I had just watched Jimmer Fredette’s final game as a magician, and had settled into watching my favorite team (Duke) get pimp slapped by Derrick Williams and Arizona. The Butler-Wisconsin game briefly tempted me, but I, like the loyal fan I like to consider myself, stayed with Duke as the ship sank (iceberg, strai—err, Derrick Williams, straight ahead).
While watching the end of Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith’s careers, I read a tweet from Magic Basketball’s Eddy Rivera (who, I should note, writes phenomenally and seems like a wonderful person). “This is seriously flawless basketball from Arizona in the second half. Gee, it’s nice to see a college b-ball team execute,” he wrote. The tweet was entirely harmless, but it echoed a certain level of snobbishness I’ve seen from NBA aficionados lately. I love the NBA, too. But I can appreciate competitive basketball at any level.
I’ll admit, I grew up a college basketball apologist. My childhood was spent falling in love with Miles Simon; practicing Ed Cota’s floater in my driveway for hours; learning every crevice in Shane Battier’s head; and worshiping Kevin Pittsnogle. I wanted to name my dog “Toby Bailey,” but my parents weren’t feeling it, and I would have cut off both of my legs to meet Mateen Cleaves, if just for ten minutes. The name Shaheen Holloway sends me into reminisce-mode, though I will admit Ty Shine replaced him more than capably against Temple. And please, don’t get me started about Trajan Langdon: I could wax poetically about him for years. As you can probably tell, college basketball’s lost heroes (and Dawson’s Creek, which I have not yet mentioned) dominated my youth.
I didn’t just wait until the NCAA tournament to watch college basketball; given the choice between a regular season NCAA game and a non-Celtic NBA game, I picked the NCAA eleven times out of ten. There was something exciting about knowing most of the NCAA players were in their glory years; that the NBA wouldn’t be kind to them, but they could excel for four years of their lives; that Juan Dixon wasn’t good enough to stick in the NBA, but could still lead Maryland to an NCAA title; that Khalid El-Amin looked like the black Pillsbury Doughboy and clearly had zero NBA future ahead of himself, but could still score the final four points to win the 1999 championship; that Bryce Drew could go from unheard of to immortalized in the span of 2.5 seconds. There was something about 40-minute games which made the contests seem more urgent, and it helped that college players were (mostly, at least in my perhaps-naive eyes) not yet jaded by fame and money.
I knew, of course, the competition wasn’t as good. But the stories were just as compelling, perhaps even more so because we knew many of our heroes could only star for a small window of time. Gerry McNamara, God bless his soul, kidnapped the Big East tournament during his senior year. Yet the whole time he did, we knew his time was limited. Anyone could see that McNamara had no chance to excel in the NBA. Maybe he’d be drafted, maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he’d make an NBA team, maybe he wouldn’t. But at six foot nothing with hardly a speck of athletic ability, McNamara’s star was destined to burn out the day his Syracuse team was eliminated from the NCAA tournament. After that, we knew, only memories of dagger threes and a considerably lesser professional existence would remain. Not that a poor professional career could take away what McNamara accomplished; for a brief time, just a few weeks of his life, he was a golden god. As Norman Dale once noted, “Most people would kill to be treated like a god, just for a few moments.” McNamara, like many other college studs who leave school to find obscurity waiting, catapulted himself into the public’s eye with feats that will forever remain etched in college basketball’s history.
Then there are the upsets. In the NBA, where needing to win a series rather than just one game lowers the probability of upsets, George Masons (or, the Raptors) don’t reach the Final Four. Butlers (or, the Timberwolves) don’t make the Finals. Almost as a rule, the better team wins a seven-game series. Only once has an eighth seed made the NBA Finals; the New York Knicks, in 1999. And that was during the funky, weird, shortened lockout season. The highest seed ever to win the NBA Finals was the 1994-1995 Houston Rockets (a sixth seed); it would be tough to call a team featuring Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Robert Horry a Cinderella story.
But the NCAA gives us Cinderellas, and plenty of them. Morehead St. advances to the second round, ousting Lousiville and the fabled Rick Pitino. Northwestern St. beats Iowa, on the heels of a 25-foot, fadeaway prayer. It doesn’t take big names to win come March; it takes one game of execution, forty minutes of effort, and some well-timed luck. March Madness reminds me of the halftime speech in The Little Giants. All it takes is one time.
“One time at Randy Cooper’s swim party, I did a back flip off the high dive, and my brother chickened out.”
“Roger chickened out? He’s a marine!”
“Ah, that’s nothing. One time, at spring carnival, I beat both my brothers in a cow dung toss.”
“You beat Matt and Brad in a turd toss?!?”
“One time I went fishing with my entire family, and I was the only one who didn’t throw up.”
“So what? That still doesn’t make us good football players.”
“Wait a second, guys. Who ever said you had to be good to play football? You play football because you want to. You play football because it’s fun. You play football so you can go out there and pretend that you’re Joe Montana throwing a touchdown pass, or Emmit Smith going for a long run. And even if those Cowboys are better than you guys, even if they beat you 99 times out of 100, that still leaves…”
“Yeah! One time!”
