The first of our guest-bloggers is the consistently-excellent Eric Gribbin, one of my Lodgemates at Carolina, and someone whose talents in sportswriting did not go unnoticed by his myriad friends. He may be a lawyer, but someday he and Chip should start their own Grantland. In the late ’80s he had a nice 3-pointer; not sure if it is still in his arsenal, but I have fond memories still.
Eric and I waxing philosophical, March ’89
First of all, I’d like to thank Ian for the opportunity to reach a wider audience than the die-hards who read my little blog, the Mike Pepper Fan Club, although I will say that I appreciate the loyalty of my readers even more with each passing year (I just started my eighth year of blogging, which is twice as long as Mike Pepper was at UNC). Ian’s blog was my inspiration, and it has been bookmarked in my Favorites for as long as I’ve had Favorites. So thank you, Ian.
I’m sure all of you watched the national championship game last night, or as I like to call it, the 2012 NBA Pre-Draft Show. Before I get into my main topic, the disintegration of college basketball (picking up from where Ian left off in an entry a few weeks ago), I will say that I appreciated the quality of play Sunday night a lot more than I did the bumbling, stumbling efforts of UConn and Butler in the abominable 2011 title game, which, I hope, will remain the nadir of the sport at this level.
As I watched the game and heard the commentators repeatedly going out of their way to stress what a great job John Calipari did of making this group of early exiters into a “team” (let us not forget that his last two title game entrants have been wiped from the record books by probation—I love that one commentator emphasized that in neither case was the probation directly linked to Calipari; you know what? I don’t care—if Derrick Rose didn’t take his SAT, I lay that at the feet of the coach who played him 40 minutes a game for that one glorious year), I couldn’t help but feel a real sense of sadness about what college basketball has become.
The “one and done” rule has created a real opportunity for the Caliparis of the world, who are willing to hang out a shingle and take all comers without pretense of education and mold them into a humming unit for that one season that they’re going to spend in Lexington. Listening to his postgame speech was particularly deflating, as he bragged about how many first-round picks he had last year and how many he’ll have this year (five? six?) and how many freshman he’ll turn into first-round picks next year. This is a man who has found himself in the right place at the right time, a snake-oil salesman sitting at the helm of the biggest snake oil factory in the world at the peak of the market.
Do all of the gushing Jim Nantzes and Clark Kelloggs and Steve Kerrs and Dick Vitales think that the UK players are going to carry this selfless ethic to the next level? Of course not. A few years toiling for the Bobcats or the Kings or the Hornets will have them waving off picks just like Kobe did to the Mailman in that All-Star Game. John Calipari is not molding men, he is shaping commodities. And doing so at a breakneck pace. Will he catch lightning in a bottle every year? Probably not, but he’ll come darn close.
I don’t mean to say that “one and done” hasn’t seeped into the rest of the college hoops world. Just look at James Michael McAdoo, who is weighing his pro options after one year on Carolina’s bench, just like Marvin Williams did before him.
Is it the right thing to do? It’s hard to say. For every Kobe Bryant, there are three Brandan Wrights and, worse, a few Joseph Fortes. But it’s hard to tell a nineteen-year-old to spurn a guaranteed three-year contract in the NBA to stay in the ACC and risk injury or, worse, the tarnishing of one’s golden “potential.” The “P” word that, for one brief shining moment, made Darko Milicic look like Bill Russell to Larry Brown.
NBA scouts want to shake the present and guess what it is, but the thing they fear most in the world is opening it before they’ve sunk five years and $80 million into it. What that mindset leaves for the college game is a helter-skelter form of basketball, with tons of isolation moves and laughable half-court possessions and 30 percent shooting even in the national title game.
I will share with you a guest article I wrote for (gasp!) the Chronicle during my second year in law school at the former Trinity College. I wrote it in my room in Ferrum, Virginia, one blustery cold January night in 1997 after watching a bewildered Tar Heel squad blow a 22-point lead at home against Maryland. I found this during a house move last weekend, and I was struck with how my 26-year-old self said things that my 42-year-old self is still feeling today. (Okay, I’m not Nostradamus—see the reference to KG and Kobe):
– – – – “Last Wednesday night, my father and I watched college basketball die. I drove to Virginia to visit my dad, with whom I have seen hundreds of college hoops games over the past 20 years. We sat down to watch North Carolina host Maryland. Carolina jumped out to a big lead, which grew to 22 by early in the second half. Then the Heels fell apart; by the end of the game, three walk-ons were wandering aimlessly across the floor as Maryland players whizzed past them in a seemingly endless series of stolen passes, dunks and swished three-pointers.
Antawn Jamison, the only Tar Heel who seemed to know that a game was being played, watched helplessly as the band of misfits around him fumbled the game away. It was sad to watch Dean Smith’s team fail to run any semblance of an offense. The team concept upon which Smith has built his incredible string of 20-win seasons has been decimated by the lure of fat, guaranteed NBA contracts. This team should have featured the leadership of seniors Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Jeff McInnis.
