In 2,000 years, when a master race of warrior-thinkers has built their own seemingly infallible civilization, they'll have plenty of material with which to study us. They'll have the same big-picture perspective on the modern "first world" that we currently enjoy when it comes to Rome, Egypt and Mesopotamia. They'll be able to pick and choose the lessons they want to learn from us.
I like to imagine that the great historians and philosophers of 4000 A.D. will be impressed by Western breakthroughs in regards to ownership. We've spent hard centuries hammering out a comprehensive set of property laws, and we should be proud of them. People own land, animals, food, companies, money and so much more. Many modern wars have been fought because one side wanted what the other had.
People have even tried to own each other
; that didn't work out so well. But proprietary interpersonal rights live on with modern Western love, which is an implied covenant of ownership that culminates in "to have and to hold." This summer at the beach, I saw a fistfight over some natural resources; in this case, it was a stolen girlfriend. It was an epic battle between two determined forces, like Russia and Georgia fighting over strategic oil reserves... writ very small.
We've gone to such great lengths to define possession, it would blow ancient minds. If only we could explain "intellectual property" to a Mayan. Earlier peoples rarely signed their names to anything, and the idea of taking credit was often beyond foreign. But we've taken it to a new level -- paintings, architecture, poems, books and blog posts are all property of somebody. Ideas are copyrightable as patents. Visible, tangible things are all eligible for title and deed, but now concepts are as well.
Nowadays, everything is owned by somebody.
Sometimes, when I'm sitting opposite the scorer's table with my black notebook, waiting for the game to start and taking in all the rituals, I wonder about ownership. To whom does Our Game belong? There are many forces competing for the soul of college basketball, and everybody's registered a claim.
Over the past decade or so, the National Association of Basketball Coaches has pushed a vague concept called "Guardians of the Game." You might remember a November tourney with that title; maybe your favorite coach was given an award with that same name. You may even own the NABC-sponsored book
, and perhaps it was a pleasant and unexpected holiday gift. (It's sitting on my coffee table at home.) You've probably spent a few seconds wondering what the phrase is supposed to mean.
"As coaches, we are 'Guardians of the Game,'" the NABC proclaims in a website mission statement
, displayed alongside a slideshow of men making earnest facial gestures. "We have a responsibility to protect the integrity of student-athletes, coaches and the game of basketball."
But only a select few in the fraternity can afford to live up to those lofty ideals. Most of them simply don't win enough games, or have enough funding in their programs, to transcend temptation and compromise. When it comes down to it, coaches are guardians of their own jobs, like any of the rest of us, and they do what they can under their individual circumstances.
How much power do coaches really have? The game would fall apart without them; with nobody to guide performance or manage in-game substitutions, it would devolve into schoolyard chaos. But each individual coach is available to the highest bidder, a mercenary. Each is disposable in the case of failure, and a flight risk when success is sustained. When a player loses his coach this way, there's a real sense of betrayal, because somebody hasn't lived up to their responsibilities as a protector.
And each coach fades in time. There will always be 18-year-old freshmen and 22-year-old seniors, but the destiny of every coach is that college basketball will pass them by. Each gets older and farther out of touch from the players who play for them, from boom boxes to iPods, MySpace to Facebook and beyond. The father figure eventually becomes the grandfather figure, and the body and mind inevitably fail. All that remains are numbers, memories and video footage. Sometimes that will add up to an individual legacy.
Our Game does not belong to the coaches. How could it?
What about the journalists who sit on the opposite side of the floor; does this belong to us? College basketball writers transform action into narrative. We measure the present against history, and we're always making some kind of list or ranking or All-Whatever team. We're always trying to be hero-makers and diligent watchdogs. We celebrate victories, build eccentric personalities into grand totems, and root out corruption where it hides. We try to keep a keen eye on Our Game's integrity.
But if there's anything that five years as an accidental sportswriter has taught me, it's that everybody on press row has a private agenda that supercedes the sport's best interest. This is a competitive business, and most of these agendas involve attracting attention to oneself. There's a lot of self-validation and fantasy going on too.
One recurring trope in college basketball coverage is the Coach/Genius. In the popular press, famous coaches combine secret knowledge of sports alchemy with outstanding fashion sense. Those of us on press row are getting older too, and every year the players on the court get farther away in age and more difficult to relate to. It's only natural that sportswriters would gravitate towards those experiencing the same season of life, and that's why a lot of us write them up like Ã¼bermen. Once you recognize this cycle for what it is -- middle-aged white men trying to make sense of their lives -- you'll stop taking college basketball journalists seriously, for good.
