Call it pre-spring fever but every year in March (just before the basketball Madness begins), I break out with a serious case of roundball Walter Mittyism (James Thurber’s meek and mild-mannered fictional character with a daring and vivid fantasy life.)
Growing up in Kentucky means the usual childhood dreams of grown-up greatness inevitably include, at some point, imagined greatness as a basketball player. For the vast majority of us, basketball greatness never goes beyond the dreaming phase. But it’s a dream that continues to linger posthumously.
Kentucky basketball in March is a beautiful thing to behold. I suspect I am not alone in experiencing this annual psychological condition as our state’s college basketball teams emerge to dominate college basketball. The fever always passes but rarely before I experience obvious –and occasionally embarrassing – tell-tale symptoms.
This past Monday night I asked my 20 year old son Johnny to join me at a basketball court where we could play some competitive pick up games and he agreed.
As I strode onto the court, I imagined myself becoming transformed from a 5′ 8 1/2 middle-aged man in ” reasonably good health” (My doctors words) into a 51 year old basketball phenom who was about to dominate a new court playing against some unsuspecting innocent bystanders.
The other players on our pick-up team were impressive. In fact, daunting. They were regulars and probably played in high school and maybe even college. Two of them could dunk with little effort. As I took my warm-up shots from the range where Aaron Harrison strokes his tournament game winning 3-pointer jumpers, I imagined myself dishing a thrilling off-the-glass alley-oop pass to my one of my teammates who finishes with a thunderous dunk. My pass would be, I imagined, part John Wall, part Andrew Harrison and part John Y Brown III. After the dunk my teammate would find me on the floor and point as if to say “Nice pass, my man” and I would casually nod back (but without pointing) as if to say, “Nice dunk.”
My son Johnny was warming up with me but seemed more concerned about how successfully we’d match up with our fellow players on the court. After a few minutes, our pick-up game had begun.
And a few more minutes after that, our pick-up game had ended.
Political philosopher Thomas Hobbes would have described the game for our team as “Cruel, nasty, brutish –and short.” Dick Vitale would have simply said “Blowout, baby!”
Mostly, though, I didn’t care about the humiliating loss. I just wanted to steady myself against the court wall before collapsing or having to lie down on the floor to catch my breath.
One pick-up game, it turns out, was all I could handle last Monday. As we drove home, I said to Johnny in an forced upbeat voice (after having caught my breath), “Well…. I guess we did it. We played.”
“Uh, no Dad. We didn’t do anything.” Johnny responded slightly irritated with me trying to put a happy face on our disappointing performance.
“It was our first pick-up game in a long time. We are just rusty. That’s all.” I offered.
“Sure, Dad. If you say so.” Johnny said as be broke into a self-deprecating grin, “You know, even though I missed both my shots I was secretly hoping our teammates thought to themselves, ‘Hey, that guy may have missed his shot but he does have really nice shooting form. I hope he shoots again soon.’” Johnny laughed louder mocking his feeble fantasy.
“I think they probably did think that!” I offered compassionately. “You do have good form. Even great form. In fact, I was thinking that very thought when you missed your first shot.”
“You’re my dad. I can assure you no one else on our team had that thought” Johnny said shaking his head.
“Well, Johnny, when I shot my air ball I was secretly hoping the other players on our team were thinking ‘Hey, that guy may have just shot an airball but he does have really nice shooting form. He probably just feels nervous right now since it’s his first shot of the game. That happens to all of us including me. I’m not surprised at all he shot an airball. I hope he shoots again soon.”
I paused “Do you think the other players might have thought that after watching my airball shot?”
We both kept laughing at ourselves as we pulled into the driveway and we pledged for the remainder of March we would only play basketball on our backyard goal.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering about that stunning off-the-glass alley-oop pass to a teammate leading to a thunderous dunk? Well, it never happened. But it was a beautiful thing to behold. In my imagination anyway.
But there is a consolation for my annual March Mittyism. Some Kentucky college basketball player will make a comparable stunning play this month and do so on national television as millions of roundball fans watch in awe. And that makes my delusional fantasies just a little less absurd because I, too, am a Kentuckian in March.
I have had the privilege several times in the past year of being around Jack “Goose” Givens on a business matter.
Our fist interaction was through an email introduction that asked me if I knew Jack Givens and copied him. I responded, “Are you kidding me? I’ll never forget the night back in 1978 when Jack Givens and I combined for 41 points and UK won the NCAA championship.” And then added, “Of course, Jack was on the basketball court that night and I was just one of 20,000 fans in the stands –but it was a great night for both of us.”
