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NBA rookies: from high school to million$.

LAST June, on NBA draft night, 19-year-old Kwame Brown of Brunswick, Ga., made history. For the first time a high school player who had forgone his college eligibility to enter the National Basketball Association was the first overall pick in the draft, a position that guaranteed him a three-year, $11.9 million contract. And he wasn't alone in going straight to the NBA. Tyson Chandler of Dominquez High in Compton, Calif., followed Brown as the No. 2 pick and was traded that night by the Los Angeles Clippers to the Chicago Bulls for star Elton Brand. The Bulls then, with the No. 4 pick, paired Chandler with Eddy Curry of Chicago-area Thornwood High. Eighteen-year-old DeSagana Diop, a native of Senegal who attended Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, went to the Cleveland Cavaliers as the No. 8 pick.

Draft night was cause for celebration. Brown spoke of providing for his family. Chandler called going to the NBA a "dream come true." Curry said that it would challenge him in ways high school--and college--could not. Since that time the four high school students who became overnight millionaires and stars have been pushed, pounded, critiqued and berated. Dubbed "Baby Faces," they have faced coaching changes and public condemnation by veterans. They have endured the media spotlight and losing seasons.

And yet, 10 months after that night in June, with their first season nearing completion, they are still here, in the NBA. And still, they have no regrets. "It's been ups and downs," Brown says. "But coach [Doug Collins] and everybody keep telling me `never get too high, never get too low.'"

Staying level-headed has been sound advice for the teens, who have experienced a number of successes and setbacks during their tumultuous first year. In Chicago, Chandler emerged as a starter by midseason at forward while Curry and Brown have gotten time in reserve roles, averaging 10 to 11 minutes a game. Brown, who was drafted for his size, speed and ball-handling abilities, avoided some of the criticism due to impressive outings in the NBA summer league and the media's focus on teammate Michael Jordan's comeback.

But since the start of the regular season, Brown has had to adjust to grueling practices, bigger and better players, a seven-month, 82-game schedule and media scrutiny.

Curry has met the skeptics with an increased maturity. After reports said he was too big to be an effective NBA player, Curry moved to Deerfield, Ill., next door to the Bulls' training facility, and worked more than 40 pounds off his 6-foot-11 frame to get down to 290.

But the challenge of competing on this level is part of the reason he decided to turn pro, Curry says. "I felt that if I went to college, it wouldn't have been a challenge for very long," he says. "I'm the type of person who needs a challenge in order to play hard. If I get bored with the situation, I probably don't put a lot of effort in. I knew, on the NBA level, I was going to be challenged every night."

One of the real challenges for Curry and the other rookies has been handling NBA life outside the arena. Playing close to his parents' Steger, Ill., home allows Curry to be close to his father, Eddy Sr., and mother, Gayle. But he says it also leads to "extra family coming around, extra friends," looking for a piece of his three-year, $8.64 million contract.

Curry, who once planned to attend local college basketball powerhouse DePaul University, lives in a three-bedroom townhouse and his older sister, Nicole, occasionally stays there. "I've seen a new maturity level in Eddy," Gayle Curry says. "I'm not there anymore to say, `Eddy, get up, get ready to go to school.' Now he's going to work. He knows he needs to be somewhere at a certain time. Just the commitment. You can see the growth there."

Chandler, who will make $10.67 million over three years, has made a smooth transition into the NBA, moving into a four-bedroom house near Lake Michigan with family friend and personal coach, Tom Lewis, a former college player at Pepperdine University. Chandler has an entire personal staff around him, including a personal trainer, a position specialist, a business manager and a financial advisor. Additionally, Chandler says his mother, Vernie Threadgill, lived with him in Chicago last summer. Although she's returned to the West Coast, the family of Chandler's stepfather, William Brown, is in town.

The younger Bulls also have each other to fall back on, forming a beneficial friendship over the past year. Both turn to each other to deal with the constant references to their "promise" and "potential" and the high expectations placed on them. And Curry has helped Chandler adapt to one of the harshest aspects of life in Chicago--the weather. "The whole team talked to Tyson, and he told us he's going to be overdressed," Curry says.

Unlike Curry, Chandler enjoys the attention. He's been a highly touted player since growing to 7 feet by age 14 and had been all-but-groomed to enter the NBA after high school. He traveled the country while playing for Nike-sponsored club teams, enrolled at powerhouse Dominquez High, 60 miles away from his family's home in San Bernardino. Chandler felt so sure about his NBA chances that he didn't take a single college entrance exam, an act most onlookers did not support.

Still, on a recent road trip back to California to play the Los Angeles Lakers, Chandler made a surprising statement, saying he would discourage prep seniors looking to skip college and head to the NBA. And while he stands firm that it was the right decision for him, he added that it takes maturity in order to battle the tough times. He also said he plans to enter college, his schedule permitting. "I want to attend summer school. I know I want to go into business," Chandler says. "So I'm definitely going to go to school. It just depends on what the situation is."

Brown, like Chandler and Curry, relies on family support. The Wizards rookie lives in the D.C. suburb of Alexandria, Va., with hometown friend John Edwards. The transition has included less worry about family and hangers-on and more about the game. One of eight children in his family, Brown says that his mother, Joyce, continues to support him through his first year in the NBA'S school of hard knocks. And true to his word on draft night, Brown is "blessing" his mother with a new home.

It's all about appreciation for his mother, a former Days Inn housekeeper who suffered from high blood pressure, lost a kidney to the disease and eventually went on disability due to a bad back. "It's coming up pretty soon," Brown says of his mother's new home. She's at the point, he says, of narrowing down to two houses she saw. And now that family and friends have given their input, she should make a decision soon.

These young men believe they will follow in the footsteps of NBA stars like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. They believe in hard work, knowing that their moves will continue to be scrutinized. But they also believe that, with time, the focus on their age and inexperience will fade and shift more toward their skill, ability and maturity, both on and off the court. "I think everybody is going to be looking at us to mess up and see us fall on our face," Curry says. "But I think there are going to be a lot of people who actually want to see us do well and will actually pat us on our backs when we do well."
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Title Annotation:teenagers drafted directly from high school into the National Basketball Association
Author:Jeffers, Glenn
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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