This is 6 in a series of 10 early-season essays.
There are 4,484 young men currently playing Division I college basketball for 334 schools. These players come of all shapes, sizes and ability levels. Some are thin, some are fat, some think they'll wear a draft-night hat. Some are far and some are near, most will have day jobs in a few years.
But there are a few 17 and 18-year old ballers out there who think they're good enough to skip a level after high school, go straight to the basketball-themed entertainment of the NBA. Mostly thanks to coaches, homies and shoe salesmen, some figure that they're better than all 4,484 of those guys.
Every time a blue chipper plays Russian roulette with their lives and goes straight to the draft, media-types complain that college basketball is worse off for their absence, that our game will be a lesser product because they won't be there. (Anybody who can tell the difference between a forest and a tree knows how ridiculous this is. Did I mention that there are 4,484 players in D1?)
But hold that phone, college basketball! Hope is on the way!
Starting next year, ambitious Hoop Dreamers
will face a harrowing decision: spend a year sitting on their hands watching their stock fall through the basement, or grab some book and head off to an institution of higher learning. Most of the same folks who bemoaned the declining quality of our game due to class-skippers are overjoyed. Maybe some of these kids will realize the quality of a good education, and stick around!
They're as likely to do that as they are to understand at 18 how lucky they are that they won't be saddled with soul-crushing student loans at 27. For most the players we're talking about, and the schools we're talking about, this comes down to the difference between under-the-table money and over-the-table money. Who wants to be Chris Webber II
when you can get a 100% legal check each 1st and 15th, signed by Mark Cuban?
I say let 'em go. Let the experts keep trotting out rule-proving exceptions like LeBron, Kobe and T-Mac
, and under-rug-sweeping the hundreds of cautionary tales of D-Leaguers and drug burnouts who took bad advice and believed their own press clippings. It's not likely that any work on the bigger problem will take place, the one that links these tragically-starred kids and the wags who cover them: not knowing the difference between selectively-constructed microscosms and macrocosmic reality.
This asinine rule, should it make it to the next NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement (or even beyond), will probably end up dealing a blow to college basketball, but it will exact its damage in very subtle ways. Remember, this is a large world, this college basketball... I don't have to repeat the numbers.
The small handful of top programs will shift their recruiting tactics, and realize that the chase for one-year wonders is too resource-intensive and high-risk. Constant roster turnover - and there's a reason why they're called "rebuilding years" - compromises the very thing that separates the best from the good: player retention, stability, legacy. The second tier of conferences will be hit the hardest - Duke
will stay Duke, but the C-USA and Big East and SEC will be even more unwatchable than they already are.
An essential part of the true-blue (or some other color) rooter experience is watching players grow and develop from raw freshmen to confident seniors, referring to them by their first names and being able to pick their mothers out of the crowd at games. Institutionalizing a mercenary system works to destroy that magic, kills the continuity that makes our game special.
But I'm worried most about the casual fans, the ones who love college basketball for the simple reason that it's not
the "Association," the ones who push Final Four ratings into the stratosphere
and push those for the NBA Finals into the toilet
. When we have 25-50 extra players who shouldn't be there, polluting the system, the televised sliver of our game will
be the NBA. We'll have a class of player who are nothing more than free agents operating on one-year contracts - all thanks to a self-serving attempt to keep juvenile delinquency and negative headlines out of a fading league, a sack of crap labelled "we're protecting you from yourselves."
Here's my point: college basketball has to remain a sport that normal people care about (normal as opposed to, say, obsessed freaks like you and I). The fact that Susie Secretary - or perhaps even your grandmother - knows that North Carolina
are the current National Champions is very, very important here. That there are sold-out domes for the Final Four and office pools and people adopting mid-majors separates college basketball from college lacrosse, swimming or bowling - college basketball means something to a lot of people.
You can't turn these folks off, and the side-effects of the age limit puts our beloved sport of college basketball down the road towards decreased relevance. And that, unfortunately, is the big picture.