Straight Shooter

How did Houston's Rashard Lewis know he had the talent — and the maturity — to go directly from high school to the NBA? Call it forward thinking.

THE TEARS RASHARD LEWIS CRIED when he was drafted into the NBA almost two years ago were not simply tears of joy. They were also tears of relief, of pain, and of gratitude that the ordeal was finally over. Then eighteen, Lewis was arguably the best high school basketball player in the country. As a senior at Houston’s Alief Elsik High School, he was named a McDonald’s All-American and the MVP of the Magic Johnson Roundball Classic, a prestigious all-star game for high school athletes. Though Lewis could have played for almost any college he wanted, he made the risky and controversial decision to seek his fortune in the NBA. “Even back then I knew I could make it,” he told me recently. “All I needed was a shot.”

In June 1998 he flew to Vancouver to attend the nationally televised draft along with twenty or so other top young players. If he hadn’t thought he’d be drafted high, he wouldn’t have attended — the risk of humiliation would have been too great. But Lewis had spent time working out with the Rockets and by all accounts had impressed their coaching staff. He says he had been given assurances that he would be taken with one of Houston’s three first-round picks. For the Rockets, having three picks in the first round was sort of an embarrassment of riches; it wasn’t a stretch to think they would spend one on a hometown favorite. Lewis’ upside was a vast amount of potential: A six-ten forward, he jumped out of the gym, had a nice shooting stroke from the outside, and played smart, fundamental basketball. But almost as important was his maturity. His coaches raved about his considerate, generous personality almost as much as his talent. Lewis’ downside was his inexperience and willowy, undeveloped body, which could leave him suffering in a brutal league that wants instant results from its players.

As the draft proceeded, Houston’s first pick went to a guard from Arizona, and the second went to a shooter from little-known Valparaiso. When Houston’s last pick of the first round came a few minutes later, Lewis and his family braced themselves. The word came down from the podium: Mirsad Turkcan, from Turkey. Suddenly everything changed. Pick after pick went by, and with each one the television cameras focused on Lewis, the last undrafted player present in the arena.

Then came the second round, which is completely different territory. First-round draft picks are guaranteed three-year contracts, but second-round picks are promised nothing, not even a spot on the team. Finally the announcement came — the Seattle SuperSonics took Lewis with the third pick in the second round — and with it the tears. Afterward, Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich said that Lewis was the fourth player on his list; if the other three hadn’t been available, Lewis would have been playing in his hometown. Instead he was shipping off to a place he knew nothing about with no guarantees. “If this doesn’t get the message across to them, nothing will,” said the NBA’s director of scouting about high schoolers who are thinking of skipping college.

The issue of high school players’ entering the NBA draft has been a hot topic of sports pages across the nation, especially since the high-profile meltdown of Dallas Maverick rookie Leon Smith. Unlike Lewis, who has been guided by a strong mother, Smith was abandoned by his parents and bounced from one foster home in Chicago to another. A huge star in high school, he decided to turn pro against the better judgment of many NBA experts, and the Mavericks acquired him. But things turned sour. After a series of incidents — which began with a refusal to run laps at a practice and led to numerous confrontations with Mavericks head coach Don Nelson — the nineteen-year-old Smith attempted suicide last November. His downfall was a bucket of cold water for those who had been so dazzled by straight-to-the- NBA sensations Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have become megastars both on the court and off. “It would be unfair to call Leon a poster child for anything but Leon,” NBA commissioner David Stern told The New York Times. “All of these men are individuals. But I remain convinced, in a broader context, that we need to disincentivize players who have other options from coming into the NBA too young.”

To see the story in such extremes, though — that a young player can only become either a Kobe Bryant or a Leon Smith — is to miss the down-to-earth hopefulness of a story like Lewis’. With the pain of the draft behind him, he lives comfortably in Seattle, has a two-year contract worth $700,00, drives a Lincoln Navigator, gets decent playing time, and is spoken of with affection by his teammates and coaches, who agree that the sky is the limit for him. A college degree is still something Lewis would like to have (he plans to begin summer classes in either Houston or Seattle in the future), but he decided to put his real passion first. “If I spent three or four years in college,” he said, “when I got out, I wouldn’t be nearly as good as I will be after three years in the NBA.” And then there’s the question of money. Lewis could easily be a millionaire many times over by the time top college players his age are just getting ready to enter the draft. But his mother, Juanita, says money was never the issue. Even as a freshman in high school he said he was going straight to the NBA because of his love for the game. “He always knew what he wanted,” she says, “and he worked so hard to get there. He stayed out of trouble and just played basketball.”

I met Lewis on a rare sunny January day in Seattle. Wearing gray sweats and futuristic-looking basketball shoes, he had just come

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