By KOLBY PAXTON
It might’ve been the Superman briefs, I couldn’t say definitively, but I leaped over my mother’s coffee table in a single bound, raced down the hall, tripped over a few Power Rangers, recovered, scooped up a miniature foam basketball, and unleashed a furious tomahawk jam on the basket nailed above my closet.
Moments prior to this phenomenal display of athleticism, Scotty Thurman emerged from a frantic cluster of blues and whites, free off the right wing, gathered a pass from Dwight Stewart, fired over the top of Antonio Lang with the shot clock expiring, and deposited the biggest three-point field goal in the history of Arkansas hoops – thus, triggering the aforementioned manifestation of excessive soft drink intake and uncapped adolescent enthusiasm.
The triple pushed the Razorbacks ahead of Duke 73-70 with just under 50 ticks remaining in the 1993-’94 NCAA National Championship; a game that the Hogs would win minutes later when Al Dillard sunk the second of two free throws, providing the decisive 76-72 advantage.
It has been nearly 19 years since Charlotte, N.C., temporarily morphed into Hog Heaven, and my love and understanding of Dr. James Naismith’s game of basketball has only grown. Yet, the 1994 NCAA Tournament and that Arkansas team remains, not only my fondest collegiate hoops-related memory, but also the most fun I have ever had watching a basketball game that didn’t include Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
It wasn’t the end of an era. That is not the implication, here. The ‘95 Arkansas squad was equally impressive. Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith trotted out phenomenal Kentucky teams in ‘96 and ‘98, respectively, not to mention the ‘97 edition that fell victim to Miles Simon and the glass slipper-wearing Arizona Wildcats.
A year later, Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin led a dominant UConn team to a title, followed by Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State in 2000. In 2001, Duke rolled to a championship with one of the most impressive starting fives in recent memory; a group that included Jason Williams, Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy and Chris Duhon. Mike Krzyzewski used only a seven-man rotation versus Arizona, and who could blame him?
For more than a decade champions were crowned each spring that made you say “wow” – the lone exception, Gary Williams’s 2002 Maryland Terrapins; a group that capitalized on fifth-seeded Indiana’s upset of Oklahoma in the national semi-finals. But even that didn’t serve as a pivot of any sort, because the following year a freshman named Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse on a profound championship run.
The college game, as we previously knew it, was actually punctuated by Emeka Okafor and the 2004 Connecticut Huskies – a team that featured three future NBA All-Stars. Three months later, Okafor was the second player chosen in the NBA Draft. The first was a high school center by the name of Dwight Howard. In addition to Howard, seven other prep standouts were selected in the first round, including Al Jefferson, Sebastian Telfair, J.R. Smith and Josh Smith.
It was at this moment, however, that hoops legislators had seen enough. The early entrance of high school players into the NBA’s pool of prospects was so egregious, levying such detrimental impact on these poor unassuming players and these poor talent-starved schools, that something had to be done. So, six weeks later, when David Stern and friends inked the association’s new collective bargaining agreement, 18-year olds were banned.
The message was equal parts simple and confounding: “Go to school for a semester, stay eligible long enough to play basketball in the spring, and then you will be allowed to play professionally in the U.S. – but only after you pretend to be a student for a few months.”
The thought, here, one can only assume, was less about saving the Leon Smiths of the world from themselves, and more about throwing college hoops a bone. The problem, however, is that the age limit rule violated an age old adage related to fixing things that are not broken.
The NBA didn’t need to lock Anthony out of its gymnasiums to force him into the Carrier Dome. By the same token, a season at Illinois would not have lessened Eddy Curry’s affinity for Big Macs any more than a pit stop at the University of Memphis prevented Dajuan Wagner from realizing an Icarian fate.
The college game was not an obligation, it was an opportunity, a choice, and it was being predominantly opted for in spite of the sensationalist spin that has, in the years since, attempted to transfix public opinion via the failures of Kwame Brown and Robert Swift. As a result, rarely were players one and done at their respective schools. Instead, Dwyane Wade, Kenyon Martin and the like were truly committed to a university; and not committed like choosing a baseball cap on television, but committed like leading their teams as upper classmen.
