Column: Chasing the Brass Hoop

As Michigan hoops' stars Stauskas and Robinson head to NBA draft, let's hope their choice is driven by more than the lure of lucrative contracts – because that won't buy them happiness
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Nik Stauskas grew up in Mississauga, Ontario – a Toronto suburb better known for its neighborhood hockey games than for a Lithuanian kid spending thousands of hours shooting on his parents’ backyard hoop.

This year, Stauskas was named Big Ten player of the year. It worked.

Glenn Robinson III took a completely different route to the NBA: His father is Glenn Robinson Jr., also known as “The Big Dog,” and was the first pick in the NBA draft twenty years ago. If Stauskas had to work to get attention, Robinson had to work to avoid it.

They became strong candidates to leave college early for the NBA draft, which is their right. This week, both decided to make that jump, and file for the draft this spring. Stauskas is projected to be a high first-round pick, and Robinson not too far behind.

Good for them. They’re both nice guys, hard workers, and serious students. If a violinist at Michigan was recruited by the London Symphony Orchestra, no one would begrudge her for jumping. I might have done it myself.

But I do object to the pundits and fans claiming if the NBA dangles millions of dollars in front of a college player, “he has no choice. He has to go.”

This bit of conventional wisdom is based on one gigantic assumption: that the pursuit of money eclipses all other considerations, combined.

The idea that a great player might decide to stay in school to improve their game, to enjoy the college experience, or to pursue his education are  considered silly, even immature responses, when they’re considered at all.

And if he does decide to stay in school – as a surprising number do, despite the pressure to leave – these same people will call him a fool. Why? Money.

The funny thing is, we have actual data – tons of it – that tell us what makes us happy. And study after study shows it’s not money. It’s family. It’s friends. It’s work we care about. And that’s about it.

But ignoring our own values invariably creates unhappiness. Ditto, greed.

The happiest people I know have lived the most meaningful lives, including dedicated schoolteachers, talented musicians and friends working for nonprofits that actually help others.

My dad, like just about everybody else who works at a university, turned down more money from the private sector to keep teaching, researching and treating his pediatric patients. My mom spent ten years teaching grade school, and decades later, she still hears from her students.

The late Chris Peterson, a psychology professor at Michigan who won the Golden Apple Award for teaching in 2010, studied happiness. He discovered the biggest factor in job satisfaction is not hours or prestige or pay, but one good friend. That’s it.

Perhaps that’s why every former Michigan athlete I know who played in the NBA, the NFL and the NHL says they liked playing for Michigan best.  That list includes Stanley Cup champions, Super Bowl winners, and millionaires.

Mike Kenn played for Michigan in the late ’70s, then played 17 years for the Atlanta Falcons, 251 straight starts. He told me, “I watch the Falcons play on Sundays, and I hope they win. But on Saturdays, I live and die with the Wolverines.”

Jim Mandich was the captain of Bo Schembechler’s first Michigan team in 1969, and an All-Pro tight end on the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. He stayed in Miami, and did a lot of radio and TV for the team. When the Detroit News’s Angelique Chengalis asked him a few years ago, when he was facing terminal cancer, if he still had time to follow Michigan football, he said, “Are you kidding me?” Mandich said. “Of course I care about that stuff, to the point of irrationality. It will always be Michigan first, cancer second.” He didn’t even mention the Dolphins.

Yeah, this is what the NCAA wants us to believe, which always makes me nervous. My contempt for that organization is growing – and I didn’t think that was possible. But that doesn’t mean everything they say is always wrong.

So, for Nik and Glenn, do whatever is right for you, and good luck. You’ve worked hard and beaten incredible odds to create those options.

But don’t think for a second that just because someone offers you money to do something, you have no choice but to do it.

If you do, you’re not buying your freedom. You’re selling it.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

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One Comment

  1. By Steve Bean
    April 18, 2014 at 9:51 am | permalink

    The money would almost certainly be there in two years. That the concept of delayed gratification hasn’t been part of the discussion (neither here in this piece nor elsewhere—not even with the formerly obligatory, “but there’s the risk of career-ending injury!”) suggests that it’s an old-fashioned notion unworthy of consideration.