word of protest from Calipari). But it doesn't make the decision any less misguided.
On the same day Washington announced his intentions last month, his teammate Shawne Williams -- the 2005-06 Conference USA Freshman of the Year -- surprised no one by saying he'd be entering the June 28th NBA draft, too. That's where the similarities between Washington and Williams end. Tiger fans should consider the season they cheered Williams a bonus. Had a few variables been different, Williams would have jumped straight from Hamilton High School to "the league." Having already lost a brother to violence, Williams is a classic example of what the NBA once called a hardship case. His talents are such that he'll be drafted in the first round and thus receive a guaranteed NBA contract. He'll be an instant provider for a family very much in need.
Which brings us back to Washington, a young man whose lasting image from his Memphis days will be the tear-jerking collapse after a pair of missed free throws ended his team's chances at an NCAA tournament berth in 2005. Washington's girlfriend gave birth to a little boy -- Darius III -- last December. So the role of family provider is clearly on Washington's mind. The difference, though, is that Washington is no lock to be drafted at all, much less in the first round where a contract is assured. His financial security rests in the hands of NBA talent scouts, his future firmly in the center of a risk-reward scale that could tip either way.
Put Darius Washington in the exact same life position where he finds himself today, but take away his basketball skills. A far-fetched scenario, to be sure. But in such a world, the wisest thing for a a 20-year-old father would be to educate himself, to earn his college degree, by whatever means are at his disposal. His child's future would be every bit as dependent on that degree as his own.
And this is where Calipari has failed the player he proclaimed central to his program the last two seasons. Since his days at the University of Massachusetts, Calipari has professed to coach with his players' best interests in mind. If that means a star player should turn pro early -- see Marcus Camby -- Calipari has publicly supported the decision, as counter as it may be to the missionof an academic institution. Marcus Camby and Dajuan Wagner -- both top-10 draft picks -- are one category. Darius Washington is another.
Here's a remarkable trend from the Calipari era in Memphis. In six years, Calipari has coached four players who have earned C-USA Freshman of the Year honors. Unless Washington (or Williams) changes his mind, not one of these four players has so much as reached his junior year at the U of M.
I've rung the bell several times in support of an improved graduation rate under Calipari. But the fact is, the program is graduating its fringe players (i.e. Modibo Diarra, Nathaniel Root), while its stars fall short. (Antonio Burks, Anthony Rice, and Rodney Carney have all reached the cusp of graduating, but have yet to don cap and gown.) If life lessons are still part of a college coach's responsibility to his players, the coach with the handsome raise at Memphis is falling short.
Washington should track down Wagner for a feeler on NBA life, and the virtues of leaving school early. Once a high school phenom making national headlines, Wagner was out of the NBA last season, taken down by chronic injury and illness. You have to hope he banked his money.
And I hope I'm wrong about Washington. I hope 10 years from now -- when Washington is 30 and his son 10 -- Washington finds himself a decade into a rewarding career as a pro basketball player. But what if he doesn't? He'll still be 30. Darius III will still be 10. And what will the future hold? Will Calipari be there for the right kind of advice? If not, the tears we might shed over Darius Washington will be heavy with consequences much more poignant than a basketball tournament.