Not since Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the national championship in 2003 have I paid attention to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament from start to finish. While interest at that time was tepid at best, it has dropped to Dubya-like approval rating levels in the last six years.
In fact, this Scribe has watched a whopping total of thirty-five minutes of college basketball in the entire regular season.
It wasn’t always this way as for someone with a vested interest in professional sports, I was anxious to see who really had the talent to make it to the elite level. I wanted to see who would be grossly overhyped, overrated and overwhelmed when they arrived. I also wanted to unearth players that were not considered in the National Player of the Year race who would turn out to become solid, if not great pros. I studied the players with my own eyes as opposed drinking the Kool-Aid served up publicly or privately by the media and friends.
Yet, for every column, comment or conversation I have come across in regards to the collegiate game over the years, someone feels obliged to take a shot at the pros; specifically the NBA.
It’s something that has bothered me for quite some time for reasons too numerous to list. Yet at the core of this frustration are these tried-and-true exclamations:
- There are too many teams in the NBA: The NBA features thirty teams, all made from buckets of what are the 500 best players in the known universe compared to 349 teams that consist of 95% Intramural All-Stars, 3% future collegiate assistant coaches and 2% that might get at least a Summer League invitation.
And can you realistically believe that the hustle-for-cash expansion of Division I has been financially viable for every team?
- They play with passion!: Ano unfair judgment that is made without knowing the individual’s psyche, routine and off-court life. Sure, there are pros out there who may not exude the telltale signs of passion; a lot of screaming and scowling, getting in people’s faces when game plans go awry, those head-in-hand moments as a senior realizes his athletic career ended on a buzzer-beater. Yet, if anyone besides media could ever witness a professional locker room in person after a close loss, you may discover that passion – like leadership, savvy and other intangibles we wax poetic about – isn’t always in full view of the public. In looking for the obvious and borderline-obnoxious signs (see Eric Devendorf), you’ll miss the more subtle and profound displays.
- They’re more fundamentally sound than the pros: When you graduated from high school, were you more fundamentally sound than you were in college? For those who went to college, do you find that you are more fundamentally sound that you are now?
Your answers should both be ‘no’. The idea that college players are better than the professionals because they “don’t dunk all over the place” is ludicrous. It’s ludicrous because when you are a professional at anything in life, the ivory tower ideals are continuously challenged and either supplemented or rejected with real-life experience.
- It’s about the TEAM, not one player: If you’re sick of hearing about Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the NBA’s other stars, think about this: when we suddenly fell in love with the sharpshooting Stephen Curry, did we take the time to learn the names of any other player from Davidson? Can anyone name someone on the snubbed St. Mary’s team besides Patty Mills? Who notched up assists for Gonzaga when Adam Morrison shot the lights out of Western region arenas at tourney time? Take your time in answering.
- (My favorite) They play harder than the pros!: Really?!?! While there are certainly folks in this world who loaf through their days, one of the most unfair things we do as a society is to question someone’s work ethic from afar.
When you’re a professional – especially one who had to fight amongst many others to earn a coveted job – your livelihood is at stake with every key stroke, every presentation, every brick laid and every mid-range jump shot taken. You improve because of one or more of the following: A) you enjoy/need that income, B) you see something that can be improved and need to correct it, C) being in the company of like-minded and/or skilled individuals breeds healthy competition and greater production or D) there are other like-minded and/or skilled individuals who will take your spot if you are unable to perform.
In particular, it was basketball that gained much more of my attention as I would be able to see some of the best teams and players from all corners of the country. While having an athletic program was not a consideration for my choice of college – Babson College is a Division III school, but actually quite good – I have a healthy respect for the school-wide camaraderie and pride a successful one creates for the student body and alumni. Some of the larger schools I was accepted to would have provided such experiences; experiences that admittedly would have kept my interest in the ‘old college try’ far stronger than it is today.
Yet, the continued claims of integrity by NCAA sycophants at the expense of the NBA and its fans, no matter how false and absurd, have weathered this soul. They truly believe that because their athletes are not (legally) paid that the virtues of the game show themselves basket after basket. They truly believe that the money professionals earn makes every play less meaningful and less aesthetically pleasing. They believe that the control wielded by the coaches - men who may lead amateurs, but have no qualms with parading down the sidelines in thousand-dollar designer suits – keeps the game of basketball pure and uncompromised.
Why NCAA basketball fans assail on their NBA counterparts is beyond me. The NBA fan – one who certainly is aware of the league’s perception issues and criticisms – is one who has a great respect for the game. That respect, more often than not, is shunned by their collegiate partners because a majority of those in the NCAA camp can’t move beyond the fact that a select group of players are handsomely compensated to display their talents and passions to the world.
So to everyone consumed by this year’s tournament, enjoy yourselves. This is your time to shine in the spotlight and there’s no doubt that one player or one team will provide an everlasting memory for someone in the masses. Yet, the next time you say to yourself that “this is why I hate the NBA”, consider this comment from today’s op-ed from the New York Times’ Timothy Egan, who extolled the ‘virtues’ of the NCAA tourney:
“Spare us the poetic waxing and shilling for a hypocritical sport that is a huge cashcow for everyone except the players, unless they cheat.”