There's an annual event -- if that's a phrase suitable and grey enough to describe something that doesn't cut it as a tradition -- here in our household. Every year around this time, the satellite television company beams in a solid week of unlimited American professional basketball in a free preview of the "NBA League Pass." This, to me, is like our neighborhood drug dealer saying that it'll be the second dose of snortable laxative cut with Drano that's going to cost you. If we had neighborhood drug dealers in Pawtucket, R.I., that is.
The ceremony goes something like this: one early November evening, I flip through all the channels, teleporting from Orlando to Milwaukee to "Golden State," while reminding myself why I haven't followed, watched, or attended the NBA in seven years (my last game was a Phoenix at Toronto snoozer in 2000; I've been to over 500 college games since). On each channel, players are standing around, waiting for the designated cutter to spark action, and there's plenty of the lazy, stiff-legged play you never see in college leagues where hunger far eclipses talent, like the Patriot League or MEAC. Every year, I figure out where the old mid-major players are, make sure Kyle Korver
is getting enough PT, and then it's back to my comfort zone.
Last night, I ended up with the fourth quarter of a game between Houston and Utah in Salt Lake City. As the Rockets closed the game out late, the road-team announcers hammered away at the only two talking points available: Tracy McGrady had scored over 40 points, and this would stand as Houston's first win in several years at what was once known as, in turn, the Delta Center and Olympic Ice Complex. In the postgame interview, when they asked Mr. McGrady how it felt to finally pull one out in Utah after a series of losses there, the Rockets' star didn't even pretend to be excited about it, looking far more bored and glassy-eyed than anyone should look after only the second game of the year.
But who could blame him? Nobody gives a rat's ass, or Shane Battier's ass, or anyone's, when or if Houston wins at Utah during the regular season. And why should they, unless they are specifically being paid to care, or unless they're internally justifying an expensive ticket purchase? They're not even in the same division anymore, as if the six groupings mean anything in the final accounting for any other team than the division champion. Free agency has washed away any roster consistency, hatred or memories of great games and playoff series between the two. This is one game of 82, less than two pennies if the schedule is a dollar. If you're convinced that conference rivalries are important in the NBA, you're inventing reasons why.
We don't have this problem here in the college ranks, even down at our level. Conference membership in the NCAA means a lot, whether you're in the ACC or the Big South. Your rivals aren't just the other side of a Southwest Airlines city pair, they're you're neighbors and enemies, and in a lot of cases they're the schools that didn't accept you. Or the ones that show up once a year and occasionally end your dreams of a road trip with your buddies to a mysterious NCAA Tournament pod. Or the teams that just follow you around like bad ghosts. Drexel and Delaware hated each other in the NAC, then the America East, and now the Colonial.
Unlike your brethren on the football side, where everything is measured in an alternating-year cycle, an annual visit from each conference rival is something you can count on. Sure, teams like Duke and Carolina get a home game in each other's buildings every year (I understand they're televised) -- but calendar dates are circled in leagues like the Missouri Valley too, where every fall corn-belt midwesterners prepare for the long winter by memorizing the dates the other nine are coming through. Conference schedules allow cities to be fought over on an annual basis, as the Atlantic 10 gives Temple, LaSalle and Saint Joe's specified dates to resume Big 5 affairs. Loyola and UIC always fight it out in the Horizon League two times. The Citadel and "The College" have battled in Charleston for a century, and SoCon membership allows them to meet twice a year. Maybe in 2108, cities like Jacksonville (JU and North Florida) and Nashville (Belmont and Lipscomb) will have over a hundred years' worth of bruising basketball memories too.
Conferences in basketball make things special. They give teams from counties and regions home-and-home shots at each other each winter: Kent and Akron in the MAC, the Metro Atlantic's Manhattan-Iona and Canisius-Niagara pairings, Lafayette and Lehigh in the Patriot, the Big West's Irvine and Long Beach. There are state skirmishes too: Montana-Montana State in the Big Sky, Arkansas and Arkansas-Little Rock. Sometimes they clash over the rights to a name: Saint Francis must be somewhere up there, checking in twice a year to see which NEC team (PA or NY) is wearing his name more proudly.
And of course, there's Penn and Princeton, which rotate their rosters every four years -- slightly more than your average NBA team -- but it never fails to matter, even when one team is bad. Like now. They throw out the records when the Quakers and Tigers play... at
each other, on spray-painted rollouts.
Even in situations where teams aren't rivals -- random matchups like Morehead State and Murray State in the OVC, or the SoCon's UNCG and Wofford -- conference schedules give people signposts to mark the time. In the WAC, there's always the dreaded Hawaii Trip. Even if it is just something like "SEMO again [eye-roll]" or "the William & Mary game," contests like these allow SID's and coaching staffs to reconnect, catch up on small talk, and sometimes outdrink each other. It happens every year, and it's a lot more interesting than an NBA free preview. If superior athleticism was enough to sell a product, more people would be watching track and field.
At this point, maybe the only way to save the NBA is to make it more like college. Everybody's already organized into six divisions, right? Every November and December, the teams could play "non-conference" games -- maybe we could have coaches have to call each other and schedule them! -- and then settle in for the "division season" in January. Each division member would play each other home-and-home. Or six times each, eight times, whatever works for TV and stretches things out until April.
Then, during "Championship Week," at a neutral site or the home of the regular-season division champion, each of the six divisions would hold one-game elimination tourneys. There's your exciting TV event right there, folks, because the prize is... a trip to the NBA Playoffs, April Madness
And then-then, the six survivors would be joined by two others on "Selection Thursday" (prime time on TNT), when a panel of NBA legends would emerge from a closed-door session to announce two deserving "at-large" teams to join the six division champs. Who got snubbed? Let the debate begin!
Quarterfinals start on Saturday, live on ESPN. Hell, they could even keep the best-of-7 format from that point on if they wanted. I'd watch.
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