Never mind that the Ice Box’s football career fizzled out, and she ultimately became a soft core porn star. No, really. In the NCAA tournament, all it takes is one time. And the players aren’t just out there pretending to be Michael Jordan or Larry Bird or Lebron James or Kobe Bryant; for one day, at least, they can actually become bigger than those guys. In just one day, NCAA players can make their names remembered for a lifetime. That’s what happens when the winner goes on, the loser goes home, and every buzzer beater means the difference between advancing and going fishing. In the NCAA tournament, every game’s a Game Seven.
But, as I said earlier, the competition isn’t as good. There’s a reason McNamara could dominate the Big East tournament, yet couldn’t even play one second in the NBA. There’s a reason Adam Morrison scored six billion points at Gonzaga, then became the NBA’s laughingstock within no time. There’s a reason Jimmer Fredette will never become an NBA superstar, and a reason Nolan Smith—despite nearly becoming the first player ever to lead the ACC in assists and points—will become a role player, at best, when he reaches the next level. NBA players are bigger, better, faster, stronger, more skilled and smarter. Fredette will go from playing against Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton to playing against Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen. The difference is daylight and darkness.
We are also allowed more time to learn about our favorite NBA players. As a Duke fan, I hardly knew Kyrie Irving, but he’s probably gone already. Even four years, like Nolan Smith played, are hardly enough to grow familiar with a player. Players play brief careers, they graduate or declare early for the draft, and the next batch of freshmen arrive to campus, ready to carry on the program’s tradition. There’s something to be said about the urgency of a college career. But there’s also something to be said about it being too short to really get to know the players you root for.
At this point, I feel like Paul Pierce is my brother. I’ve watched him as a young player, when he wrapped his head in bandages, dominated the ball too much during crunch time, and generally played the part of “pampered, spoiled, immature athlete” perfectly. I’ve watched him grow up, embrace the team concept, and become a champion. I’ve watched him win, I’ve watched him lose, I’ve watched him struggle, I’ve watched him persevere, and now I feel like I know him. I know that when a game’s on the line, he wants to dribble once to his right, then step back for a jumper in his wheelhouse. I know he occasionally grows odd patches of facial hair. I know he looks more athletic this year than he has in the past couple years. I know he relishes playing the Lakers, talks a whole lot of crap, and will go to the Hall of Fame as one of the greatest Celtics ever.
College careers are more fleeting. Jimmer mania swooped the world this year, but somebody else will captivate people’s imaginations next season. Kevin Durant owned college basketball one year, but Michael Beasley did the next. Players come, and if they’re good enough to wow everyone one year, they’re almost always in the NBA the following season. Only rarely, like when Steph Curry came back for his senior year, do college superstars return for another run. Just when we start to know them, they bolt. But not NBA stars. They’re around for awhile.
And they’re so good. Kobe Bryant’s footwork is impeccable. Carmelo Anthony’s jab step series is almost perfect. Lebron James has world-class speed combined with world-class strength combined with world-class vision combined with world-class leaping ability, all packaged in a 6’8″ frame. Blake Griffin carries a trampoline underneath him at all times. Ray Allen does. not. miss. NBA defenses are more advanced than their NCAA counterparts, NBA offenses execute far more flawlessly, and NBA players are the best in the world. Remember, even Brian Scalabrine was a stud in college.
The NBA playoffs aren’t as dramatic as the NCAA Tournament, but it’s tough to beat (almost all of) the world’s best basketball players, playing each other night after night. If the NCAA Tournament is checkers, the NBA postseason is chess. Actually, maybe it’s more like boxing. It’s a series of punches and counter-punches, with a seven-game series providing some of the world’s best basketball minds time to make adjustments and improvements. One game (one quarter, even), the Paul Pierce-Rajon Rondo pick-and-roll might work; the screen forces a switch, leaving Pierce with a mismatch in his sweet spot—game over. The next night (or quarter, even), the Celtics might try it again. Suddenly, a double-team comes Pierce’s way, and the Celtics are forced to try plan B. Adjustments—the best players, coached by the smartest coaches, playing basketball at a level that is like Hoosiers to the NCAA’s Air Bud.
Confession: When Kobe Bryant plays, I watch. Not just his team, but him specifically. He’s not the NBA’s best player anymore, but he’s its most refined. Hardly anything he does is without purpose. Each step, each ball fake, each dribble—all calculated attempts to free him, or his teammates, for a shot; all calculated attempts to give his team the best chance to win. Sometimes Kobe shoots too often. Sometimes he isolates when he should instead run the offense. But when you break basketball down to a subatomic level—when you look at just the moves, just the footwork, just the elements that make up a good basketball play—Kobe’s almost flawless.
Jimmer’s not anywhere close to flawless, not like Kobe is, and neither are Derrick Williams, Kemba Walker, or anybody else in the NCAA ranks. Maybe one of them will become a superstar some day, and work on their craft like basketball fiends, and provide more proof for Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule”—the theory that says people can become an expert at almost anything, as long as they spend 10,000 hours practicing that thing. For now, the thrilling entertainment they provide is more than enough.
Whether it’s Celtics-Lakers at the TD Garden, BYU-Florida at New Orleans Arena, or Longmeadow High School-Amherst High School in some dark, musty gymnasium that fits 1,500 people, my view doesn’t change:
I love this game.