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Let’s take the NCAA Tournament up a few notches — to 351 (Fahrenheit)

Let’s take the NCAA Tournament up a few notches — to 351 (Fahrenheit)

351 image

Let’s just take the gloves off and hash this out — right here, right now, for the greater basketball good.

The current NCAA tournament format — 68 teams, with 8 playing off/in to create a field of 64 — is the worst sort of folly, both competitively arbitrary and financially capricious. From the moment the initial “play-in” gambit was instituted, in 2001, the slope proved slippery. At first, just two small-conference champions played off for the right to get boned, on 48 hours’ rest, by a top regional seed. The 8-team, 4-game play-in we’ve endured since 2011 is merely that much more arbitrary and capricious.

I wish I could tell you this “expansion” of the tournament was done in the name of inclusiveness and equity. But honestly, “arbitrary and capricious” is more accurate, for this peculiar tack was undertaken in service of the entirely arbitrary and capricious need to preserve NCAA tourney revenue and exposure for a dozen or so would-be, at-large, major-conference also-rans, each year, at the expense small-conference champions. In other words, the Atlantic Sun Conference champion is obliged to play-in against the winner of the Summit Conference, because if they did not, there would be no room in the field of 64 for some 5th or 6th place team from the Big Ten.

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King James Can Restore Vitality to Dunk Contest — By Entering and Losing

King James Can Restore Vitality to Dunk Contest — By Entering and Losing

James

LeBron James can do basketball an honorable and valued service by entering the 2015 NBA dunk contest, not to win necessarily, but to eradicate the stigma of losing.

Today we can agree that All-Star dunk festivities — once the highlight of the NBA’s mid-season bacchanal — have lost nearly all their luster. The big names don’t participate because (and let’s be honest here) they have relatively little to gain, should they win, and much to lose if they cannot better the likes of young, live-legged, would-be journeymen such as Terrance Ross and Ben McLemore.

In an acknowledgement of this misplaced luster, the NBA has basically given an out even to those who will participate this year: Three players from each conference will team up, with the trio that wins being crowned  joint champions. There will be a top prize awarded to the individual winner, but he will be dubbed “Dunker of the Night.”

Whatever. This is nearly as bad as Team Figure Skating.

It’s not clear why this dunk-risk-aversion dynamic persists. The league’s best shooters do not appear unwilling to participating in the 3-point competition. There is no loss of face for Stephan Curry should he lose out to some young gun like Damian Lillard, or any of the league’s noted long-distance marksmen (among them this years, Kevin Love, Bradley Beal, Marco Bellinelli and defending champ Kyrie Erving). When Larry Bird won it, he relished the chance to win it again.

The Dunk Contest is different. In the beginning, all the big names did indeed participate. The very first one, at the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, featured this luminary lineup: Julius Erving, David Thompson, Artis Gilmore, George Gervin and Larry Kenon. The NBA revived the circus in 1984 and thereafter Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins didn’t just win, they showed up to defend. The stars started begging off in the ‘90s, though a young Kobe Bryant won in 1997. As recently as 2008, Dwight Howard lent some star power, as did champ Blake Griffin 2011 — but the Clippers big man chose not to defend.

LeBron has for 10 years been notoriously cagey about the Dunk Contest, steadfastly refusing  to enter, claiming that he’s an “in-game dunker”, but nevertheless strategically allowing media to see his chops once a year, normally just prior to the All-Star break.

LeBron is so clearly the game’s best player, and its most dominant personality, he can simultaneously restore the profile of Dunk Contest — without winning it. In fact, he should huddle with the judges beforehand and say, “Don’t let me win.” By taking part next year, thereby enhancing the showcase and honorably congratulating a worthy winner, he can show other stars that competing in the Dunk Contest is nothing of a gamble in terms of cred, brand or machismo.

I’ve got nothing against Paul George, Harrison Barnes, Ben McLemore, Terrance Ross and John Wall, all of whom are scheduled to do rim-rattling battle Saturday night. There are several legitimate up-and-coming stars in that field, an you gotta love anyone who attempts the rare 3-point/jam double (Lillard). But I would love to see LeBron compete against these guys, mano-a-mano, along with Josh Smith or maybe a healthy Russell Westbrook. If LeBron commits, other stars will follow — if only to compete against the King, and each other.

