Sunday, April 01, 2007

You Can't Fix A System Designed To Be Broken, Part I.

Jason Whitlock is doing something right post All-Star column madness despite frequent amounts of stupidity and belonging to the old-school generation of Buppies who like to hate to black youth culture, because for some reason, I'm still reading. At least he picks a worthy topic this time: how college football and basketball ought to be fixed, which deserves a serious look, but so far, his look isn't serious, as evidenced by Part I. (Part II and III are up; I'll get to those later.)

Men's basketball and football are rotting on the inside. March Madness, no matter how much the media fawn, doesn't cover the stench. The players are mercenaries who rarely get properly educated. At the professional level, the lawlessness of the players is an embarrassing turnoff to fans. In the NBA, it's widely accepted that the players don't play hard until the postseason and the pro game has been exposed as inferior by international competition. The professional leagues are overrun by immature players who are completely unprepared for the money and spotlight the NFL and NBA provide.

Not a completely unfair assessment, as far as theses go, except for the last sentence, prepared to target all players as bad actors from the get go.

NBA executives, people presumably intelligent enough to know that [Kevin] Durant and [Greg] Oden will stunt their intellectual and basketball evolution by entering the NBA at 19, have been breathlessly jockeying for Durant and Oden to leave college.

I still think Oden won't. I think he has a good enough coach in Thad Matta to keep him from going and teammates that might stay (Mike Conley, Jr. for example); Oden knows he has holes in his game and is more likely to stick around, because in the NBA, purely defensive-minded big men are a dime a dozen. Whitlock asserts that it would stunt Durant athletically and mentally to leave Texas, but how much of a benefit will it be to stay at Texas when a coach like Rick Barnes isn't sure how to engineer an offense around him? When considering why an athlete leaves college early, part of the decision has to be on whether the style imposed on the team by the coach (since he is coach, GM, and father figure in one) works for the player. We put a lot of the decision to leave early on the player and his maturity, forgetting he plays in a system he did not create.

If he leaves Texas now, it's almost a certainty he will never reach his full potential as a basketball player. Kevin Durant doesn't know the first thing about winning. His Texas team, although young, underachieved this year, losing 10 games and bowing out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round after an embarrassing performance against USC.

Does Rick Barnes know the first thing about winning? That's a valid question to ask in the wake of a poor coaching job against USC. Yes, Texas consisted of four freshmen, but that's even more reason to look at Barnes' coaching job.

Kobe Bryant is the only straight-from-high school NBA superstar to win multiple championships. Of course, Shaquille O'Neal was the true star of those Lakers teams, and Kobe's snotty, child-star-spoiled attitude tore apart that Lakers dynasty.

Shaq is just as juvenile, pithy, and ego-ridden as Kobe, because he is a pro athlete, and a top one at that. O'Neal just has better tact and a better way with the media, which is a good skill to have, it allows you to feign humility. And it's nice to see Whitlock let Shaq off the hook later in the column for taking half the regular season off and not calling that a spoiled attitude (saying he won't be the last is not condemning the behavior, and it doesn't excuse calling Kobe "spoiled".)

Whitlock identifies an important part of the college/university experience, the new peer group.

It used to be that 95 percent of NBA players spent at least three years in college. What happens to most people when they're in college? They develop a totally new social group. The friends you thought you couldn't live without in high school get replaced by the friends you make in college...Big-time athletes rarely say or do anything important now because a Dr. Harry Edwards never gets a chance to get inside their head. The athletes visit college campuses for a year or two, but never experience what's really happening on those campuses because their entourages won't allow it. They're also less likely to develop friendships with people who don't have a financial interest in them. They don't develop peers -- young people their age who are headed for professional careers.

It may have something to do with the fact that there's not a lot of time to do that. From all the time spent in practice, travel, games, etc., there's not a bunch left over to socialize with people from outside the team. It's not on the entourages -- I really wonder if he has any evidence for that assertion; blame it on the revenue sport itself, the coaches, who have to produce that star player to keep their own job. I wonder how much time you have to develop off-the-court peers when all your time is spent on the court or in the few chances you have to go to class during that season.

The current setup is failing the game. We play an inferior brand of basketball. The NBA is virtually unwatchable in the regular season.

Expansion probably has more of a hand in this. There are plenty of roster spots that need to be filled, and there will be mediocre players used to fill those spots. Unless Whitlock is prepared to tell some NBA teams to close up shop, that's not going to change a whole lot.

Kevin Durant just finished 25-10 without elevating the performance of one of his college teammates, and he'll be seduced with a shoe contract from Nike or Reebok that will dwarf the 25-year, $25-million "lifetime" contract the Lakers once offered Magic after he'd made the Lakers and the NBA the rival of the Cowboys and the NFL.

I don't know about that. I don't think Texas makes the tourney without Durant. He saved the team in several games when D.J. Augustin, Damion James, and A.J. Abrams just couldn't get it together. He had to play a Kobe role because the rest of the team had frequent off-days. Durant is a major reason the Longhorns got as far as they did this year, and many of us thought they could have gone further. As for Magic's contract, t hat's just because the money wasn't there in the league yet -- if Magic came out from MSU today, he'd command as much as today's pro prospects.

The setup is also failing the athletes. Their educational opportunities are compromised the moment they enter high school and are identified as a prospect. By the time they enter college, almost no one in authority over them has a genuine interest in their education. The interest is in their eligibility and their ability to meet the demands of TV networks.

No argument there, but I suspect there will be more in the next installment.

No comments: