Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Just as March Madness means a three-week period of sofa bound bliss every year, so too does it mean a rash of annoying by-products. Endless tournament-themed promotions from stupid businesses, harsh bleating from people who watch three basketball games a year–I mean, it is a joyful time, and I welcome the festivities, but they do not come without some price. Potentially the most irksome thing that happens this time of year, though, are the endless comparisons between the NBA and the college game. I don’t mean to tar any discussion of how the two sports are related; I mean that I cannot abide one more person who does not watch the NBA bloviating about the passion of the college game–those kids just play so much harder– or one more person who does not really watch college basketball talk about how much poorer the execution is.
Over the course of college, despite being at the perennial basketball mecca of UNC (I was in a coma for all of ’09-’10), I have found myself drifting away from college ball. I had gotten older than the athletes, by and large, which was a pretty unsettling transition. I had taken a shine to the pro-game, and had sort of become one of those zealots who talk about how inferior the basketball is to the pro level. I was beginning to think that I had left college basketball behind a little bit. It was a good run, and me and the Heels had some fond memories, but it had sort of stopped making sense to me why I would follow the team too hard. And then this year’s UNC team happened, and I got sucked back in.
Last season–which I have only heard about, because I was in that aforementioned coma which started on exactly the first day of UNC’s season and ended shortly after the NIT, thus preventing me from having any memories of any game we lost–was a tough one here in Chapel Hill. We had some highly touted prospects brought in, same as always, but something about the team, be it shaky guard play or a lack of chemistry, prevented the talented parts from ever looking like a substantial whole. Even worse, the players seemed to be having a pretty angsty, miserable time with each loss. It got to the point where the Tar Heels were sort of painful to watch.
At the start of this year, it looked like we were in for more of the same. With Harrison Barnes not living up to his tremendous hype and the team suffering early losses to heavy underdogs, the Heels looked ready to implode. With everything lined up for another frustrating season, along with my personal growing belief that the college game was no longer for me, I figured I would be able to check out on the Heels. That is, until January, when malcontent point guard Larry Drew was benched and the starting job was handed to Kendall Marshall. With Kendall at the helm, the Heels have only lost three games, two of which came to Duke.
During our winning streak, one of the things that has struck me about UNC and pulled me back in is their transcendent weirdness. Our defense is anchored by John Henson, a bizarre hybrid between a beaming toddler, a tottering deer, and a spider monkey. Harrison Barnes plays with the emotion level of a mutual fund manager. Kendall Marshall, tall at 6’3″ but potentially slower than than my obese cat, runs down the court with his butt jutting out like a yard from his hips so that he can keep his head up. Our style of play is shockingly inconsistent–the Heels put up more than 100 in the first round of the tournament, but beat Boston College with 48 points less than a month ago. I have never seen our team successfully shoot its way out of a zone. But they’re grinding it out, winning games with all their weirdness, and I am reminded that it is hardly the basketball I care about at all.
As I’ve been watching the tournament and thinking about the off-kilter personality of the team, it strikes me that you watch college hoops to experience games through the eyes of developing players and people. At any moment, you are watching a formative experience for a young talent, and the highs and lows of the games are experienced at the feverish emotional pitch of that development. In a sense, the sport at the college level is a reflection on talent in its adolescence: you just can’t watch for mastery, but if you watch to experience talent growing into itself or falling short in trying, you’ll be rewarded.
That’s why it drives me so crazy when people make comparisons between the NBA and the college game. Of course college players have trouble exploiting defensive weakness–they play two hours a day and are twenty years old. Furthermore, of course NBA players can’t play November games like they just made the Final Four–it’s that sort of mania that turns players into KG-like jewel jabbing nutjobs. It isn’t that college players lack talent or a compelling product, and it also isn’t that pro players don’t care about the game as much. Both assertions are equally ridiculous to me. What is true, however, is that we watch the sports for different reasons.
Pro ball mimics the best of what success in the adult world has to offer. Players work at an insane rate to match their unbelievable talent, and they reap rewards in a system that emphasizes sustained excellence. We appreciate when they are able to set aside their personal hang-ups for the sake of grinding out team wins. College ball, conversely, is brilliance in spastic intervals, random bursts of cohesion that mirror the players’ age and developmental level. We appreciate them for bringing unbridled excitement and personality to the game. I think I had largely forgotten this until I became reinvested in the Tar Heels this season. What it boils down to is that I have grown frustrated with the comparisons of two different products, because those comparisons serve only to dim the luster of each game.