College basketball can be saved. But not without seismic change.
The sport Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, mastered so brilliantly at UCLA is dead. Sure, college kids — or, at the least, college-age kids — play basketball in arenas large and small, from coast to coast every winter. Millions of tickets are sold, thousands of t-shirts are proudly worn, and hundreds of bands and cheer squads gather for an indoor party second only to its football cousin among American amateur sports. Except, of course, there's nothing amateur about college basketball any more. The notion of a talent like Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton playing "for fun" at the college of his choice — until he graduates! — is as quaint as gathering your news from a fireside chat. For the finest late-teen basketball players today, the college game is an inconvenient but necessary bridge toward their first NBA contract. So forgive me if I was hardly shocked to learn Derrick Rose — the one-year wonder who led the Memphis Tigers to the 2008 Final Four — had a proxy take his SAT for him. A necessary step toward a pro career for the 2009 NBA Rookie of the Year.
Heartbreak ensued in these parts. A team that won an NCAA-record 38 games will now enter posterity with exactly zero victories. And the U of M now has two of its three appearances in the Final Four "vacated." Remember the chills you got when the Tigers undressed fabled UCLA in the national semifinals? Your record-keeping brain now has to tell your heavy heart that it never happened.
So what next? Cross our fingers that new Tiger coach Josh Pastner rights the ship, attracts recruits for all the right reasons, watches them pass their entrance exams, and leads them to One Shining Moment on a Monday night in April? It's not gonna happen. Not as the sport of college basketball currently exists. The factories that — through institutional reputation and systemic might — dominate the game will continue to do so. North Carolina, Kansas, Duke, and UCLA will attract the high-school players willing to play the game — on the court and off — the right way. Meanwhile, the rest of college basketball will scratch, claw, and yes, cut corners to close the gap. But it doesn't have to be this way.
The first step in resurrecting this glorious sport is to do away with the hypocrisy of "student-athlete." If a young man is wise enough to use an athletic scholarship to educate himself and prepare himself for a working world that doesn't require high-tops, that person should be welcomed to college programs. But if a young man has his sights solely on landing that NBA contract, he should no longer be required to wear the sheep's clothing of academia. There should be a limit to the number of roster spots available for a school's Basketball Academy, perhaps five out of 15. But let these athletes major in their specialty just as you would a music student, or art student, or heck, a chemistry student.
What I find especially abhorrent is the stance advocates of the pro game take in tearing down the already crumbling walls of college basketball. The NBA and NCAA, after all, are dance partners in this off-tempo waltz. What is the carrot at the end of the stick that is college basketball corruption? It's an NBA contract. What did John Calipari sell his Memphis recruits in those living rooms from Philadelphia to Chicago? He wasn't selling the glory of playing for the University of Memphis. He certainly wasn't selling them an education. Calipari sold those recruits his ability to garner them an NBA contract.
Which brings me to the final step in resuscitating the college game: a formal marriage between the NBA and the NCAA. Instead of an age requirement that forces players to pretend they're college athletes for a year, allow the NBA to assign draftees to colleges within a certain geographic range of the franchise that drafts them. (One NBA draftee per program seems right.) Just as booster money will pay for the room and board of Basketball Academy players, the NBA will fund its future stars for the year(s) they require to fine-tune their game.
College basketball is worth saving. But the journey from hypocrisy to integrity is considerably greater than a mere letter in the alphabet.