That was how I knew “Goose” Givens. 41 points and the cover of Sports Illustrated. Oh, and baseball enthusiasts are quick to point out that those 41 points was without the 3 pointer.
But that was a long time ago. I can’t say I know Jack Givens well…but after a few brief interactions I have become less impressed with Jack Givens the UK basketball star a lot more impressed with Jack Givens the smart and savvy businessman, the community and civic leader, and just all around great and gracious guy.
I am glad I have gotten to see the “other” Jack Givens. Without the UK uniform. The post-game Jack Givens. Who in his personal and professional life regularly posts the equivalent of 41 point games –and has been quietly doing so for a very long time now.
The record Jack Givens has compiled off the court since his NCAA Championship game is more impressive to me than his making the cover of Sports Illustrated for one amazing night.
And, by the way, has also been done without the 3 pointer.
I have always had mixed feelings about Louisville (and Kentucky) being able to support an NBA franchise. I have wanted it to be true that we can support a professional basketball team– but understand from close up, from our ABA days, what a daunting reality that is.
Over the past 40 years my attitude has been a lukewarm, “Well, maybe we should try and see. If it doesn’t work, it is better to have tried and failed than to have never tried and never known for certain.”
But recently, and for no particular objective reason I can point to, my opinion about Louisville and having an NBA team, have lurched a bit. Only a little –but enough to move from a lukewarm and hopeful “Maybe we should give it a try” attitude, to a convinced and confident “We must try” and “We are ready as a city” attitude about Louisville having an NBA team.
I think now is the time. And I think if we are sincere about being a “Possibility City” there is no better way to prove it than by bringing an NBA team to Louisville. And having it not only succeed finically but thrive as a team within the NBA.
After all, “possibilities,” if not acted on, are just missed opportunities.
Is Louisville more of a city of missed opportunities or a city of possibilities realized?
That is the real question we as Louisvillians need to be asking ourselves –daily. Followed by the next question: What are we doing to make sure the latter is true?
Nothing that could happen in Louisville over the next 3-5 years would signify more convincingly that we are a city that is a good steward of possibilities than becoming home –not just to an NBA team —but the next great NBA team (ideally deep with former UL and UK players). Of course, I think this team should be “Kentucky” named like the “Kentucky Colonels.” We would need our state–not just the city of Louisville–to support this team, if we were serious about being successful. Perhaps, too, there should be several games a year in Lexington and N.KY to help underline the point the team belongs to the state not just one of our cities. But the onus and primary sacrifice (and benefit) would be on Louisville.
That is my humble –and, yes, somewhat daring –opinion. But if you don’t dare, possibilities die. And this possibility deserves both our daring and our commitment. Before it dies a final death. And we don’t have another 10 or 20 years to waste before that happens.
Dr. Eli Capilouto
President, University of Kentucky
Office of the President
101 Main Building
Lexington, Kentucky 40506
I write in my capacity as a concerned UK alumnus. (B.A. 1995, J.D. 1998, M.L.S. 1999) I have recently come to the conclusion that college athletes have an equitable right to a fair distribution of the $6 billion revenue that their labor generates. My goal is to persuade you to lead an initiative to recalibrate college athletics in a manner that achieves social justice for the players and restores higher education’s integrity. This letter will discuss how I became disillusioned with the status quo. I will then share my thoughts regarding a path forward that builds on reform ideas that Joe Nocera outlined in the New York Times Magazine.
I became sensitized to the issue by a thoroughly demoralizing article entitled “The Shame of College Athletics” by civil rights historian Prof. Taylor Branch. I grappled with its implications throughout the 2011-2012 basketball season. Like many UK alumni, I have fervently followed UK basketball for the majority of my life. The inequity inherent in the fact that Rodrick Rhodes received no compensation as a result of my 1993 purchase of a 12 jersey never occurred to me. To the extent that the unpaid labor issue crossed my mind, I figured that the entertaining performers on court at Rupp Arena receive plenty of benefits: free tuition, lodging, coaching, food, travel, access to UK doctors etc.
My thinking evolved after reading Prof. Branch’s article. I learned that the value of the in-kind benefits that revenue sport athletes receive is a small percentage of the money that their labor produces: “[t]he average Football Bowl Subdivision player would be worth $121,000 per year, while the average basketball player at that level would be worth $265,000.”
