All the man-bites-dog action during Wednesday’s languid NBA draft came right at the start, when San Antonio used the top pick on a guy who had—get this!—zero college eligibility left. Only once before in this decade had a four-year collegian gone first. After the Spurs nabbed Tim Duncan, the youth movement again took over: The next 10 picks included just three seniors, counting Tracy McGrady. Then again, he’s a high school senior.

Rightly or wrongly, nobody with a decent college game or, rather, a reputation for having a decent game stays in school anymore. Not even at Georgetown. Contrary to the program’s beautifully cultivated image, John Thompson’s men do leave: According to the latest data from the NCAA, only half of the Hoyas basketball players ever get degrees, a rate just slightly better than the average for all Division I programs. Some of those sheepskinless Hoyas gave up their academic pursuits for a grab at pro ball’s brass ring. The school’s latest premature withdrawal, onetime McKinley Tech phenom Victor Page, applied for the draft after just two years in Thompson’s apprenticeship program. Page had pronounced himself “ready for the next level” despite shooting just 37 percent from the field last season. His phone didn’t ring on draft day.

Pick by pick, round by round, Page learned how uncoveted his services are at this stage of his development. But because of NCAA rules, he can’t go back to Georgetown unless he pays his own tuition. He’s done with college.

Bruce Stern doesn’t blame Page or anybody in his Nikes for making the early exit. If Stern had his way, Page would start at a level other than the NBA, somewhere he could go to develop his game without pretending to be a student. The D.C. attorney, who is not related to NBA Commissioner David Stern, is the founder of the National Rookie League (NRL), a pro confederation-in-the-making for players 24 and under who aren’t ready for the NBA and who, for whatever reason, aren’t NCAA material.

“The NCAA doesn’t want to talk about it, but everybody knows that the only reason a lot of players go to college is to get ready for the NBA,” Stern says. “And I think these guys should have someplace to go where they can make their money, over the table and without having to go through all the charades” that the college cagers now go through.

Stern wasn’t a jock, but as an undergrad at basketball factory UCLA he saw ample evidence of what a sorry joke the NCAA’s “student-athlete” concept is. His opinion was shaped in particular by one final exam, when a classmate whom Stern identifies only as a Bruins basketball star flaunted not having to play by the same rules as his alleged peers.

“Everybody’s working away on this test, but this one guy was just reading the newspaper, folding it up and making noise so everybody would notice,” Stern recalls. “And just 20 minutes into this two-and-a-half hour exam, he stands up, and makes a big show of reaching under his desk and into his gym bag and pulling out two exam blue books. Then he holds these blue books high over his head, goes to the front of the room, puts the books on the professor’s desk and leaves. Everybody in this class was laughing, because they were so shocked a guy would make such a mockery of the system in such a blatant way. I’ll never forget that. I went home with a very bad feeling that day.”

That’s when Stern resolved to create another minor league for the NBA. If all goes well, his creation will tip-off in the fall of 1998 with eight teams, all on the Eastern seaboard. (Officials with the as-yet-unnamed Washington franchise are looking at Showplace Arena in Upper Marlboro to be the team’s home venue.) Half the NRL franchises will have public stock offerings, à la the Green Bay Packers.

New pro sports leagues, if they even get off the ground, invariably crash in about the time it takes to say “U-S-F-L.” But Stern and others involved in the NRL’s establishment say the timing of their launch is right for a number of reasons. Begin with the fact that the NBA, with more unfinished products like McGrady and Jermaine O’Neal coming in every year, has reason to fear becoming its own farm league. Were he not afraid of losing an antitrust suit, David Stern would unilaterally ban anybody 20 and younger from his league. But if the age limits are negotiated as part of a labor agreement—an avenue Stern has reportedly looked into—such prohibitions could fly. When that happens, the under-20 crop would be ripe for picking by

the NRL.

And there is room for more pro ball—even a WNBA game can draw 17,000.

The pressure for new answers to the old questions posed by collegiate ball is only growing. Players from each succeeding high school class express an increased level of frustration with the NCAA system, under which coaches like Thompson take home seven-figure sums from shoe contracts and other endorsements, but the talent doesn’t get any cut of the revenues from the sale of game tickets and licensed attire. (Illicit payments given a select few big names, like Chris Webber and Marcus Camby, are another story.)

“Every time I see a kid wearing a Cal jersey with my name on it, I know I’m not getting anything from that,” Shareef Abdur-Rahim told USA Today last year, explaining why he left the University of California after his freshman season.

The NRL could offer players who share Abdur-Rahim’s sentiments a less phony and exploitative choice after 12th grade, says Stern.

“With the NRL, these guys can make their money over the table,” Stern says.

Obviously, if the NRL is to succeed it will have to convince every kid with a better vertical leap than ACT score that college isn’t the way to go. But the league clearly wants to put on at least a public face that education matters: All player contracts, for example, will include an annual $7,500 payment to a college trust fund.

What’s more, according to Steven Wilansky, a board member of the proposed Washington franchise, all NRL players will be required to take college-level academic courses and “life skills” classes in the off-season in order to retain playing eligibility.

But will they have to pass these classes?

“Well, we’re not sure about that yet,” says Wilansky.

—Dave McKenna