David West will forever have a place in the hearts of fans in the Crescent City as the first draft pick of the then New Orleans Hornets after the franchise moved from Charlotte in 2003.
In his eight seasons with the Hornets, West was a focal point of the franchise’s longest extended period of winning, reaching the postseason three times, earning two All-Star selections. The former Xavier Musketeers star averaged more than 16 points and seven rebounds in New Orleans.
Following the 2010-11 season, West went on to play seven more seasons with the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors. Winning two NBA titles with Golden State before retiring in 2018 capped a fine playing career.
For most athletes, that legacy would be more than enough. For West, it has only been the beginning.
In 2019, he became Chief Operating Officer of the Historical Basketball League, recently renamed the Professional Collegiate League (PCL).
The concept of the league is simple: Amateur athletics, the NCAA in particular, exist in a system that exploits student-athletes. There needed to be something better, or as West puts it, “something fair.”
Since Brandon Jennings became the first elite American-born basketball prospect to go overseas rather than play college ball in 2008, there have been players seeking another path to pursue their dreams of playing in the NBA.
In 2018, LaVar Ball tried with the Junior Basketball Association, but the financial incentives weren’t enough to entice any top-tier players, and there was no educational component to speak of. The JBA folded after one season.
That same year the NBA announced that it would allow players to go directly from high school to the G-League, the association’s developmental system. The league offered $125,000 to top recruits to spend a season in training and competition with other professionals before becoming eligible for the NBA Draft.
In the meantime, the collegiate basketball world was being hit with scandal. An FBI investigation touched several major programs, including LSU, and once again exposed the pay-for-play system involving agents, runners, and coaches, as well as the hypocrisy of the NCAA.
Though the latest black eye for the NCAA may not have been the cause, it appears as if more top basketball players are ready to forego the traditional collegiate route.
LaMelo Ball and RJ Hamption, both expected to be lottery selections whenever the NBA holds the 2020 draft, took their talents to Australia and the NBL’s Next Stars Program. The duo earned roughly $500,000 each for their year abroad.
Just this month Jalen Green, one of the best two or three players in this year’s high school class, signed with the G-League’s select team for elite prospects. Based out of Los Angeles, the select team will be unaffiliated with any NBA team. Green will be paid $500,000, along with other incentives, and will also recieve a four-year scholarship should he decide to pursue his academic interests.
Already, another highly-touted recruit is considering the same choice. Isaiah Todd, has already decommited from the University of Michigan and is expected to sign in the near future.
How does this impact West and the PCL you ask?
The select team will only have 10-15 spots, and yet there are dozens of high school players who are able to compete at a level higher than the one presented by the NCAA.
College sports will feel the impact of the coronavirus pandemic for years to come. Higher educational insitutions are taking big financial hits in the form of refunds to students, lost ticket revenue, and so on and so on.
Enrollment numbers are uncertain, and with the possibility of a 2020 without college sports at all, it’s a near guarantee that some programs will not survive.
Students will still want to play, and the very best will want to get paid as their families try to recover their own financial losses. With more than 50 percent of Power 5 conference basketball players dealing with some form of economic instability, it is becoming more prudent than ever for these young men to weigh their options.
“We are definitely listening to what the general consensus is,” West told me during a phone interview. “We’ve just continued to evolve our leadership. We’re set to launch in the summer of ‘21 and we don’t know what the future of sports is really going to look like…but for us, our message is still the same.
We know that the landscape of college sports may change because of this. We feel like we fit into what the future of college sports is going to look like, and we’re going to continue to grow our opportunity. We continue to grow our organization and get closer to that realization of creating our league.”
For West, long an outspoken advocate for players’ rights, the changes are late in coming, but not unforseen.
“If you look at what a couple of these higher up draft picks are going to do…them going an alternate route hasn’t changed their destination,” he added. “We know that young people and families were already looking for alternatives. I think what we do is present a model of what the future of sports may potentially be.”
The pomp and circumstance of the traditional big-time NCAA venue won’t be found in the PCL. The organization seeks to create a sleeker product more centered on the players.
“Our model isn’t centered on 20,000 seat arenas,” said West. “We were already thinking about something with smaller crowds and more highly impactful in the digital realm. Our main focus is creating the opportunity that best suits the needs of young athletes.”
That includes making two-year, four-year and online educational opportunities available to each player and a salary of anywhere between $50,000-$150,000.
“We have a group of educators inside our organization that are building educational modules that center around public speaking, media training, personal skill development, basic financial literacy…and those things help us make sure that we’re giving our guys the right foot up,” West continued.
“We’re not going to create an academic schedule around their availability for sports. We’re going to take advantage of the time that they’re with us; whether it be for a year, or two years or more, to make sure that we’re tangibly educating them and giving them things that we think will help them in their professional pursuits.”
The PCL is armed with an impressive collection of advisors that includes leaders in the worlds of journalism, technology, marketing, player development and finance. They’ve also received the support of former athletes like LSU legend Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Henry Bibby, and Jimmy King and Ray Jackson of the famed “Fab Five. Pro Football Hall of Famers Champ Bailey and Terrell Owens also support the cause.
With that type of backing, it will be very difficult to turn down the league’s pitch.
The NCAA built a multi-billion dollar business empire on the backs of “student-athletes,” particularly black, brown and poor young people. Now the walls of that kingdom are under siege.
There is no going back. College sports, and the lives of athletes, will be better for it.