Individual colleges don't own college basketball, because they've signed their rights away to a central administration. Does the National Collegiate Athletic Association own Our Game? It has no exclusive rights to the sport itself. There are many American colleges outside its three-division structure, other leagues and other governments. There are the NAIA
, where the games can be just as good as the games up here. As long as there are two evenly-matched teams on the floor, it's always a beautiful game.
The NCAA has the same problems that all sports administration organizations face, from the International Olympic Committee to FIFA to any of the professional league offices. They must balance pure, uncontaminated competition with the economic requirements of big business. To rule a sport, those in charge must set aside selfishness for the sake of the games. After a century of modern sports government, we can conclude that this is an impossible equation.
When you go to a game, the NCAA never seems to be around, like an absentee landlord. It's only the guardian of the gates.
The NCAA only decides who's in and who's out, and provides judge and jury. When a school or coach runs afoul of its selectively-enforced laws, Our Game's governing body tosses them out of the walled garden. It rules by fear and relies on chilling effects.
In mid-March, a sanctioned NCAA committee guards the gates of the meaningful national postseason. The NCAA decides which consumer products are allowed through the door, and who the Corporate Champions are. Any venue designated for Tournament play must move inside those gates; if you've been to the Big Dance, you've seen arena ads might be covered with black tarps... but the NCAA gets to put logo water tanks wherever it wants.
The gatekeepers have become so convinced of their power that they feel they own the time and space within these walls. They can say that something that actually happened didn't really happen
. But we trust our own eyes, and can't be fooled. We know that men in suits can't tell us what we have and haven't seen
. In real life and real time, performances aren't measured by whether they're "Pontiac Game-Changing" or not. College basketball has nothing to do with American cars, "more bars" or Vitamin Water.
These are all distractions, perpetuated by people who claim ownership of something that doesn't belong to them. This doesn't belong to executives, corporations or administrators. It's not owned by typists in shabby brown sweaters, announcers in expensive suits, or coaches crouching on the sidelines. This has very little to do with old people at all.
College basketball is about college, and it's about basketball. Our Game belongs to those who are still young enough to play it.
College basketball is an experience that's only fully understood by actual students. There's a special bond between a student section and players (especially walk-ons) that's hardly ever captured in published words, much less "Coke Madness." As you watch from the bleachers, you know those players made the same choice as you did. You might not have been actively recruited like they were. But those are your friends and representatives, working on your behalf to validate a shared, life-altering decision about where to get educated.
College is a beautiful, intensely irrational world. It's a place where you can still survive on tomorrow's money. It's a safe sphere where you can still alter your own reality in order to make life feel less complicated.
In the gym, everyone is either a hero or a villain. It's an arena of unreasonable dreams, where everything is in black and white. Later on, the twenties and thirties will present overwhelming grayscale; but in college, everything points to the momentary success and failure of right now. It's about living and playing like there's no tomorrow. There is
a tomorrow, but it will have to take care of itself.
A college existence is only sustainable for a short time. Some try to live at university forever, and some try to do so by becoming professors or coaches or college basketball writers. Everybody who leaves wants to return; college is a bridge that takes a half-decade to cross, but you'll spend the rest of your days trying to get back to that overpass between adolescence and adulthood.
You'll spend considerable effort, even desperate attempts, to recapture that feeling of perfect simplicity. You yearn to go to a place where everything makes sense again. You need to go back.
A college basketball ticket can be a way into that world again. A game represents two hours outside the time-space continuum, a temporary return to college. The cheerleaders are still young and pretty with bows in their hair, just like you remember. The players are still the same age they always were, running up and down the floor, with the name of your school in proud letters across the front of their shirts. The fight song hasn't changed, and never will.
And don't tell me that isn't magic.
For those of us whose eligibility has long since passed, autumn represents a reopening of that portal after seven months of sweaty melancholy. No fabricated soap opera, no product sales pitch, no manipulation or exploitation could ever take away our desire to come back to the gym.
It's November, and we've found the bridge again. We can go back, but we can never stay for long... this is not a home we can own, and there's no real shelter for us. All we can do is enjoy the opportunity to turn back the clock and become young again, two hours at a time.