When your humble proprietor was a wee lad, he played him some base ball. Although official statistics were not recorded in the Keene-Peterborough (N.H.) Pee Wee League, I'm sure that my .560 season batting average (achieved primarily with slap singles) would have been near the top of the league leaderboard.
The star of our team was a big, burly man-child - let's call him Drew, 'cause that's what his name was. Drew was the prototypical slugger - he played left field, hit fourth, and was the only one of us who could hit the ball over the fence. He did so about once a game.
Drew soon became the subject of mild controversy among the moms, dads and shopkeepers of our little town. He was nine years old like the rest of us, but he was a big boy among little boys - simply put, he was a freak. Wouldn't Drew be better served to challenge himself by moving up a rung to Little League, instead of padding his stats with us toddlers in a circuit where the coach was the pitcher?
But Drew's parents refused. "He'll play Little League when he's good and ready," they said.
I had blocked Drew from my memory - especially the beatdowns he'd lay on me whenever he caught me looking at the girl he liked - except for recently. These days, I'm reminded of Drew whenever I think of Gonzaga
The Zags. Everybody's favorite poster children for mid-major success. How do you pronounce it again, Gonzahhga or Gonzagga? They burst into our consciousness during the 1999 NCAA Tournament, riding a magical dream all the way to the Elite Eight. Two consecutive Sweet Sixteen runs proved that this was no simple case of "beginner's luck." And they've gone to the Dance every year since.
Six straight conference championships and a series of March title runs gets you a lot of love these days. In Gonzaga's case, it gets a lot more: spiffy Nike uniforms, a gleaming new athletic complex with more seats than there are attending students, and a recruiting conveyor belt that's making them increasingly graduation- and draft-proof. They are now a real basketball school with real basketball machinery.
And all of a sudden, it's not quite as adorable anymore.
Gonzaga's continued state of fuzzy-wuzziness and cuddly-wuddliness is now merely a matter of context - they play in the diminutive West Coast Conference, and have established themselves as the men among relative boys. Would they receive half the attention they currently get if they were just another team in the higher-profile WAC, playing alongside similarly-sized private school Rice
? How long would the honeymoon last if they bucked history and joined a theoretical Pac Eleven
conference? During down years, they'd probably garner just about as much sympathy as Washington State
Upward mobility. The Urge. It's stamped indelibly into our souls, into every single strand of our DNA. Whenever there is space above us, we strive to rise and fill it. We are driven to excel. It's why we're not monkeys anymore, and it's why communism failed. The natural state of a human being, and by extension a college basketball program, is to reach for bigger, better, faster, more.
Anomalies in the Order Of Things have their natural consequences, mostly negative. For every year that Gonzaga doesn't move up to more challenging competition, an increasingly bizarre co-dependence between the team and the West Coast Conference grows deeper. It's one more suited to Dr. Melfi than Dr. Naismith: the school needs the near-guarantee of a March bracket slot for reputation and recruiting, and despite the high-octane sexiness of Pepperdine
and the possible emergence of St. Mary's
, the WCC would unlikely get any regular-season games on ESPN if the Zags weren't there.
In most cases, schools are naturally inclined to push to move up, up, up
- to more prestigious conferences. Smaller schools take their place. Independents find homes. Division II schools jump to Division I, that's the way of the college basketball world. Despite the recent fits and starts in the ACC, Big East and Conference USA, change tends to be slow - beyond most attention spans, longer than the average distance between freshman matriculation and senior graduation.
Having dealt with several athletic departments during the dot-bomb glory days, I personally have some up-close experience with this phenomenon. One (unnamed) school that our little company sold a sports information system to was convinced that it was ready to take a step forward, into the big time. They ditched their mid-major conference to join one with a national cable-TV contract. They hired a design firm to make them a street-tough - yet kid-friendly - new logo. They upgraded the floor in their existing arena, and began to draw up plans for a new one. Then they fired most of the loyal employees that had stuck it out through years of mediocrity, and sent out national APB's for high-profile replacements. They also got rid of us.
I was bitter for a while, sure. But I quickly recognized that this was a natural process, and our company was merely a squeaky wheel. We were no match for The Urge.