I finally decided that I could no longer consume college basketball in good conscience. The product is produced on the backs of a young, mostly unsophisticated (mostly black) group who are not permitted to have a voice to represent their interests. I am not content to merely avert my individual gaze. I hope to persuade you to take a public position in favor of UK’s withdrawal from the NCAA, market-driven compensation for the players and ending UK’s support of the myth of the “student-athlete.”
Alchemy and the Shibboleth of “Amateurism”
Prof. Branch eloquently argues that “‘amateurism’ and the ‘student-athlete’ are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes.” He expanded this point in an NPR interview: “[t]he hoax is that it’s the only place in American society where we impose amateur status on someone without their consent. They’re not amateurs because they’ve chosen to be. They’re amateurs because we said that’s what you have to be.” Prof. Branch’s article outlines the sad history that explains how the “student-athlete” concept was created to shield schools from workers’ compensation liability for incidents where players died or were paralyzed on the college football field.
Mark Emmert seems to perceive a threat in the expanding criticism of the NCAA cartel. In an apparent attempt to mute calls for reform, he instituted an annual cash stipend for college athletes in 2011. This was met with enough resistance by athletic directors that it was rescinded. The self-serving position that universities are unable to afford to pay $2000 a year to the performers in a $6 billion dollar entertainment industry brings the gross inequity of the status quo into stark relief.
On January 10, UK Athletics announced that it will fund the construction of new buildings on campus. It is hypocritical to suggest that paying the players would destroy the integrity of the competition but that it is okay for UK to spend the money without the players’ consent. I fail to understand the alchemy that leverages the shibboleth of “amateurism” to launder the otherwise corrupting loot into something virtuous when it funds UK facilities.
Recent incidents provide further evidence that the status quo is unjust. It was revealed on January 23 that the investigation of Miami football was compromised by NCAA investigator improprieties. The Miami controversy prompted Mark Story’s January 24 Lexington Herald-Leader column that asks this important question: “What if major college sports dropped all pretense of amateurism, adopted the Olympics model and allowed athletes to make whatever money the free market will yield?”. As Joe Nocera has written, the Olympics thrived after dispensing with silly amateurism absolutism.
Cleansing College Athletics: A Path Forward
Prof. Branch persuasively makes the case that college sports is shameful but he does not address the contours of what a fair system would look like. Joe Nocera added to the conversation by providing a viable path forward in his subsequent article entitled “Let’s Start Paying College Athletes.” His ideas for reform strike an admirable balance between fairness and reality. I want to offer some additional thoughts of my own that build on his piece. There are a host of other issues that would need to be carefully considered in any reform initiative. My purpose is to argue for a general paradigmatic shift that hinges on both a literal and philosophical withdrawal from the NCAA. Defenders of the status quo tend to find refuge in the thicket of details that would need to be addressed. My comments are based on a firm belief that the academy has sufficient expertise to debate and resolve them.
I think that we should acknowledge the reality that participating in big time college sports crowds out any opportunity for the athletes to receive a meaningful college education. Tensions between academics and athletics are always resolved in favor of the latter. As one example in a tsunami of others, a 9 p.m. Tuesday UK tip-off in Oxford, Mississippi is obviously incongruous with a reasonable academic schedule.
It is best to dispense with the charade that requires both the institutions and players to engage in Student-Athlete Theater. It is a self-evident facade that these people are equally interested in both athletics and academics. Forcing de facto professional athletes to go through the motions of pursuing a degree corrodes higher education’s integrity. The players refer to this as Majoring in Eligibility: lowered admission standards (“special admits”), no-show classes, less-than-rigorous grading, and even outright academic fraud in the preparation of athletes’ work etc. Rejecting the hoary sentimentalism that requires fealty to the “student-athlete” fiction would remove the incentives that drive academic corruption.
The players should have the same freedom as coaches to earn market-driven salaries and endorsements. Players who wish to become legitimate students can return to campus when their athletic careers end.Conforming to the requirements of the Kabuki Theater of Amateurism degrades higher education’s integrity. It also does great violence to the notion of fair treatment for the players.
In addition to a market-driven compensation that Joe suggests, I propose that revenue sport athletes receive a 1.5 year tuition credit for each year that they perform for universities. I think that a reasonable cap would be 6 years of tuition that can be used at any point during the athlete’s lifetime. The business of college sports can sufficiently fund this benefit if current growth is assumed. A lifetime credit would provide a fair opportunity for the 99% of athletes who do not end up in the NBA or NFL to achieve success beyond athletics. They would then actually be able to “receive [the] quality education” that you said they deserve in the Herald-Leader on June 19, 2011.
