Madness worth watching
It’s too late.
The NCAA Tournament is upon us, so it is now officially too late to moan about the player who should have been suspended for receiving “impermissible benefits’’ (which could include a free T-shirt or a ride to practice from an assistant coach — in the pouring rain), the point guard who is accompanied to games by his parole officer, the big scorer whose SATs may have been taken by a surrogate in need of a few bucks, or the one-and-done kid who couldn’t find a classroom with a GPS.
Nope, sorry. June, July, August, September, and maybe even a bit into October . . . that’s Complainin’ Time. Once we get through with Selection Sunday, our complete focus should be on the games at hand. We can’t worry about the sausage factory aspect of big-time college basketball now. There’s a tournament to run.
No, I haven’t lost my moral compass. I’m just a realist. If we wanted the Division 3 tournament and nothing but the Division 3 tournament, that’s what would be on TV. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The best Division 3 teams are extremely entertaining.
But that’s not what we all want, and by “we’’ I’m talking about many millions of Americans who have been born into a system of college athletics in which many compromises are made in the name of higher education simply because we love — no, make that venerate — the product. No other country does this (Canada’s college system is extremely modest by comparison, and no one else has anything like it at all).
We want these games. Period. We want our football bowl games and we want our NCAA basketball tournament. And, please, NCAA, don’t insult us by declaring some previous tournament placements to be “vacated’’ in some ex-post facto manner. We all know what happened. We know what we know. You can’t tell UMass fans their team didn’t crush Georgetown in the East Regionals and didn’t go to the 1996 Final Four. They weren’t hallucinating. But the results officially have been “vacated’’ because it was learned that Marcus Camby had taken money and jewelry from an agent. Let the NCAA re-write history. Massachusetts 86, Georgetown 62. That’s what UMass fans always will remember.
By the way, Georgetown’s face was smeared with some egg that same year when the Washington Post revealed that one of its key players was not exactly, shall we say, a “New Yorker’’ subscriber. But, boy, could he shoot.
Much of big-time college sports is a colossal mess, and we don’t care. We accept the idea that all the football and basketball players can’t be Rhodes Scholars. That’s why God invented Stanford, Northwestern, Davidson, and, yes, Harvard. If they want to play with true “scholar-athletes’’ that’s their business. The others want players, the “scholar’’ part being somewhat optional. (Don’t bother e-mailing me with the exceptions. I know who they are).
So sooner or later we will learn disturbing things about some participants in the 2011 tournament. Someone’s achievement may even be “vacated.’’ And nothing will change.
College basketball is what it is, and it’s been getting worse since the NBA’s ill-advised change in eligibility rules, which made “one-and-dones’’ a viable option. John Calipari had four of them last year at Kentucky. In what could be regarded as some sort of coaching detox, he has weaned himself down to a mere two this year. Forget about continuity. Forget about team decorum. Forget about tradition. Forget about raising the jersey of a cherished four-year star. Roll ’em in, roll ’em out, and keep ’em eligible for one semester. That’s modern college basketball on some campuses.
But the tournament rolls on. Just because some of the principals shouldn’t be playing doesn’t mean the games can’t be good. We just came off a sensational conference tournament week, with a number of successful last-second shots and a rather amazing occurrence in New York in which Connecticut, whose coach has been chastised (somewhat) for naughty behavior, defied all logic by winning five games in five days to become Big East champion. Commentators congratulated Jim Calhoun for overcoming “adversity,’’ as if he hadn’t brought all the trouble on himself by the overzealous recruiting of a troubled kid he never really needed in the first place.
Everywhere one looks, boosters and agents lurk. The corruption process now begins when talents are as young as 9 or 10 and about to enter the tangled world of AAU basketball. Once upon a time, the high school coach was the most important figure in a young man’s athletic life. Now, was it ever 100 percent pure, all over the land? Don’t be ridiculous. There were high school coaches with their hands out long before Sputnik went up. But they were relatively few in number. Most high school coaches were legit father figures who had the best interests of the kids at heart.
But the scope of latter-day corruption is truly stupendous. AAU coaches with widely varying ethics and motivation are the ones with whom coaches must deal if they want access to the best talent. The kids see how the game is played, and they want theirs.
The Entitlement Mentality knows no bounds. Earlier this year I spoke with the coach of a so-called “mid-major’’ (actually a low major, truth be told), who informed me that I would not believe the selfish, gimme attitude of his kids.
“No offense,’’ I said. “But at your level?’’
“Absolutely,’’ he insisted.
Those kids did him in. He was let go at the end of the season.
Sure, there are a lot of good kids out there, and there are even some coaches swimming against the general tide of sleaze. Somehow, some way, there will be good games aplenty, and we might even get a Final Four in which the majority of the participants are really good kids who go to class more often than not and who might actually have heard of the tragedy unfolding in Japan.
At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. If I’m going to invest this much emotional energy into something, I want to feel good about it.