But that's a relatively mild case. They don't call the NCAA Tournament "The Big Dance" because it's a sock hop or a senior prom - no, it's because it's as intoxicating and alluring as the inevitability of hot sex. The motivation to go to The Dance - and stick around - is not unlike the feeling from seeing a smoldering copper-haired vixen in a slinky, shimmering black dress on the other side of the floor. You want her, you need her, you have to have her
. What would you do to approach her, make that difficult first move, move slowly for a while in her embrace, invite her home? How far would you go?
The sickness seeps in slowly. First it's new uniforms, gymnasium upgrades or an uptick in recruiting - little stuff that might make the difference in attracting a player or two. When that stops doing the trick, perhaps something bigger, like a new arena or a move towards guaranteed TV games. Then maybe some fudging of academic requirements for certain students above six-four, or some "General Studies" majors off the streets. The Urge causes a state of convenient and temporary blindness as a university's culture slowly splits between "athletes" and "students."
But when a school has successfully ascended to the top tiers of college basketball, it's not about swimming upstream anymore. It's about getting the edge over conference opponents and the faraway schools that will likely block the way to the Final Four... if that means making a few recruiting violations or passing some cash under the table, it's essentially a victimless crime. And when you're over here and they're over there and you don't know what they're doing and it's driving you insane and it's keeping you up at night and holy crap what are we going to do... well, it's a slippery slope. After too long inside a paranoid illogical construct, hiring call girls for recruits and giving players perks like cars and phone cards so they won't transfer out starts making perfect sense
. Just don't get caught.
Most of the "dramatic" stories connected to the average 21st Century college basketball season - the ones that you generally won't find covered in this space because they have nothing to do with basketball - trace their roots directly to The Urge. There's so much dirty laundry nowadays that even the truly "clean" big-time programs - whichever ones they really are - are viewed with suspicion, bathwater to babies. Given the money and exposure that these top-flight schools are fighting over, none of this mess is surprising in the least. There's a reason why this kind of thing doesn't happen in college field hockey.
Once you've seen the top and knows what it looks like, it's easy to tipple over the cliff's edge into complete and utter insanity. When this happens, it can be a tragic sight. Take Maryland
, a relative smudge on the basketball map until the arrival of Lefty Driesell
in the Seventies. A scant two years ago, the school tasted the sweet exhilaration that a national title brings, and their struggle to remain on that level provides one of the most advanced cases of Urge Overkill on record.
They've moved out of their beloved old fieldhouse into a glitzy and shiny new "Comcast Center," and they've imposed restrictions on their student section that ensure that wealthy alumni and television audiences won't turn away in disgust at their collegiate antics. As such, they've lost touch with the very people the team represents, actual real-life students
Students like the brilliantly articulate Jeremy Craig
, who's sworn off Terps hoops for good. He's realistic about the situation: "Maybe nobody in Maryland athletics will mourn the loss of a fan who didn't dish out money to the "M Club" and who drank water from the fountain to avoid paying $3.25 for Aquafina."
He's right, they won't.
Nature dictates that all water, whether it's Aquafina or straight from the tap, finds its own level. Despite the best efforts of AD's under the influence of The Urge, programs' fortunes rise and fall over time. Folks will flock to see a winner, but whether the games are played in an old dusty gym or a 18,000-seat megacorpocenter, nothing disperses a crowd like a loser. As long as the hoop is ten feet high, the clock runs for forty minutes and five fouls means you're out, the game will be settled on the court and the "little guy" will have a chance on any given night. The system dishes out small rewards, like conference championships, and those can be plenty satisfying in their own right. That's why I don't worry about the system not working.
As for my old buddy Drew, his Pee Wee League dominance didn't translate to success at the higher levels of kiddie baseball. He ended up striking out a lot and never did learn to hit the curve - he didn't even make the cut to join the Babe Ruth League team once he turned 14. The moms, dads and shopkeepers of our little town would mutter, "You know, what if he had taken that extra year in Little League back when he was nine? Just maybe..."
But it never did stop Drew from pounding my poor ass for looking at his girl. Damn that kid.