Universities should withdraw from the NCAA and bring the management of the business of college athletics into the academy. Universities have sufficient expertise to administer this system. Tenured faculty are expected to contribute to the campus community. Administration of of the business of college sports would fit within a reasonable expectation of their academic duties. Let’s return the nearly $300 million that the NCAA kept in the 2011-12 academic year to the players and universities. Let Mark Emmert find a new job that has a $1.7 million annual salary that is not a product of rent-seeking from powerless young people. Unmooring college athletics from the myth of the “student-athlete” would obviate any ontological justification for the NCAA.
The core fundamentals of a post-NCAA architecture should mirror other American pro sports: 1) roughly 50/50 split of the revenue between players and owner/universities; 2) the creation of a union that negotiates the terms of employment in a collective bargaining agreement; and 3) establishing a trust that will help provide affordable care to athletes that suffer long-term adverse health outcomes from playing college sports.
The tipping point of reform in college athletics appears to be approaching. There has been a rising tide of national criticism that has been published since Prof. Branch’s article. The sordid affair was the topic of Frank Deford’s recent NPR commentary. He said that he seeks one college president to publicly admit that “the NCAA is a sham and we should get out of it.” I ask that you demonstrate national leadership in the areas of integrity, institutional accountability and social responsibility by accepting Deford’s invitation.
In summary, I encourage you to revisit your thinking regarding the morality of the University of Kentucky’s support of a $6 billion dollar entertainment business that exploits young people and corrupts higher education. I ask that you read “The Shame of College Athletics” by Taylor Branch, “Let’s Start Paying College Athletes” by Joe Nocera and watch Frontline’s “Money and March Madness.” The University of Kentucky’s regal college basketball history makes it uniquely qualified to be the institution that leads the movement to achieve social justice for the “student-athletes” whose interests the academic community purports to serve. The prospect of your publicly repudiating the cynical hoax of amateurism may seem difficult for you to imagine. However, the University of Kentucky should never be criticized for “dreaming too little dreams.”
Cc: Dr. Richard Angelo, The Atlantic, Prof. Lowell Bergman, Jay Bilas, Prof. Taylor Branch, Coach John Calipari, Chronicle of Higher Education, Frank Deford, The Drake Group, Mark Emmert, Patrick Hruby, Romogi Huma, Sarah Jaffe, Matt Jones, Ashley Judd, Prof. Michael LeRoy, Lexington Herald-Leader, Mike and Mike in the Morning, NAACP, Joe Nocera, President Barack Obama, Prof. Dan Rascher, Jalen Rose, Kevin Scarbinsky, Prof. Ellen J. Staurowsky, SVP & Russillo, Mark Story, Derek Thompson, University of Kentucky Board of Trustees, Up with Chris Hayes, Dick Vitale, Travis Waldron, Prof. Frank X. Walker, Dan Wetzel, Mary Willingham and Prof. Andrew Zimbalist.
$6 billion is a conservative accounting. Prof. Dan Rascher, an economist at the University of San Francisco, explained to me that he erred on the side of exclusion in his analysis. A broader definition that includes other income (such as merchandise sales at university bookstores) as well as “non-revenue” sports income increases the figure to $10 billion. By contrast, the NBA earned $4 billion and the NFL took in $9 billion. The idea that college football and basketball are amateur nonprofit endeavors is at great variance with any reasonable definition of those terms.
 The Atlantic
, October 2011.
“The NCAA and Its Treatment of Student Athletes,” All Things Considered
, September 14, 2011.
 New York Times Magazine
, December 2011.
 Naturally, Ohio State QB Cardale Jones was suspended for questioning the visibility of the Emperor’s wardrobe in an October 2012 Internet post: “Why should we go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.”
 Morning Edition, “Dear College Presidents: Break the NCAA’s Vise Grip on Athletes,” February 27, 2013.
PBS, March 29, 2011.
With Crit Luallen’s announcement yesterday that she would NOT be seeking the Democratic nomination for Governor in 2015, the field that will be jockeying for the Governor’s Mansion next year should be coming into sharper focus soon after the next Kentucky Derby winner poses with its garland of roses.