Now? College basketball has, in large part, been reduced to an inconvenience in the eyes of the top prep players in the country. Because the reality of jumping to the NBA following high school commencement ceremonies no longer exists, players like Bill Walker are not forced to honestly examine their own ability to do so. Instead, a compromised view of a playing career at Kansas State is both encouraged and cultivated, and guys like Walker put forth only enough effort in the classroom to maintain eligibility until January. March rolls around and those very same players declare for the draft, partially because they are being fed bad information, but also because they haven’t attended a class in two months.
Walker, Javaris Crittenton, Shawne Williams and Xavier Henry are different from Gerald Green, C.J. Miles, Ndudi Ebi and Korleone Young, only in that they cheapened the college game along the way to professional shortcomings.
Isn’t it ironic that the purported beneficiary of this all but unconstitutional age arrangement has, instead, been most negatively affected? If you don’t believe that, simply take a look at the sport’s championship squads since the 2005 CBA was signed, particularly the past few. Duke’s 2010 championship team was, at best, its fifth most talented team of the decade. In 2011, Connecticut scored 53 points in the national title game - and won. Both team’s defeated the Butler Bulldogs, a group entirely devoid of NBA talent, who has risen to national prominence in recent years by simply playing sound, team-oriented basketball. Imagine such an abstract idea, won’t you?
Last season, John Calipari assembled a squad that leaned heavily upon the contributions of a handful of freshmen, a group that never, at any point, played with much cohesiveness and/or rhythm. That team won a championship because, when Butler and Gonzaga are the only relevant teams that place an emphasis on fundamentals and fluidity, AAU circuit-level hoops are good enough.
In essence, college basketball has become nothing more than a few cold weather months of nationally broadcasted AAU games, anyway. Just a bunch of teenagers running motion offense until one of them inevitably swims upstream with yet another ill-fated, off-balance runner from 18-feet; just a bunch of isolation-induced chucking.
Arizona point guard Mark Lyons is averaging three assists per game on one of the most talent-rich rosters in the country. Shabazz Muhammad is sulking after a UCLA teammate hits a buzzer beater because he, himself, did not take the shot. Alex Poythress is considered a lottery-level talent that more closely resembles a blind man in search of brail when on the floor for Kentucky. Kansas is the undisputed king of the Big 12, led by the likely No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, yet Bill Self called his latest collection of Jayhawks “the worst team Kansas has ever put on the floor,” following a loss to lowly TCU.
This is the current state of college basketball.
The solution? Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft rules. Are you the next Kobe Bryant? Fantastic. Prepare to leap from Lower Marion High to the big leagues. Otherwise, you have a few options: a) Head to Europe to work on your game, b) Join a junior college to work on your game, or c) Enroll as a degree-seeking student at a four-year college; emphasis on “degree seeking.”
If you choose either of the first two options, you may attempt to enter the association at any point that you so choose. If you prefer the latter option, however, the option that will include on-campus star status, sold-out games and March Madness, one year won’t be good enough. You’ll play three seasons and/or turn 21 before jumping to the NBA - unless, of course, you can explain why you should be treated any differently than Jadeveon Clowney.
Nerlens Noel should never have been forced to spend a year at Kentucky. Having said that, Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson and Austin Rivers could have used a few seasons to marinate, wouldn’t you say? It didn’t seem to hurt Klay Thompson or Kenneth Faried.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the product is as weak as it has been in my lifetime. Other factors have contributed to the game’s descent; me-first traveling squads and the 35-second shot clock to name a couple. But, by simply correcting the age-limit atrocity that looms over the sport, requiring personal investment on behalf of the schools, without needlessly barring the next Kevin Garnett in the name of some feigned sense of guardianship, college hoops may soon return to the glory days of not so long ago.
Do it for me, David. I’m dying to dunk in my super hero undies.