 

 

Jordan Homecoming Recalls Rutgers Hoops Heyday

Jordan Homecoming Recalls Rutgers Hoops Heyday

Interesting confluence of events both personal and national last week when embattled Rutgers University — struggling to salvage its basketball cred prior to moving from Big East to Big “10” in 2014 — hired NBA veteran Eddie Jordan to replace head coach Mike Rice, who was jettisoned after video surfaced early in April showing him crassly berating and physically abusing his “student athletes”.

[We’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that Rutgers knew about Rice’s antics long before the video was made public. That’s just more run-of-the-mill, big-time-college-athletics sleaze, and honestly, what more is there to add?]

What interested me more was the return of Jordan to his alma mater, where he played in the mid-1970s as a cog in one of college basketball’s most unheralded great teams — and the fact that I learned of his homecoming while kipping in the Marin County home of my boyhood friend Tom Wadlington.

That Scarlet Knight team, which went unbeaten in 1975-76 before falling to Michigan, Ricky Green and Phil Hubbard in the national semifinals, was even more visible to me, as a budding, 12-year-old college hoops freak, on account of Tom’s arrival in my hometown just two years prior. Tom had moved to Wellesley, Mass., from East Brunswick, N.J., where his parents, if I’m not mistaken, had both worked at Rutgers. He showed up in my 4th grade class, and on my various soccer teams, spewing all sorts of Rutgers propaganda. Much of it was dismissed for what it was — the meaningless parochialism of some pre-teen interloper.

But then, midway through the ‘75-76 season, it was clear that on the college basketball front, at least, Wad was not talking shit. These guys were really good and would eventually run the table, win the East Regional and go to the Final Four (not yet so branded, I don’t believe). They did so with Jordan at the point, Mike Dabney at shooting guard, super-smooth Phil Sellers at small forward, “Hoppin” Hollis Copeland at the 4, and Boston-bred freshman “Jumpin” James Bailey at center.

I think we all remember Larry Bird’s Indiana State team that went unbeaten before losing to Magic & Michigan State in the 1979 NCAA Final. But the long history of college basketball is not exactly littered with teams that go unbeaten over the course of a regular season, much less progress untarnished all the way to the Final Four. UCLA did it repeatedly in winning so many titles under John Wooden, and Indiana went unbeaten start to finish the same year Rutgers came so close, in 1975-76. Other teams that have won titles while going undefeated include Bill Russell and KC Jones’ USF teams in 1955 and 56, North Carolina a year later, UCLA four times, and Indiana.

But it gets thin when you search for teams that remained unbeaten all the way to the Final Four, only to lose there. Once we account for Rutgers and Indiana State, I recall these:

• Indiana went unbeaten the year before its golden campaign, only to lose in the Midwest Regional final to Kentucky, 92-90, largely because  (Hoosiers will argue) star forward Scott May had broken his arm with 7 minutes to play.

• UNLV was 34-0 when it famously lost to Duke in the 1991 national semifinals.

I encourage anyone to set me straight, but I think that’s it: Seven teams went undefeated and won the title, only two more got to the Final Four unblemished.

Jordan has his work cut out for him in Jersey, to be sure. Maybe joining the Big “10” (I’m not sure how many teams are in that conference anymore, but it ain’t 10) will expand his recruiting territory, but Rice has seriously sullied Rutgers’ reputation and recruiting capability in the short term. And despite being located in the heart of a bountiful talent pool, Rutgers has never been that great or recruited many first-rate sons of Jersey (Roy Hinson tops a short list). The Scarlet Knights weren’t part of the original Big East, of course. They joined in 1995, and it could be argued, it didn’t benefit their basketball program a lick.

As for Tom Wadlington, he ultimately matriculated at Cal Berkeley and has since transferred all his propagandizing efforts (on behalf of collegiate athletics) to the Bears. But he did have this to say upon learning the news of Jordan’s hire: “He should bring Phil Sellers and Mike Dabney as assistants!”

 

 

Speak the Unspeakable: Celts should deal KG for Howard

Speak the Unspeakable: Celts should deal KG for Howard

You heard it here first.

Tell me what doesn’t make sense about this trade. With Rajon Rondo out for the season with a torn ACL, the Celts are done this year. Maybe they’ll make the playoffs, but it’s time to turn the page. The Lakers and Dwight Howard are not proving a good fit, and he’s a free agent at the end of this year. Most of the talk has been about trading Pau Gasol, but the Lakers are instantly NBA Finals material with Garnett, a better fit for Coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense, a different but comparably excellent defender, a man Kobe would prefer to Howard, for right now (Nash, too, but he doesn’t have anything like Kobe’s veto power in LA).

Who says no to this trade?