The RP’s Kentucky Political Brief is turning this political horse race into an opportunity for you to WIN BIG BUCKS. OK, actually something more valuable — two lower Rupp Arena tickets to an early season University of Kentucky men’s basketball home game. (And they are going to be stacked!)
Here’s the contest:
In the comments section below this post (note that you need to use your Facebook account to participate), guess the names of each Governor/Lt. Governor ticket that will be officially formed by the start of political speaking at the 2014 Fancy Farm Picnic. The tiebreaker will be the recorded air temperature in Fancy Farm, Kentucky at 2:00 PM CDT, Saturday, August 2, 2014. Entries can be made NOW, and you can make your guess anytime before the conclusion of the Kentucky Derby, late afternoon, Saturday, May 3.
Your entry will be judged as follows: 1 point for each correct gubernatorial prediction. 5 points for each correct ticket (Governor and Lt. Governor). You will lose 2 points for each Governor candidate you incorrectly predict (that is, if they have not officially chosen a running mate by Fancy Farm). There will be no penalties for incorrect LG picks, because those are hard.
While I won’t claim the prize if I win, here are my bets (in alphabetical order so I don’t get in any trouble):
Cathy Bailey and Matt Bevin
Jamie Comer and Ellen Williams
Jack Conway and Sannie Overly
Adam Edelen and Rocky Adkins
Hal Heiner and K.C. Crosbie
Daniel Mongiardo and Todd Hollenbach
Fancy Farm Temperature at 2:00 PM CDT, August 2: 94 degrees
OK, now your turn. And a reminder — only entries made below this post before the finish of this year’s Kentucky Derby will be eligible, and the contest is not a reflection of who makes the post next May, but rather, which tickets have been officially entered by Fancy Farm 2014.
All right — your turn:
Editors’ Note: The author, a Duke alum, is one of my very best friends, and also one of my biggest enemies on game day. I have excerpted a letter he wrote me this morning.
I didn’t text or call last night because I knew how crushing that loss must have been, and even this may be too soon. But you know I hope you will forgive me for intruding on your, “It was a great season moment.”
You had the most talented team in the nation, they were favored, they could taste it and they deserved it having beaten Wichita State, Michigan and Louisville, and they were playing UConn who lost to Louisville 3 times this year, once by 30 points, who the Cats killed twice this year. I know you thought even if UConn was able to lead in the first half it would only a matter of time before UK’s immense talent would take over and dominate in the second half. It looked that way, UConn was on the ropes, everybody knew it was only a matter of time, UConn’s bigs were in four trouble, Randle was, as he was all year, a man among boys, one of the Harrison twins could be counted on to hit a 3 if it was needed, the Cats were destined to win.
UK had a dozen possessions in the second half 0with UConn clinging to a 1-pt lead, and they just couldn’t take the lead. Instead they will always be remembered as one of the most talented basketball teams in NCAA history not to win the National Championship. Right up there with Calipari’s 2008 Memphis team ranked #1 with Derrick Rose with a 106-9 record over the last 3 years coming into the finals with Kansas. Rose had an unbelievable second half leading Memphis to a 9 point lead with 2 minutes left. But then like last night, Calipari’s stars as talented as they were, couldn’t hit their free throws missing 4 of 5 over the last minute. The other less talented team last night like Kanas hit theirs, all 10 of them. The team with less talent, with less freshmen starters, who worked at free throws intently in every practice where misses result in wind sprints, won.
Comparisons to the ’83 Houston Cougars with Olajuwon and Drexler, or Michigan’s ’93 Fab Five or the most dominant team ever the ’91 UNLV Running Rebels led by the Calipari like Tark the Shark. The Running Rebels demolished every team they played in 1990, including the largest blow-out ever in the finals beating Duke by 30 points. In ’91 they were undefeated trouncing teams by an average margin of victory of almost 30 points and they faced Duke in the quarter finals who they had humiliated in the finals the year before. And they, like UK last night, lost. And like last night, there was a feeling that the more talented team lost, but somehow there was justice in Calipari like Tarkanian being denied a Championship that by all rights they should have won. Sometimes preparation, hard work and experience beats talent. Sometimes there is justice in the world. Last night felt to a non-Kentucky fan like one of those times.
College basketball is a cruel, crushing sport, and none more cruel to BBN and one of the most talented teams in the history of College basketball, than last night’s loss. I feel your pain.
