Monday, March 26, 2007

A Little Basketball

As many of you know, this was the first year of a new rule in the NBA that requires kids just out of high school to wait one year before they will be allowed to play professionally. The problem, near as I understand it, is that team owners were increasingly frustrated by the fact that they had to invest money in unproven talent. Of course, nobody had a gun to their head when it came to drafting kids just out of high school. And, of course, for every Lebron James who came out of high school and became an instant All Star there were at least three players like Sebastain Telfair who will almost certainly end their career playing in Europe. Nevertheless, no team owner wanted to take the risk of passing up on that high school phenom who might be the next big thing. They're fun to market, they're potentially very lucrative (i.e., they put butts in seats), and they can revive an organization (for a while) if they're great. After several years of rolling the dice, though, the owners finally decided to change things up. Let the kids play college ball for a year, or sit on their butts playing with their Nintendo Wii, they said, anything but enter the draft.

This year, the rule has been almost universally regarded as a success for college basketball. It's brought long-time NBA fans back to the game, and it's turned football towns into basketball towns (e.g., Columbus, Ohio and Austin, Texas). Between Kevin Durant down in Texas and Greg Oden at Ohio State, NCAA Division I basketball was bursting at the seams with awesome talent. It was, in my estimation, a golden year for college basketball. Durant and Oden were choirboys, loved by their communities and colleges -- they said all the right things, even down to the obligatory "I might come back next year" lie. Of course they're not coming back next year, but we'll give them credit for playing along with the illusion of honesty and integrity that compels so many to adore college basketball.

All along, though, there have been naysayers to this new rule. Take for instance, Bobby Knight. For all his personal flaws, Knight is an educator at heart. College basketball is not, for him, a NBA minor league; nor is it a junior circuit. Kids are given athletic scholarships ... in order to go to school. The fact that they are athletes of the highest caliber is secondary. Obviously, then, he doesn't take kindly to kids coming in for a year only beause they have to. He contends that what you have is a bastardization of college athletics as a whole.

"Because now you can have a kid come to school for a year and play basketball and he doesn't even have to go to class," Knight said Monday during the Big 12 coaches call. "He certainly doesn't have to go to class the second semester. I'm not exactly positive about the first semester. But he would not have to attend a single class the second semester to play through the whole second semester of basketball.

"That, I think, has a tremendous effect on the integrity of college sports."

Now, I don't know what Oden or Durant's academic schedule or grades look like. But, on the whole, Knight makes a pretty good argument here. Thus far, though, both players have been such class acts that's it not really been a big issue to too many people. What happens, though, when a high school kid without their apparent maturity comes along -- who understands the illusion of integrity in college basketball, but who revels in openly flaunting it rather than repress or deny it? What happens when a kid comes along who will not say the things we want to hear, or play along the way we want; who understands the college game purely in terms of his pre-professional marketing; who has his coach wrapped around his finger? What happens then?

We'll find out next year.