Not the Lakers, who must think short term with the pieces they have. Things have gone so awry with Howard, personally, they might not even be able to sign him this summer. Dealing for KG cuts their losses and makes them better.

Not the Celtics, who can build around Howard, Rondo and maybe someone like Josh Smith (ATL homeboys reunite!), for Boston instantly becomes a free agent destination of choice with that young core (a core that doesn’t need to shoot; the gunners will line up to play with those guys).

Not the League: The numbers match up. Garnett makes $19 million and Howard just 11, but throw in Jeff Green ($8 million) or Brandon Bass (6) and it fits.

KG is one of the few NBA players with a no-trade clause. He’s been a model Celtic, but if we’ve learned anything about Garnett during his tenure in Boston, winning is paramount. The window is closing for him, too, and it’s gotta be clear, to him, this Celtics incarnation is toast (I’ve argued they could not realistically have won the last three years; they’ve been gallant but never had have the horses). He has two years in him, I reckon. So do Kobe and maybe Nash. Gasol for sure. Why would he say no?

Because the Lakers are, well, the “hated Lakers”, and because they have 16 championships to Boston’s 17, Pierce — who is too much of a Celtic to ever leave for the Lakers — would say no to a Howard-for-Pierce, Gasol-for-Pierce deal. He grew up in LA but he’s been that anomalous single-team player his whole career. He would not want to go to LA on a championship-mercenary mission.

I don’t believe KG looks at it the same way. He undertook that mission when he came to Boston. Perhaps he wouldn’t go to Miami, but I say he goes to LA.

Only the Celtics would have plausible motivation to say no. While they would probably not trade KG within the Eastern Conference, they might also balk at sending him to the “hated Lakers”. Danny Ainge could potentially be handing LA a 17th title and a place directly level with Boston in the Pantheon.

Still, that’s a lot of yes and a single no.

If you haven’t checked out Zach Lowe’s NBA reporting at Grantland.com, do. He’s extremely informed and a facile writer. This was a clever piece, for example, exploring the Celtics options and multiple potential trade partners. The Spurs make sense, though KG and Tim Duncan reportedly loath each other and San Antonio has nothing to give in return. Lowe (and Jalen Rose) both posit an Al Horford/Kyle Korver for Howard scenario, which makes more sense. But neither floats the Garnett for Howard idea, which makes the the most sense of all. The salaries line up. So do the stars, in an astrological sense and this vital sense: KG & Kobe would assent. These two stars are nearly burned out, and they want to win.

 

Bob Ryan Retires: All Hail the All-Time NBA Sage

Bob Ryan Retires: All Hail the All-Time NBA Sage

The encomia are surely piling up all over the web, but I couldn’t let slide the fact that Bob Ryan has retired from The Boston Globe as full-time basketball sage and de facto Commissioner of all things hoops (a title bestowed decades ago, by his fellow scribes). Here’s a link to his farewell column, delivered Aug. 11 with his signature directness, brevity and authoritative elegance.

Having grown up in Greater Boston, I latched onto Ryan early, in the mid-1970s, when the Celtics were winning championships and knowledge of the team was nearly the exclusive province of Mr. Ryan, whose game reports and columns were often the only worthwhile analyses available the next morning. Yes, some games were televised locally, but only a few. Radio was an option, but Johnny Most was so bombastic, his account of the goings-down, while entertaining, could not be trusted.

Above all things, Ryan could be trusted — to authoritatively tell you the “why” behind wins and losses; the “who” when it came to contenders and pretenders. His appraisal of players was never erring. When Larry Bird was drafted, as a junior, and all of Boston watched his senior year at Indiana State wondering if his game would translate to the pros, Ryan put that matter to rest. He sized up Bird a basketball genius way before it was obvious to the rest of us, and so Larry turned out to be.

His between-the-lines sizing-up of personalities was similarly spot on and vital to a young basketball mind in its formative stages. It really was about the guy’s authority. You could tell when Ryan truly admired a player (Dave Cowens) or didn’t deem one worth a damn (Sydney Wicks). It was clear when he admired someone but didn’t necessarily like him (David Stern), and when someone didn’t like Ryan (Tommy Heinsohn). It was all done very professionally, perhaps a bit coyly, and I found it all thrilling — that someone could earn a living by chronicling such fabulously interesting things in a public forum.

