March Madness is over. Say that to a basketball fan, for the reaction. If said basketball fan expresses nothing but regret, well, let’s just say he and I aren’t on the same wavelength. If, on the other hand, that basketball fan says, “Yeah, and I can’t wait for the NBA playoffs,” then we’re in agreement. For basketball fans like me and this hypothetical fan, the NBA playoffs are pure—we don’t have the hype machine like with college basketball, and we don’t have to deal with the silliness of some basketball people insulting another.
Every season during March Madness, writers and broadcasters feel the need to reaffirm their brand of the sport over the professional version. The professional version, we hear, is populated by thugs and lazy bums. They’re all flashy showmen who only care about the dunk and can’t shoot the midrange jumper. They’re all disloyal assholes who are seeking to kill their coach. They’re unruly motherfuckers.
That’s why you always see columnists urging kids to stay in school! It’s the only place you can learn how to play the game, and perhaps something about life as well! The money can wait! Have fun now! Etc., etc.
This is utterly, utterly insane.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love college basketball. But I love professional basketball as well, and I hate the crap it gets for no real reason.
First of all, why should Greg Oden stay in school? He won’t develop his game much more. What will happen, is he will play a bunch of people 6-8 and shorter. And if Florida’s big men can barely keep up with him, what happens with smaller, slower, less athletic players? Nothing good—for the other side, as long as Ohio State remembers to throw the ball inside (which all too often happens). He won’t develop anything beyond dunking in people’s faces, because that’s all he really needs. He wouldn’t need dropsteps, jab steps, turnaround jumpers, hooks, etc., because he simply outclasses every player physically. On the other hand, if Tim Duncan or Jermaine O’Neal’s guarding you, well, you need a little bit more than simple brute strength. Even Shaq has moves. Now, if Oden likes school and wants to stay for fun, sure, that’s great. But don’t try and sell it to him in terms of development—that’s just a year of development deferred. Take Florida. They’re statistically almost exactly the same as last year. They’re really not much better than they were last year, which is pretty damn good, but still. College doesn’t develop really good players, oftentimes; the NBA can.
Secondly, what’s the source for all this vituperation? You don’t see NBA writers or media types attacking the college game. They realize that it’s the pipeline for the players they’ll be talking about later. But college writers are always denigrating the NBA, and part of the source of these insults is disturbing.
Who goes to the NBA? Often it is the athletic cream of the crop. You don’t see Kevin Krueger going to the NBA. The athletic players go; the “smart” players find assistant coaching positions. To get very explicit: blacks go to the NBA; whites more often “go pro in something other than sports.” The insults have a very unfortunate racial tinge. That’s the principal difference between college teams and pro teams: college teams often have key contributors or even stars who are white; pro teams are more frequently all black. Furthermore, college coaches are more frequently white than NBA coaches. And even though college basketball is majority black player-wise, it offers the comforting pabulum for conservative moneyed whites (who are the key sports demographic) that the blacks are bettering themselves morally via education and regimentation (the onerous NCAA rules). They are pure, they are receiving only the fun. Meanwhile, who benefits? The coaches, the networks, the schools (all white dominated) are all making money hand over fist; the only hope for a college basketball player to make money off of his distinctive skill is to make the pro game, which is very difficult. One might not be good enough, or one might get injured, irreparably damaging his pro prospects.
Meanwhile, at the pro level, whenever anything goes wrong for a pro player, he is a thug. The most common complaints that I hear about the pro game is that the players are “thugs” or “scary” or whatever. That’s how you endlessly hear about basketball brawls, but not about hockey brawls. They’re fundamentally the same act, yet hockey brawls are treated as charming and quaint and even a reason to go to the game. Of course, basketball players are far less thuggish than football players, but you never hear about that. Meanwhile, I saw a fleeting image on TNT today in between games: Bruce Bowen and his five-year-old (a guess) kid were passing the basketball between each other. It was incredibly sweet; if Bruce were a college basketball player, and it happened during March Madness, well, you’d be seeing that image eternally. Why? College basketball players can be nice, ebullient with the love of the game; pro basketball players just aren’t.
I happen to think that neither college basketball players nor pro basketball players, nor big-time athletes in general are angels. Frankly I don’t much care whether they’re nice people—I only care about the quality of the game (if you disagree, ask yourself when you watch The Pianist or Chinatown, do I care that the director is a convicted child molester?). What I do care about is balance, and racial code words. When African-Americans are referred to as lazy, unruly and violent, the same code words as always, I have to disagree.