By the time that you read this, #MarchMadness2014 will probably be over and a winner will be crowned. College basketball fans: How did you like it? Do you hear Pharrell Williams singing his ubiquitous song “Happy” playing in the background? If you are a UConn fan or a Kentucky fan, you probably do.
Unfortunately, your joy may be quite short lived. One team will cut down the nets in a state of utter euphoria after the game. The other team will bury their heads in towels to absorb a downpour of tears and to mask the looks of sheer frustration on their faces. Let’s consider a little history and the culture of the March Madness.
The 1992 Michigan Wolverines — affectionately dubbed the “Fab 5” — and the 2013 Kentucky Wildcats: Do you see the similarity between the teams? They are the only teams ever to start five freshmen in an NCAA Championship Game. That’s large…XXL!
In 1992, the notion of five freshmen starting in an NCAA Championship Game was unheard of…almost preposterous! Five freshmen (Webber/Rose/Jackson/King/Howard) outranked all the seasoned sophomores, juniors, and seniors already on the team who held their egos in check and who gave new meaning to the phrase “Team First.”
The Wildcat Five (Johnson/Randle/Young/Aaron/Andrew Harrison) faced no competition among their upper-class teammates, of which only two were seniors. Such is the state of Kentucky basketball these days. Coach John Calipari guarantees starting spots to blue-chip recruits…a highly questionable recruiting strategy. One and done—NBA here I come! The best high-school players want instant gratification and adoration and Coach Cal loves to bring athletes like that into his system.
In the 90s, the players wanted to be part of a team. Not now. Incoming freshmen come the team packed with attitude. Basketball did not change. You still need to run the pick and roll the way it’s been done for decades. [Side note: Thankfully the tight uniforms got jettisoned!]
For the record, John Calipari stated, “There is always next year when I have the top recruits once again coming for one year.” A lot of Calipari’s counterparts deem him to be a sleazy coach with no moral compass…especially when it comes to recruiting.
For those with short — or selective — memories, consider the time that Temple Owls Coach John Chaney and then U Mass coach Cal almost came to blows at a press conference after Chaney uttered the words, “I’m going to tell my kid, to kick yours kid’s butt,” as a result of the tactics used on the court by U Mass—a classic moment in intercollegiate athletics.
How many Kentucky Wildcats ever played in the NBA? More important: How many earned degrees from that storied institution.
Why don’t today’s players stay for four and graduate? The radical new culture in NCAA basketball comes down to “cream”—Cash Rules Everything Around Me. How soon can I get paid?
If the Kentucky Wildcats emerge victorious John Calipari will deposit a whopping $700,000 check in his bank account. If the Huskies cut down the nets Connecticut Head Coach Kevin Ollie receives a “measly” $166,000—but he’s only in his second year on the job so…The colleges themselves will receive over millions of dollars. The players get beautiful rings from the good folks at Jostens, but no “paper.”
The Fab Five never won an NCAA Championship, although they reached the finals twice in 1992 and 1993. They made a pact to stay another year to see if they could win it all and they stayed true to their words.
The Wild Five stand on the threshold of history: They can win with a starting five consisting of only freshmen. If they lose will the Wild Five put fame and fortune on hold for just one more year—like the Fab Five? Or — as seems more likely to be the case — will they pursue the pot of gold at the end of the NBA rainbow? Talk amongst yourselves!
Cross-posted from BK Nation h/t Kevin Powell
For a few laughs on this official day of mourning in Big Blue Nation, be sure to check out my tweet recaps from the tourney games: Connecticut, Wisconsin, Michigan, Louisville.
An unwelcome and unfamiliar deep blue fog envelops the Bluegrass State this morning. In grocery stores and city parks and shopping malls, neighbors who months before felt nothing in common are now greeting each other with sad, knowing nods, exhausted shrugs, and wane, funereal “just wait ’til next year” salutations.
For after one of the most thrilling three weeks of cardiac-inducing, last-second-thrilling, and yes, community-building hardcourt theatre, the University of Kentucky Wildcats’ unexpected NCAA basketball tournament run came to a sudden and heartbreaking end at the hands of the newly-crowned national champion UConn Huskies.