All through my high school, college and early years as a sports writer, Bob Ryan’s professional life was the one I wanted for myself. One time, in high school, circa 1979, my mom got us tickets to a Celtics game (vs. the Jazz) at the old Boston Garden, where she endeavored to introduce me to the guy before tip-off. I remember that he was cordial but not especially helpful or inspiring. My mom was a bit disappointed, but I couldn’t hold it against him — he was probably concocting some new way to convey to readers the utter ineffectiveness of James Hardy and Ben Poquette.

I did indeed try to follow Ryan’s path but his times were not my times. In his farewell column, he writes about going straight to the Globe sports department after graduating from Boston College in 1968. In the mid-1980s, no one did that — years of daily newspapering experience were required before one would even be considered. Further, by that time, the Globe sports section was a veritable all-star team of talent, and thousands of aspirants were all clamoring for the opportunity to sit at Ryan’s knee, along with those of Will McDonough, Peter Gammons, Dan Shaughnessy and Leigh Montville. Even if you had the experience, and the chops, the Globe was notorious for its minority hiring policies. I remember one reporting colleague claiming that he’d already have a job on Morrissey Boulevard, “If only I were a black, female, Cape Verdean.”

In any case, dreams die and/or they’re deferred. I left daily newspapers in 1992, having had a chance to cover the Celtics (and all the Boston teams) for smaller newspapers with nothing like the Globe’s reach and influence. I was tired of making no money, tired of being essentially nocturnal. Soon the newspaper model would collapse, and I frankly count my blessings that I got out when I did.

Ryan pressed on through this period of industry decline, adapting to the web realities and even moving into television a fare bit. Personally, I could listen to him talk about basketball and other sporting matters till the cows came home, but I think even he’d admit that his rapid-fire, staccato delivery — along with his advanced age — never truly dovetailed with the medium as it exists in the 21st century.

This winter, at the height of the Jeremy Lin craze, Ryan sat and did a podcast with Bill Simmons, the guy who has emerged as Ryan’s heir apparent on matters NBA. Check it out here; it’s linked as part of my own post comparing/contrasting Billy Ray Bates and Lin. It would seem that Simmons was the guy who successfully crafted for himself a Ryanesque place in the basketball firmament, and I enjoy his writing and podcasts nearly as much.

Best of luck to them both. The torch has been passed.

 

Sadly, an Era Marked More by Near-Misses than Titles

Sadly, an Era Marked More by Near-Misses than Titles

We Celtic fans will always have 2008, with its initial flood of exhilaration enabled by the Big Three. While their arrival immediately ended the longest championship-fallow period in the team’s storied history, there was in those days much talk of “The Window”, that period during which Boston’s already aged stars might reasonably deliver championships. To win it all in their first year together felt like gravy, a gift. Little did we know, five years on (with the development of Rajan Rondo into one of the NBA’s premier point guards) that one title would be the sum and total.

The reality is this: The Big Three era is over and but for that one title it will rightly be remembered more for a series of excruciating, valiant near misses . Wednesday night’s OT loss in Miami is merely the latest and perhaps final indignity.

Think of the 76ers from 1979-84. A great and wholly admirable team that played some of the most hotly contested, best-remembered playoff series in NBA history. But the numbers don’t lie. That group accounted for a single title, and that — hard though it is for Boston fans to admit — will be the identical legacy of this thoroughly likeable, often-heroic, somewhat unlucky, but ultimately underachieving Celtics incarnation.

A quick recap:

• 2008: A title, fairly won and glory be to God.

• 2009: Kevin Garnett is hurt late in the season, and the Celtics still take Orlando to 7 in the Conference Finals. Clearly undermanned, they battled and nearly stole the series. Valiant? Yes, but that and $8.50 will get you a cup of coffee.

• 2010: The nearest miss of them all, a Game 7 loss to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Kobe went 6 for 24 and Boston (Kendrick or no Kendrick) couldn’t get it done.

• 2011: Out in the second round to Miami in a deceivingly competitive 5-game series wherein Rondo broke his elbow in Game 3. Even then, the final two games were toss-ups, and Boston blew an 8-point lead in the final two minutes of Game 5.

Picking over the debris of last night’s harrowing defeat in South Florida, which drops the Celtics in a 2-0 hole headed back to Boston, it’s difficult to find fault with the team — as it is difficult to find fault or cast blame associated with any of these playoff exits. Indeed, while the word “heroic” is tossed around all too lightly in American sporting circles, Doc Rivers’ crew once again proved lion-hearted in defeat. Ahead of last night’s Game 2, conventional wisdom held that Boston had to win or the series was over; no one would beat Lebron and DWade four games out five, even with 3 of those games in the Garden. Unfortunately for the Celtics — and they were monumentally unfortunate, watching James go to the line 29 times and accrue just 2 fouls in his nearly 50 minutes on the floor, while the guys who guarded him (Pierce and Pietrus) both fouled out — the 2011-12 season, and the Big Three Era, would appear to be done and dusted.