All are gone. Wallace and Stackhouse are already NBA veterans, having left Chapel Hill two years ago. Thirty-seven underclassmen and two high school students entered the NBA draft last spring, making college basketball largely a game of freshmen and sophomores, a game that will be less fun to watch with each passing year as more and more players jump to the ever-expanding NBA—or elect to bypass college altogether, like Kevin Garnett. Who can blame these players? They’re getting millions in exchange for their collegiate eligibility.
Tim Duncan has elected to stay at Wake Forest to get a degree and try to win a title. [Ed. note from EG: The Heels’ game before the Maryland loss was an 81-57 thrashing by Wake Forest. But we still made the Final Four that year!] [Further ed. note from IW: that ’96-’97 became my favorite Heels team of all time, along with ’05-’06] How many of those who laud him for the purity of his intentions will resist the urge to criticize him (he could have had millions) should he suffer a serious injury this season?
Dean Smith will be the last to lament this state of affairs: He advised early jumpers James Worthy—who had already dealt with serious injury, suffering a season-ending broken leg as a freshman—and Michael Jordan to take the money and run. But back then, the early jumpers were people like Michael, Isaiah and Magic, whose legends had already outgrown the limitations of the college game. All had won NCAA titles and all were ready to move on to Hall of Fame careers. Do we really think they’re already making room up in Springfield, Mass. for Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant? [Ed. note from EG: Oops!]
It is hard to imagine what college basketball will be like in 10 years. As the collegiate talent pool dwindles and the NBA expands to Europe and beyond, creating ever more roster spots, fan interest in college ball will inevitably wane as will, eventually, commercial interest.
The NCAA tournament will become more like the College World Series, a contest among young men who saw college as merely one of several options. Imagine the marketing alternatives: There are 307 Division I basketball schools, but tens of thousands of high schools play basketball. Kids adorned with DeMatha jerseys, Oak Hill shorts and Dunbar sweats will dribble on blacktops across the land, dreaming of the day they, too, can make the jump from high school to the NBA. All of these new garments will bear that little swoosh stripe that helped bring college basketball into the spotlight and then helped kill it.
It was only a matter of time until the erosion of team loyalty and lust for big bucks that have ruined pro sports infected the college ranks. Solutions such as giving college players a stipend or even real salaries have been put forth to “save” the college game, but stipends pale in comparison to NBA dollars and, as for salary, I hope I am not around to see the first college free agent.
The only thing that could stave off the death of college basketball as we know it would be a decision by the NBA not to draft underclassmen. This will never happen and, really, such a decision would be unfair to the players who have a talent for which pro teams will pay huge money. American basketball has become a market-driven enterprise, and the market can no longer bear to wait four years for while its targets fuel the bonanza that big-time college basketball has become.
As Charlie McNairy, Web Tyndall, and Brad Frederick were flailing about the Smith Center the other night, trying to run the Carolina offense, Dick Vitale grew extremely agitated at the sight of people leaving the game in droves before the final buzzer. “The kids need you!” he kept yelling. Dick Vitale is as great a fan as the college game will ever know. He will go down with the ship. But he was missing the point. Those people were not walking out on the Tar Heels. They were walking out on college basketball, a game whose time has passed.” – – – –
Probably a little premature, but you get the point. I feel like such an old fogey when I talk about this. I, like so many readers of this blog, grew up eating, sleeping, and breathing Carolina basketball. Shooting (and making!) a free throw in Carmichael at age eight (thank you, nameless student manager!) before a Carolina practice was the highlight of my young life.
My first hero was George Karl; I loved Al Wood and Sam Perkins and Dave Colescott and Rich Yonaker’s sprints to the foul line and Jeff and Joe Wolf and Jimmy Black and, yes, Mike Pepper. I thought the world had ended when Michael Jordan went pro after his junior year. How could anyone leave Chapel Hill?
Nowadays, I still love Carolina basketball; I just painted my unborn son’s room Carolina blue because, well, because. But I get this feeling of melancholy in the pit of my stomach when I watch the games these days, knowing that the better the player, the more fleeting his time on the Hill is likely to be; I’m sick of feeling grateful when someone sticks around for his sophomore year.
As Ian pointed out, this is all just a function of the marketplace, and far it be it from me to advise a young Tar Heel to do anything other than take the money and run. I don’t know how the NFL gets away with blatantly violating the nation’s antitrust rules, but I don’t think the NBA could pull it off; the one and done rule is even on sketchy legal ground (the NBDL is not a viable alternative; ask Jackie Manuel how much he made there while he was tearing up the league a few years back). So it’s not going to get any better.
Like Ian, I will still be in my seat watching whatever constitutes the Tar Heels play whatever constitutes Duke until I can’t see anymore, but I can’t help but have the sinking sense that I was in on the secret before it got out to the rest of the world; back before March Madness and office pools and Sportscenter and conference realignment, when a slightly pudgy former reserve guard from Kansas patrolled the sidelines and had four years to make men out of boys. It’s still kind of entertaining, but back then, damn if it wasn’t a blast.