This is 5 in a series of 10 early-season essays.
It was a dark and stormy night. The villain, sweater-vested and scowling, paced the floor. Boo! Hiss!
the audience cried. But just then, the mood was leavened by a comic-relief appearance of the drunk clown, teetering and leering at girls half his age - oh, how the crowd roared with laughter at his hapless antics!
And in the end, as they always do, the good guys carried the day. The hero - tanned, silver-haired and beaming - prevailed over all his enemies and won the prize. But as the patrons filed out of the theater, the question hung in the air: which side was that slightly-creepy geek with the funny name on?
A lot of what I've been reading lately leaves me confused; I don't know whether to be informed or throw flowers afterwards. The complex minds of big-time college hoops coaches makes for intriguing reading, but sometimes I feel like something's missing from my media readarounds. You know, like actual basketball.
I'm not saying that the parade of fascinating personalities is anything new - I spent sleepless nights as a kid wondering if UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian was really slobbering into those towels, or whether it was just a gentle and toothy chomp. The Official Wife Of The Mid-Majority™ didn't know Northwestern
from Northwestern State
when I first met her, but she knew the name of the guy who threw the chair.
Most of the coaches I meet and talk to in my travels aren't big names like Knight, Eustachy, Williams or "K." They're just guys doing a job they love, one that most guys would sell off relatives to have. The vast majority of headmen in Division I don't have larger-than-life personalities, don't fit neatly into any grand storyline, and are treated by the national media like bland Pete Samprases or pale imitations. Unfortunately, this helps contribute to the national anonymity of their programs.
But the biggest losers in this system are the players. Nearly all of whom are by no means "dominant performers," and are still too young to know who they are as human beings. Since 95% of them won't be anywhere near the game in four years' time, it doesn't help them much to define their existences with a combination of strange stock labels - monster post presence, three-point sharpshooter, clutch shooter, project, bar fighter. (This is why I always had the highest admiration for Shane Battier, who kept his head enough to fill it properly at Duke
, and later made a few million dollars as a professional basketball-themed entertainer for good measure.)
Using the magic of double-removal, I'm putting the blame for all of this at the feet of Vince McMahon. Using storylines from old-time wrestling and roller derby, he made a lot of money constructing conclusive proof that boys may be tuff stuff, but they like soap operas too. A half-generation after the WW's conversion from a Federation to just plain Entertainment, that mentality has taken root in all sports that are covered by the 24/7 media, and it seems to have hit us in college basketball particularly hard. Putting the spotlight on a pre-fab sideshow instead of the action is a horrible insult to the game, and I maintain that it's turning a lot of people off.
This is not an indictment of the hard work and talent of my colleagues, this is a failure of imagination and a loss of poetry on an industry level. Granted, there are only so many different ways to say "point guard," and the thesaurus is sadly lacking when it comes to synonyms for "slam dunk." But after twenty years of Dick Vitale's constantly repeated catch-phrases, an impartial observer might be led to believe that college basketball is a unchanging, repetitive, dull game.
Are we all just so ashamed of basketball that we feel the need to deflect attention from its rhythms, tones and inherent beauty? Why are there thousands of wannabe baseball bards, and precious few hoops troubadours? Take it from me, the "thrill of the grass" pales in comparison to the "tingle of the floorwax." We need less daytime drama and more doggerel, fewer Eric Moneypennies and more Chris Wests
College basketball should be about two things: college, and basketball. We don't need any of that personality-driven hullabaloo. Our game provides an abundance of natural, internal passion - the anticipation of gameplay, the pitched conflict of a Saturday night conference tilt in a hot gym full of cheering students, the artistry of a perfectly-executed Princeton
backdoor or UCLA
cut. If you need more than that to get you excited, you're in the wrong game.
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