In the fourth quarter last night with just under three minutes remaining and the Celtics holding a 94-89 lead, I texted my friend Jammin’: “3 baskets or 6 points wins this game, but the Celts will need all 6… Proud to be a Celts fan tonite regardless.”

They got five, not six — good enough for overtime but not the victory they so desperately needed. But I’m no less proud.

 

 

Celts v. Heat: Plenty of Glamour and a Few Grudges

Celts v. Heat: Plenty of Glamour and a Few Grudges

Welcome back to Glamour Profession, the NBA podcast here at halphillips.net. Last year at about this time, the Celtics faced off with the Heat in Game 5 of their second-round playoff series, trailing 3 games to 1. Your pod host, Hal Phillips, was in New Zealand. Heading out to play the back nine at Kauri Cliffs Golf Club, some 17 hours ahead of Eastern Standard time, he checked the Game 5 score in the clubhouse — Boston led Miami by 8 with 2 plus minutes remaining. Standing over his approach on no. 10, his playing partner consulted the Blackberry and reported the game and series were over — the Celts having failed to score in those last 2 minutes. Well, here we are again, this time in the Eastern Conference finals. Both teams are beat up, short-handed by major injuries and seemingly inferior to either team contesting the Western Conference Finals, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. We caught up with the GP’s resident sage, Jammin’ Jim Jackson, at halftime of Sunday night’s Spurs-Thunder game to discuss that match-up and the pending Heat-Celtics series, which kicks off Monday night.

Jeremy Lin Channels his Inner Billy Ray Bates

Jeremy Lin Channels his Inner Billy Ray Bates

 

Two-plus weeks into the Jeremy Lin Era, you’ve no doubt heard the odd reference to one Billy Ray Bates. When basketball sage of yore Bob Ryan recently did a podcast with heir apparent Bill Simmons, Billy Ray’s out-of-nowhere emergence in 1980 was held up as the only apt comparison. Indeed, Ryan — whose stellar work for the Boston Globe in the 1970s and ‘80s fueled my interest in sports writing — claims to have been the first to make the Billy Ray analogy.

Not so. I believe I can claim to have made it almost immediately — not only because I, too, revere David Halberstam’s iconic book, “Breaks of the Game”, in which Billy Ray’s legend figures prominently, but because I stare Mr. Bates in the face every day when I sit down in my barn office. Yes, I own the poster pictured here and have since 1981. I only wish I’d have taken better care of it through the years. I mean, how many of these can there be out there?

Listen to the podcast linked above. It’s 45 minutes of all-world basketball chatter. But it should be said that even the Billy Ray analogy doesn’t quite fit (despite the fact that he, too, was cut by the Rockets before signing the 10-day contract that stuck). Bates was a brawny, 6’4” shooting guard, not a point guard like Lin. What’s more, he wasn’t completely unknown and unheralded: Billy Ray was voted Rookie of the Year in the Continental Basketball Association, the D League of its day; he won the CBA All-Star Game dunk contest and is reported to have broken no less than four backboards. Even in the media dark ages of 1980, word like that gets around.

In other ways, Lin has a ways to go in order to produce the same impact. Billy Ray was a gunner par excellence — he once scored 40 points (in 32 minutes) against the San Diego Clippers, and 35 in 25 minutes against the Mavericks — but he saved his best for the playoffs, averaging 25 ppg in the 1980 tournament and 28.3 ppg a year later (still a franchise record).

So while the Billy Ray-Jeremy comparison might be the best we can identify in the long history of the NBA, it’s not perfect — which merely speaks further to the truly anomalous goings-on in New York these days. The point guard aspect makes it completely unique. There simply isn’t any sort of precedent for a point guard emerging from developmental-league obscurity to score and dish on this scale.

If we mine the point guard vein a little deeper, we begin to better understand the evolution of this phenomenon. Lin was an excellent high school player and solid contributor on some decent Harvard teams, decent for the Ivy League anyway. But he never starred or produced anything like the numbers we’ve seen these last few weeks. Further, he was cut by both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets this year. Clearly he didn’t show this sort of offensive firepower in either place.

Why? Well, because he was doing what he’d always done, what marginal back-up point guards in the NBA are supposed to do — that is, run the offense and avoid mistakes.

