Hopefully by now you've read Pete Thamel's gripping story from Sunday's New York Times on the struggles Jeremy Tyler, who instead of getting ready to begin his senior season at San Diego High School is struggling while playing for Maccabi Haifa, a professional team in Israel that is paying him all of $140,000 this season. My first reaction to this story was to say thank goodness for newspapers. Thamel has been way ahead of the competition in reporting Tyler's story, and it is remarkable that at a time when many newsrooms (including the Times) are cutting back jobs, his editors sent him all the way to Israel to give this story a proper vetting. So bravo.
Second, I did a triple take when I read that Tyler's agents at Wasserman Media Group had the brilliant idea to send Makhtar Ndiaye, who is one of their agents, over to Israel to, as Thamel put it, "help [Tyler] focus." Ndiaye, you may recall, is the former North Carolina forward who accused Utah freshman Britton Johnsen of calling him the N-word during the Tar Heels' loss to the Utes at the 1998 Final Four. When the accusation rightly caused a major stir, Ndiaye was forced to admit he had totally made it up. Ndiaye played very briefly in the NBA and also spent some time in the NBDL, where he once drew a five-second call on an inbounds play because he was waving at a friend in the stands. This, my friends, is Jeremy Tyler's lodestar.
Meanwhile, Tyler's parents remain back home in southern California, as does his sometime-advisor Sonny Vaccaro. That distance is taking its toll, as Jeremy expressed to Thamel that he feels like he can no longer trust his own father. Vaccaro has made no secret of his crusade to undermine the NCAA, and he was more than happy to facilitate Tyler's leap to international basketball, just like he helped Brandon Jennings get a contract to play in Italy. (Vaccaro was also more than happy to facilitate Tyler's signing with Wasserman, where Vaccaro's close friend, Arn Tellem, is the head of the agency division.) But forget about basketball for a minute. Did Vaccaro ever consider that turning professional and playing overseas at such a young age was not in the best interests of Jeremy's psychological and emotional development? There's more to life than learning the drop step.
If you thought Thamel was tough on young Jeremy, the view from Israel is even more scathing. I asked my friend Ze'ev Avrahmi, who covers sports (among other things) for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, to provide a local take on how Tyler is doing. Here is part of what he emailed me in response. (Note: Ze'ev's English is good but a little broken, so I've cleaned it up a little):
"Jeremy is actually doing very badly. They have a lot of problems with him on and off the court. He is late, has no discipline, goes clubbing, doesn't learn the game. Most players are alienating themselves from him. They see all the global coverage and they don't think he earned anything to grant it. He also refused to turn off the music in his house during Yom Kippur and now the owner wants to throw him out. Plus, he trashed his coach.
And worst of all: He produces nothing on the court. Nothing. Yesterday he was thrown out of a game after he head-butted an opponent.
Keep in mind there is a silent professional-financial argument here. The man who brought him is the owner of the team, Jeff Rosen, who also purchased the right for Internet streaming of the Israeli league in America. For him, Tyler is a marketing vehicle. By doing that he put his coach, Avi Ashkenazi, in a tough spot because he wants to see results. Ashkenazi is taking the company line, but he told an Israeli newspaper: 'I think what happened to [Tyler] is an injustice. People piled on him disproportionate expectations resulting in him valuing himself wrongly.'"
Avrahmi added in his email that while he was watching a game in Israel, a disappointed Haifa fan saw him writing in his notebook and suggested that he write, "At this point, Tyler will not be number one even in the draft of the Saudi Arabia league."
As for Brandon Jennings, a lot of people are holding up his strong start with the Milwaukee Bucks (18 points and four assists through five games) as validation of his decision to play in Italy. But it bears repeating –- a thousand more times if necessary –- that Jennings did not have much choice. He had committed to play for Arizona, but as his freshman year approached he still had not been declared eligible by the NCAA because his standardized test store had been flagged. So Jennings's choice was not between Europe and major college ball. It was between Europe and prep school, junior college or somewhere in the NAIA. He may have made a good choice for him, but contrary to conventional wisdom that does not mean the floodgates are about to open with scores of American high school players heading overseas.
Look, I am strongly in favor of young athletes getting every opportunity to pursue their dreams, which is why I have consistently argued against the NBA's age minimum, even though it has been a great boon for college basketball. And I honestly hope that someday Jeremy Tyler will have the successful NBA career that Jennings seems to be embarking upon. But it seems quite obvious, at least in the short term, that Tyler has made a horrible mistake -– and there no going back, since he has forfeited his amateur status. He may yet see his dreams come true, but for the moment Jeremy Tyler is not a success story but a cautionary tale, one which any player contemplating a similar path should pay very strong heed.