Since this is being posted on Thursday rather than late Monday night or early Tuesday morning, the 2012 National Championship game between Kansas and Kentucky is already ancient news.
The sports world moves faster than ever, and even before Kentucky won it all, it seemed like ESPN was already bored with the games ahead, creating wild “what if the Wildcats played the Charlotte Bobcats?” hypotheticals.
I thought—more like hoped—that Kansas would shock the world. I was wrong. The analysts were right.
Oh well. Life goes on.
Kansas lost fair and square to the superior team. In a seven game series, Kentucky wins 4-1 or 4-2 (however, I would love to see a 2-3-2, back-and-forth between Rupp Arena and Allen Fieldhouse though.)
Kansas’ only chance to win the title in this game was to pull a 2001 Philadelphia 76ers, winning Game 1 before losing four straight to Shaq and Kobe.
John Calipari has figured out a system, a completely fair-by-the-rules system, that says, “hey, come play for me for a year, don’t worry about leaving early, it’s fine, I’ll make you a better player and let’s see if we can get you a better life after you become an NBA lottery pick.”
Every year he reloads with three of four of the best freshmen in the country, and is almost automatically in contention for a title. Before Monday night, the hope was, these 18 to 19-year-old kids would have the talent, but not the experience to win a title.
Well, that’s no longer an argument.
What I do wonder, though, is if the one-and-done era is finally upon us, would I even want my team to be a part of it?
When I was eight years old, I sent a letter to the Utah Jazz. The grammar-less run-on sentences went a little something like this:
My name is Chris O’Brien. Im not very tall so I cant play post and I know you have John Stockton but I think I could really help the team if you let me join. I have a good shot. I made ten shots in a row in my driveway last night.
Two weeks later, the Jazz sent me back an encouraging thank-you letter, a catalog of Jazz apparel, and an autographed photo of former Jayhawks center, Greg Ostertag. I can still remember checking the mailbox everyday, and then finally holding the brown packaging in my hand, my heart racing as if I were about to see a million-dollar contract offer.
In the summer between sixth and seventh grade, I went down to the University of Kansas basketball camp in Lawrence. At one of the lunches, future All-American forward Wayne Simien sat down with us. When he stood up to leave, he patted me on one of my scrawny shoulders and said, “Whew, look at these muscles. You gonna be a big-time ball player.”
Last year in New York City, I got to awkwardly thank—yes thank—Miami Heat point guard Mario Chalmers in the Knicks locker room for hitting the game winning three in the National Championship three years earlier.
It could not have been any more awkward.
These moments above were so cool because the invisible barrier between player and fan had, even for a second, been crossed.
College basketball players are people you have never met, will probably never meet, but yet they spend three or four years in your living room. You run out and celebrate on Mass Street after a win, and your heart breaks when you see them hit the floor in tears after a loss.
It’s the closest bond you will ever have with a person you will never actually meet.
But this is what makes being a college basketball fan great. Your hands shake and your heart races during their tournament games. You can name who knocked your team out, in order, for the last ten years. You somehow believe that the sweatshirt you’re wearing, which you haven’t washed since their last loss, impacts the shots going in or out on the screen.
You fondly remember the different eras, regardless if they won a championship or not. For the Jayhawks, there’s Pierce-Vaughn-Lafrentz, Kirk-and-Nick and Brandon-Mario-Jackson-Kahn.
Michigan State, you have the Mateen Cleaves era, the Paul Davis crew, Draymond Green’s four years. Parents of current University of Michigan students remember the dominance of the Fab Five.
In college basketball, you’re lucky to win a title every ten years. Kentucky hadn’t won since 1998. Kansas won in 2008, but it had been twenty years before that.
It’s rare. There’s a lot of hurt in between. But when it happens, it’s more than worth it.
The question, then, is whether or not Calipari’s system is the ideal model for your team.
There are positives to this approach—namely, less suffering. Each year the team has the best talent in the country and is capable of winning it all. It’s fun to watch too. Lots of dunks, lots of freaky athletic plays, the chance to see a player dominate for a year like Anthony Davis.
The negatives? Where’s the bond?
Now, the where’s-the-bond argument can be kind of the ultimate loser-defense. I can just hear a whiny, self-righteous voice saying, “Well I don’t need titles because I have a warm fuzzy feeling when I watch our true student-athletes play.”
The thing is, I’m not convinced you have to trade away the normal, upper-classman model, for success. The one-and-done model will always be balanced out by the one-and-done tournament.
Think about it: The 2011-12 Kansas Jayhawks, a team with no McDonald’s All Americans, one returning starter and a walk-on who played 17 minutes against Kentucky, made it to the finals and almost made things really interesting down the stretch against the Kentucky Superstars.
I’m fully convinced that a North Carolina team, with a healthy Henson, could have beaten Kentucky in the one-game, winner-take-all format.
In the NCAA Tournament, Lehigh can knock off Duke. Norfolk State can shock Missouri. In the Olympics, a Spanish team with really just Rudy Fernandez, Pau and Marc Gasol nearly beat one of the best American teams ever assembled (Kobe, CP3, LeBron, Wade, Melo, Dwight, etc.)
The gap between the teams in those three examples is no larger than what we saw Monday night; six NBA players on Kentucky playing two sure NBA players (T-Rob, Taylor), and two future ones (Elijah, Withey), on KU.
Since the choice really isn’t embrace one-and-dones, or be done, I will choose the old-fashioned model. I like having the three to four-year eras with a group of players. It allows me to keep having the irrational offseason moments when I think, “well, Elijah will be back, Withey too, Releford, Young will get better, you know what, this is another Final Four team!”
What it comes down to, at least for me, is I want to believe the players on the court cherish wearing the jersey as much as I would if I were in their shoes. You don’t want it to feel like a temporary pit-stop.
When you’re a fan of a college team, you’re selfish, and you forget that the NBA is the highest level of basketball. You don’t think about the common sense of it all, and that if, after freshman year of college, someone offered you a three to four-year job, paying $2-12 million dollars, with potential for 10 more years and tens of millions more, would anyone really be able to say, “Eh, no, I’m staying here on campus.”
You can’t really blame players for making the jump to the NBA, but then again you can’t blame the fans for wishing they’d stay.
Maybe I’m wrong and fans still build a connection with their one-and-done players. Kansas State fans with Michael Beasley. Texas fans with Kevin Durant. Kentucky fans with Anthony Davis. Maybe. But I can’t imagine you’re ready to see them go.
What I do know is the college years go by fast, both in your own life and in the fan universe. One moment you’re moving stuff out of your parents car into a dorm room, and a blink-of-the-eye later you are moving things out for good. As a fan, you only get to watch these players shine for three or four years before you part ways and send them off to the bench of an NBA team.
Why would you want it to go any faster?