Lin himself has said that he was determined in New York to try something else — clearly what he was doing in Houston and Oakland weren’t working. This is not the same ol’ Jeremy Lin now setting the League on fire. It’s a radical departure, of his own making. That he landed in New York beside a coach who doesn’t care about defense (Lin remains a suspect defender) and encourages such aggressive (some would argue reckless) offensive hedonism is either blind luck, fate, or both.

Perhaps without knowing it, Lin changed his game in New York by channeled his inner Billy Ray.

 

What’s in a Fantasy Name? Only Everything

What’s in a Fantasy Name? Only Everything

The NBA Lockout has concluded. The players got played, and while anyone who doesn’t buy that assessment is encouraged to read Dave Zirin’s take, we owe it to the Hoop Gods, and ourselves, to press on.

Lots of rumors floating about as to how the 30 NBA teams will constitute themselves in the next 25 days, prior to the Christmas Day openers. Yet the situation is even more fluid on the fantasy front. Our league, Maine Hoops, has not even conducted the annual draft and poker bonanza; NBA free agency doesn’t commence until Dec. 9, and where those 30-odd influential players go will determine productivity not just for the 30, but for the rosters they join, or eschew.

The only responsible and productive thing to do, then, is to ponder the name of one’s fantasy team. Here is something we can control (our draft appears to be set for Sunday Dec. 18, with poker the night before).

My friend Jammin’ and I co-own a team that, during the 2010-11 season, went by the name of “Haitian Divorce”. We like the Steely Dan theme (see our team logo from last year, above), and while it’s not been formally decided, I’m lobbying for another show of faith in the mystical powers of Fagen and Becker.

What’s clear is that Haitian Divorce, despite the killer logo, didn’t do the job; we finished tied for 5th last year in our 13-team league. So allow me to enlist your input. Here are some alternatives, in keeping with the Steely Dan theme. Let me know which ones you like best, or feel free to suggest alternatives:

Black Cow

Hats & Hooters

The Caves of Altimira

Chase the Dragon

Can you tell I’m listening to Aja and Gaucho while mulling this extremely serious matter? Lyric excerpts work as well as actual song or album names. I’ve already dubbed the basketball podcast here at halphillips.net “Glamour Profession”, so that’s out. Still, so much to choose from.

Schoolyard Supermen

Illegal Fun

LA Concession

Bodacious Cowboys

Mystical Sphere

Jammin weighs in with this: “If we must use a Steely Dan theme then the only choice would be Bad Sneakers… But it doesn’t really matter what we call our team because this is our year.”

True that.

 

 

The Top 50 College Basketball Players Ever: A Riposte

The Top 50 College Basketball Players Ever: A Riposte

Chuck Klosterman’s compelling and ambitious 2011 treatise, a ranking of the top 50 college basketball players of all time, caught me unawares frankly. By that time I had well developed a strong ambivalence toward college basketball. How else to view an ever-lengthening regular season that, with each passing day, degenerates more brazenly into a massive, tawdry exercise in hypocrisy and broadcast-content provision? Ninety-five percent of Division I games are an ultimately meaningless exhibition/cash grab leading up to an admittedly thrilling denouement, the NCAA Tournament, which can obscure, for one month each spring, just how ridiculous it is that these basketball “programs” are attached to, and wield such extraordinary fiscal and emotional power over universities and their attendant communities. I won’t even get into the fact that all this money is being generated — for colleges, media and corporate advertisers — on the backs, jerseys and computer-generated likenesses of unpaid laborers.

Over time I’ve come to prefer the unabashedly professional game — for the same reasons Abraham Lincoln once threatened, rhetorically, to abandon his native country for Moscow. Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid, Lincoln wrote to his friend Joshua Speed, in 1855. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it, “all men are created equal except negroes.” When the Know-nothings get control, it will read, “all men are created equal except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.” When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

But there was a time in my life, from 1974 through the turn of the millennium, when I was hardcore in the college basketball camp. Nothing so captured my sporting imagination. As a middle-schooler, my friends and I devised a gaming scheme that pre-dated brackets: 32 teams in a brown paper bag, pull one for buck, if your team makes the Final Four you’re in the money. We closely followed teams from the old Yankee Conference and Eastern 8. I recall being devastated when Rhode Island lost by a point in the 1978 NCAA Tournament — to Duke, which would go all the way to the Final (that URI team, led by Sly Williams, was very, very good — Elite 8 good). The Big East took shape in 1979, when I was in high school, transforming (through the power of media exposure) players well known to us — Craig Shelton, Roosevelt Bowie, Corny Thompson, even Dan Calandrillo — from nice ballplayers into gods. In college I subscribed to something called Eastern Basketball magazine, written largely by a guy named Dick Weiss, whose life as it appeared to me — covering college hoops 24/7 for junkies like myself — only strengthened my resolve to be a sportswriter.

