It seemed like a random freakout: Erick Barkley gets into a screaming match with a St. John's teammate at halftime, then quits the team, only to return the next day and lead the Red Storm into the NCAA tournament. But Barkley is only the latest lead in a long and uniquely New York drama.
The city is unequaled for the seductions and tensions it offers hoops prodigies, whether the target is Chris Mullin in the eighties or Stephon Marbury in the nineties: media coverage in elementary school, a network of ravenous summer-league coaches, entourages of "friends" looking to cash in. Marbury's father used to charge reporters to speak with his son.
Barkley wigged out not just from two months of NCAA investigation but from twelve years of pressure. Hustlers have been pursuing him since he was 9 and dribbling through the nasty Farragut projects in Fort Greene. Characters like 350-pound street agent Rob Johnson have lurked in the shadows, offering dinners, rides, and shortcuts to the big basketball bucks.
The last city playground legend to flip was Lamar Odom, who was briefly Barkley's teammate at Christ the King high school. Confused and torn by loyalties to coaches, agents, and family, he disappeared for long stretches and bounced through three high schools and two colleges in three years. With his family leaning on him to turn pro, Odom bolted the University of Rhode Island after a single season -- then tried to return, only to have the NCAA declare him ineligible. He seemed to have made a good business decision when the Los Angeles Clippers signed him last year for $7.4 million. Yet the 20-year-old is deeply ambivalent. "It was the best time of my life, going to college," Odom says. "Kids need to go to school."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who went through similar intrigues in the late fifties as Lew Alcindor of Washington Heights -- UCLA even enlisted alumnus and U.N. Assistant Secretary General Ralph Bunche to visit his home -- was recently hired by the Clippers as an assistant coach, in part to tutor Odom. "All these kids have dreams of getting rich," he says. "Colleges are losing their best players, and players are leaving for the pros before they understand the game."
Barkley well understands the New York game, which is about money as much as basketball. St. John's is attempting to become the first city college to win a national basketball championship since CCNY did it in 1950. Of course, that team had its own money problems: One year later, CCNY players were implicated in a huge point-shaving scandal.