Jonathan Abrams ends his stunning new book, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-To-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution, like many authors do, with an acknowledgements section. In it, he thanks those that allowed him to break into the business of basketball journalism, as well as his mentors and peers, finishing with the obligatory praise heaped at his wife and young son. As a nod to the 300-plus page examination he had just finished, Abrams finishes with the sentence, “To our son Jayden, this was all for you and just know: you are going to college—all four years.”
It’s a cute way to end a meticulously researched biography of an entire generation of NBA players. Now, I doubt that Abrams meant anything by it except to be a joke coming from a man who injects so much heart but little humor into his work. However, it’s a small peak into the crux of the main struggle of this book.
Boys Among Men is perfect in its construction. It follows the NBA timeline chronologically, painting mini-biographies of the most notable—for better or worse—players that made the decision to jump straight from high school to the NBA. Beginning with three-time MVP and Hall of Famer Moses Malone in the 1970s and mere historical footnote Bill Willoughby, Abrams deftly pivots chapter by chapter, weaving together the stories of high school athletes who quickly became NBA superstars as well as those who couldn’t adapt to the pace of their newly unstructured worlds.
There are the stories you know, with detailed accounts of a young Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire, LeBron James and Dwight Howard making their way from teenage phenoms to their not-so-humble first steps into their respective superstar careers. For many of these men, it’s amazing to marvel at just how many of the seemingly minute historical facts have become common knowledge around these now monolithic basketball figures, especially Bryant and James. To the average hoophead, the details surrounding the nascent steps of these players have become as ingrained in us as if they were friends or family.
But then there are the stories that you don’t know. The tales of high school sensations who would never be known for anything but their halcyon days of hardwood success. Korleone Young was a 6’7” athletic swingman coming out of Wichita, Kansas, whose high school recruiting class included the likes of future All-Star forward Rashard Lewis and 15 year NBA veteran Al Harrington. The latter two have combined to make nearly $250 million in salary since breaking into the league in 1998. Meanwhile, Young’s story centers around regret, missed opportunities and poor advising, all leading to the former phenom turning down a half million dollar sponsorship with Nike, money the likes of which he’d never seen again. Leon Smith was a 7-foot destroyer of a boy, whose gifts were too tantalizing to pass up despite his lack of polish and questionable psychological make-up. The Mavericks took him in the first round, only to see him never play a game and fall into a deep depression before the season even started. Smith, who had grown up in foster homes without a family, couldn’t deal with the rigors of life in the NBA and the sudden snap into adulthood. After a suicide attempt in the late 90s, he quickly washed out of the league and his whereabouts are currently unknown.
These stories—over a dozen of them in total—are all methodically researched and exhaustively detailed. Each player’s tale, from the legendary to the tertiary, is unfurled with such care and empathy that it’s hard to tell if the focus of the book is more those that made it to superstardom than those who never even sniffed its lofty fringes.
This is Abrams’ gift. The degree to which the stories seamlessly interweave with each other, whether it’s foreshadowing the next cautionary tale or hearkening back to a success story from the past, is an astounding exercise in seeing a writer at the peak of his power. But even more impressive than the mere structure of the book is the incredible emotive power at which the biographies are conveyed.
Simply put, there is no sports writer working today that does more to displace you from where you are and bring you right into the middle of the story. Abrams’ ability to make the reader disassociate with his or her surroundings with his use of wordplay, personally told anecdotes and carefully chosen phrasing is unparalleled. Kobe Bryant’s pre-draft workouts and maneuvering into the Lakers’ camp is well-known. As is LeBron James’ journey to his hometown Cavaliers. I had never heard of Leon Smith before cracking open this book. Jonathan Bender is merely the name of an obscure trivia question to me. However, regardless of my pre-existing knowledge of each one of these players—from a dark, pathetic obsession to zero information—I finished each chapter deeply empathizing with all of their journeys. My emotions flipped with every page, going from an intense dislike of a corporation willingly putting naïve young athletes at risk to a swelling sense of capitalistic laissez faire for any legally aged man to get his dollar.
It’s hard to tell what Abrams’ opinion is on whether or not high schoolers should be able to jump to the NBA. On one hand, his research shows that more than half of the players that had made the leap turned out to be success stories rather than modern Greek tragedies. On the other hand, the space given to those that didn’t make it is just as powerful. It seems obvious that he’s not blind to the difficulties some young men faced by skipping just a year of college. 300 pages later, I’m not sure what his opinion is.
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe—as he’s done for his entire career—Abrams is merely taking us to the brink and back, showing us the jagged edges and snowy peaks so smoothly and intensely, but not giving us the meaning of the trip at the end of the trail. Boys Among Men details how a generation of players changed the league and the landscape of the NBA. Stars like KG, Kobe, T-Mac, LeBron and Dwight ushered in a new era of prosperity and popularity for the league, despite not being able to legally spin a roulette wheel the first night they laced up their sneakers. For better or for worse, the prep-to-pros generation changed the NBA forever.
Was it worth it? I’m not sure. I’ll have to think about it more. But maybe that’s what Jonathan Abrams wanted. Boys Among Men is an extraordinary read and a priceless snapshot of arguably the league’s most important generation ever.