Perhaps this is why Klosterman’s story struck such a nerve. It made me think back to a time when I cared more, when the mendacity of it all wasn’t so striking, when perhaps the game wasn’t so shabby, or when I was naïve enough to believe it so. Chalk another one up to the palliative powers of nostalgia.

 

KLOSTERMAN’S LIST is preceded by several qualifiers, the rules of engagement as it were. The James Dean rule applies (Talent is the main criterion, but it helps to have died young). Most controversial and central is the idea that any player whose NBA stardom proved more “meaningful” than his college exploits is not eligible. Fair enough. If all were eligible, the Top 50 would too closely mimic the NBA’s Top 50 of all-time (issued in 1999), and what would be the point of that?

Any ranking of this sort, regardless of qualifiers, naturally leads to a heavy dose of interpretation. Still, in several cases it seems clear to me that Klosterman missed the mark.

Further, the composition of any such list also fairly well cries out for dissent, and so, in the Classical Greek tradition of thesis-antithesis-synthesis (or was it Hegelian? Kantian?), and having received from Chuck the first volley, we offer here the latter two stages.

Of the 50 players Klosterman included in his Top 50, I take issue with these six:

49. David Rivers (Notre Dame, 1984-1988)
46. Daren Queenan (Lehigh, 1984-1988)
42. Michael Graham (Georgetown, 1983-1984)
41. Fennis Dembo (Wyoming, 1984-1988)
26. Dereck Whittenburg (North Carolina State, 1980-1983)
19. Jerome Lane (Pittsburgh, 1985-1988)

That’s not many. Klosterman’s Top 50 is solid and inventive, accented with several quirky choices that he well defends and I’m on board with most of them. At nos. 17 and 16 he taps Johnny Neumann (Ole Miss, 1972-1973) and Frank Selvy (Furman, 1951-1954), two of only three guys who ever averaged 40 ppg for an entire season. I’m down with this, as I’m okay with Freeman Williams (Portland State, 1974-1978), at no. 13, and the incomparable Alfredrick Hughes (Loyola University, 1981-1985), who twice led the nation in scoring and made the list at no. 50. Let’s remember that Klosterman’s is a piece of journalistic commentary, and who wouldn’t include a guy who, as a junior, took 655 shots and finished the season with just 17 assists? Maybe if only to point out that, “Somewhere in Chicago, Alfredrick is taking an ill-advised shot right now.” Talented gunners sans conscience are part of what make basketball-watching, on any level, gratifying and fun.

However, the history of college hoops is long, storied and vast. Gunners have their place, but so do lock-down defenders and all-court guards — especially the guards, because winning college hoops has always been about guard play.

The six fellows I cite above are, in my view, each significantly overshadowed by at least a dozen more deserving candidates. Klosterman himself hedges his bets. Here’s his own list of those who could have but did not make the cut: Raymond Lewis, Mark Macon, Pearl Washington, Bob Kurland, Keith Lee, Kenny Walker, George Gregory, Anderson Hunt, Charles Jones, Bobby Hurley, Richie Farmer, Popeye Jones, Alphonso Ford, Kevin Bradshaw, Stephen Thompson, Tito Horford, Derrick Coleman, Steve Kerr, Jimmy Black, Kent Benson, Moses Scurry, Lancaster Gordon, Ken Norman, Gary McClain, and Pervis Ellison.

My friend Jammin’ and I made our own list, without referring to Klosterman’s near misses, and, somewhat remarkably, there was little crossover. Only one, in fact: Ellison, who led Louisville to a National Championship in 1986 (as a freshman), participated in three more solid tournament runs, played against top-flight competition all year/every year (unlike Dembo and Queenan), was a first team All-American as a senior, went no. 1 in the NBA draft, and met Klosterman’s qualifier by never doing much as a pro. His All-World nickname, “Never Nervous”, was also coined in college.

Our dissenting views, detailed below, are entirely based on Klosterman’s own criteria. While everyone loves a scorer, even a gunner, it also seemed reasonable to Jammin’ and me that stupendous regular-season numbers should be trumped by consistently great numbers that are burnished by demonstrated virtuosity during the NCAA Tournament, where the pressure and opposing talent levels are highest.