And yet, while the Big Blue Nation mourns, much of the nation’s chattering class is leaping in giddy celebration. Kentucky basketball embodies to them everything that is wrong with the game, indeed with college sport as a whole. The focus of special ire is head coach John Calipari, for his diabolical exploitation of the NBA’s controversial “one and done” rule that permits pro teams to draft 19 year olds who are at least a year out of high school. As the Cats’ NBA-focused, all-freshman starting squad marches through March Madness — squashing upperclassmen-dominated rivals like Wisconsin, Michigan, and previously-undefeated underdog Wichita State — the righteous guardians of the Athenian ideal of amateur student athletics loudly decry the vulgar capitalist reality…in the form of a collection of mostly African-American teenagers representing one of the nation’s poorest states.
No doubt, many gripes with college hoops are quite legitimate. From its economic exploitation of teenage athletes, to the shady shoe contracts secured by its plutocratic coaches, to the blatantly unfair and hypocritical NCAA governance regime – big-time, big-money college roundball leaves many the casual fan with a guilty hangover after the last shimmy of the Big Dance in April. There also lies another, more intimate truth: Since middle school, much of my kind — the jump shot-challenged intelligentsia, that is — have scoffed at the popularity, coddling, and public financing of the jock culture. College is our sacred realm — for academics, scholarship and research, not professional sports-grooming.
But in rooting against the team that has mastered the flawed system, the critics are missing a greater truth: The keys to fixing the sport’s soul can be found precisely in the qualities that make Kentucky basketball so special. For while cerebral baseball and primal football continue to be heralded as our national pastimes; college basketball, particularly here in the heartland, really does matter.
At its core, basketball is the most populist and egalitarian of major sports. Its character derives in part from its tiny barriers to entry—all you need is a ball and a hoop to practice alone, and a bona fide game can be played with just a pal or a small group of friends. While its complex choreography and mosaic interpersonal psychodynamics are often underestimated, basketball is the simplest game to understand and appreciate. Ball goes into basket; your team scores. A contest’s time is precise and limited; its court dimensions, clear and uniform: As Gene Hackman famously proved in Hoosiers, the rim is always exactly ten feet from the ground whether at an urban playground or in a professional arena.
Basketball is also the ultimate spectator sport. Unlike radio-friendly baseball or HDTV-enhanced football, hoops are best enjoyed in person. With much, much less downtime than the Big Two, basketball games are filled with relentless exhibitions of artistry in action—colorful feats of intensely-rehearsed talent and gravity-defying acrobatics, while the participants remain in near constant motion. Because the vertical plane is regularly pierced, only basketball can provide those rare, sublime moments of transcendental grace. The courtside crowd isn’t distracted by the weather, organ player, food, bands, or tailgating: Until the final buzzer sounds, the game itself is the only thing that matters.
Whether in a high school gym or a professional arena, the game is played indoors, the fans on top of the action, literally involved in the hum and flow of the game, the most intimate among the major sports. In a game in which improvised and instinctual play is the norm, where fatigue and self-confidence are critical to performance, an enlivened and vocal crowd can provide enormous emotional and psychological comfort to the home squad, or can harass and dispirit the visitors. A home crowd—particularly at the college or high school level—becomes, for a few hours at least, a cohesive, interdependent community: Fans who might disagree sharply on matters of politics, religion, lifestyle, or just about any topic, join voices in passionate advocacy of their squad, or, almost as often, in intense criticism of the referees. It’s no coincidence that in many rural communities, most community-building events—graduation ceremonies, formal dances, citizen forums—take place in the high school gym.
Indeed, a potent communitarian strand of populism—in contrast with the “me first” Tea Party variety—is modeled in the game itself. Bill Simmons’ bestseller, The Book of Basketball, reads in places like a Michael Sandel philosophy lecture or a 1968 Bobby Kennedy campaign speech: “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball…Teams only win titles when their best players forget about statistics, sublimate their own games for the greater good and put their egos on hold.” And the greatest of the greats — Jordan, Magic, Bird — only earned their iconic status after they learned to surrender their own self-interest (high scoring averages) for the common good (winning championships), a noteworthy lesson in unselfishness and the Golden Rule for the boys, girls, and grownups who consider these hardwood heroes role models.
There’s been no better example of this phenomenon than this year’s Kentucky Wildcat squad. Heralded last year as the best recruiting class in the history of college basketball, the freshmen-dominated Wildcat team suffered through a disappointing regular season — falling from number one in the preseason polls to out of the top 25 by season’s end. Undeniably, these teenage phenoms were extraordinarily talented individual ballers, but they simply weren’t gelling as a cohesive unit. It wasn’t until postseason that they learned to overcome their stereotypically-Millenneal narcissism and played selfless ball. And as a result, they emerged as one of the most beloved teams in the long, long lore of the blue and white tradition.
It’s no wonder then why college hoops have made such a remarkable and substantive impact on education at the University of Kentucky. The administration understands that many Kentucky families — especially those in the most remote, economically-depressed areas of the state — dream of sending their kids to UK, and it has leveraged roundball prowess to help market and fund all of its major academic initiatives and capital campaigns, including its ambitious long-term effort to transform the school into a Top 20 public research university. And while it’s an unusual, although not a unique, collegiate example, UK basketball not only sustains itself financially; but along with football, its profits help enable the athletic department — with 20 other sports teams–to pay for itself, plus provide millions of dollars to the school for non-athletic scholarships
There’s also been perhaps no force more powerful for religious and racial fence-mending, at least here in the South. A few years ago, the hoops-mad University of Kentucky’s cause celebre was Enes Kanter, a recruit who was blocked permanently from college ball by the NCAA, citing his acceptance of payment in a professional league in his home country of Turkey. A “Free Enes” campaign grew organically from the grassroots, uniting the overwhelmingly Christian state behind a Muslim — not mind you, a more familiar American convert such as Louisville’s Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, but an honest-to-goodness, olive-skinned, Middle-Eastern Muslim. Imagine the impact Kanter could have made on religious tolerance had he been allowed to play and lead the Wildcats to another national title.
Perhaps more poignantly, just a half century since UK’s all-white “Rupp’s Runts” lost the national championship to Texas Western’s history-making all-black starting lineup — the whitest of all southern states has fallen in love with a series of mostly “one and done” teams composed almost entirely of African-American teenagers, and reveled in their soul swagger and hip-hop sentimentality.
From this egalitarian spirit comes the reform necessary to rebuild the sport’s integrity. Most legitimate complaints about the sport revolve around the same principle that animates our current national debate about income inequality: The 1% (NCAA, elite coaches, broadcast networks, and advertisers) are acquiring obscene wealth at the expense of the 99% (the student athletes) who don’t earn a dime. Even under the NCAA’s rosiest recent projections, more than a third of college basketball players, the vast majority of whom will never gasp a whiff of professional riches, don’t graduate, and many that do fail to develop any meaningful job skills, or even middle school level reading skills.
If we can simply apply a dash of the same communitarian principles found in the sport itself to the policy deliberations of the sport’s governing bodies, we can enhance the people’s sport by ensuring that we provide sufficient economic opportunity to the young men who bring the rest of us such enjoyment.
One core flaw is the ludicrous and pernicious assumption that every “scholar-athlete” has the preparation, the aptitude — or even the need — to earn a four-year, liberal arts bachelor’s degree. For decades, outside of sport, policymakers have been encouraging youth from lower income environments and underachieving high schools (a common background for many a collegiate hoopster) to enroll in two-year vocational and technical colleges, where they can be empowered with the skills they need for the 21st century job market. That’s why it is incumbent on the NCAA and its member schools to direct athletes, when appropriate, to focus their academic attention on job skill and technical programs that interest them, prepare them for postgraduate life, and enable them to earn associates degrees at the university, or through an affiliated community college or vo-tech program. Similarly, while the vociferous criticism of “one and done” is overblown (It worked well for Bill Gates after all), the NBA and its players’ union should effectuate a new “two and done” system, which will enable each player to earn sufficient credit to graduate with at least an associates’ degree.
(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Further, while full compensation of athletes is both unmanageable and fiscally infeasible among already-financially strapped institutions, I suggest that athletes be paid an hourly living wage—the same for each player on scholarship; adjusted slightly among universities by local standards of living—that would provide athletes with some (but not too much) walking around money for the occasional restaurant jaunt or shopping spree (maybe they could finally afford their own replica jersey at the campus book store), as well as the exceptional luxury of flying their parents in for special games. Let some of the funding come from the schools’ much-criticized shoe contracts so that players don’t continue to serve as unpaid jumping billboards for their product.
March Madness is an opportunity for college basketball to hold a mirror to itself, and apply what is so right about the sport to fix what is so wrong about the institution. By working towards a system that reflects the same principles that are taught on the court and imitated by the fan base — equality, selflessness, and community — college basketball can truly take its rightful position as an American pasttime that truly reflects American values. And the talented band of teenagers that led Kentucky to the precipice of its ninth national championship can be held up as role models for the nation.
The biggest shot taken in Dallas since Kristen winged J.R.