There are exceptions, of course. Dereck Whittenburg won a title and we’re proposing his removal… Conversely, Pete Maravich never played in an NCAA tournament; hell, LSU was barely .500 his four years in Baton Rouge — but he was the third guy to average 40 ppg for a season, and The Pistol did it all three years he was eligible to play varsity ball. With no 3-point line. He stays.

Queenan, while he posted monster numbers, played in two NCAA games and The Engineers (I’m pretty sure they were still the Engineers and not the Mountain Hawks way back then) got thumped both times. Do you remember him going off in either first-round loss for 30 and 20? Neither do I. Sad fact is, college basketball history is littered with 6’4” athletes who weren’t recruited to major schools and spent four years ripping up the likes of Rider, Lafayette, Bucknell and Hofstra 2-3 times each year. If Stephen Thompson or Tony Bruin or Lester Rowe had played at Lehigh, they’d have posted similar numbers. They wouldn’t necessarily, as Klosterman noted, gain Belgium citizenship and enjoy stellar pro careers in Europe, but that only argues against Queenan — his career was clearly more meaningful to Belgian professional basketball than it was to the American collegiate scene.

ENOUGH CONTEXT. See here six replacement picks for those I’m proposing we jettison, above.

1) Ronnie Lester (Iowa, 1977-1980): When I first read Klosterman’s Top 50, this guy jumped out at me as a major omission. Not even included in the near misses — a travesty because Lester was one of the great guards in NCAA and Big 10 history. College basketball is all about guard play, and Lute Olson, who coached Lester’s Final Four team, in 1980, maintained throughout his long career (including a title at Arizona where he amassed incredible talent) that Lester was the best player he ever coached. Ronnie was All-America as a junior, first team All-Big 10 his junior and senior years, back when the Big 10 of Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan State was college basketball’s premier conference. A knee injury cost Lester half his senior season and ultimately pro stardom; he returned for the tournament run, was brilliant, but re-injured it in the national semifinal… Magic Johnson maintains Lester was the toughest Big 10 opponent he ever faced.
2) Darrell Griffith (Louisville, 1977-1980): A contemporary of Lester’s, Dr. Dunkenstein led the Cardinals to their first National Championship, in 1980, earning Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four in the bargain, First Team All-American honors (according to the AP), and the Wooden Award as the nation’s best college basketball player. Hardly a one-year wonder, he left college as Louisville’s all-time leading scorer (2,333 points). But this doesn’t at all touch on the excitement his game exuded. Didn’t get in the paint like Jordan or David Thompson, but he was a jump-shooter with better range (crazy range) and the era’s premier dunkmeister. NBA career was good, but nowhere near as meaningful as his time at Louisville.
3) Mark Aguirre (DePaul, 1978-81): Averaged 24.5 points over three seasons with the Blue Demons; 1981 Sporting News College Player of the Year; USBWA College Player of the Year and James Naismith Award winner — for 1980; two-time first-team All-American. Not many guys are that dominant or feted in two separate seasons, but it was as a freshman in 1978–1979, when he averaged 24 ppg and led DePaul to the Final Four, that Aguirre captured everyone’s fancy and was arguably at his collegiate best. Pudgy and no more than 6’5”, he arrived with a complete and completely unique inside-outside game. He left after his junior year, grew increasingly petulant, and eventually won two NBA titles as a Piston on the downside of his career. A three-time NBA all-star, but again, I’d argue a more meaningful (and likeable) player at the college level.
4) Larry Micheaux (Houston 1979-1983): Did everything Michael Graham did with equal menace for three solid years, not one. Did it better and did more, in fact, all of it with an unnervingly impassive expression and a more evocative nickname: “Mr. Mean”. Micheaux did everything, all the dirty work, for one of the great teams in NCAA history (three Final Fours); averaged 13 points and 8 boards during that run, shooting between 55-60 percent from the field. He even led two of those Houston teams in blocked shots — no small feat when playing next to Hakeem (though it could be argued the Dream creates more block opportunities for teammates). If Graham is on the list for putting up a single year of 9 and 4, I’ll take Micheaux in his place.
5) Ernie DiGregorio (Providence, 1970-73): Tried without success to dig up his college stats. But if talent, panache and the unique nature of one’s game count (and Klosterman says they do), then Ernie D belongs on this list. Hard to imagine that a 5’10” white guy would pioneer the fast-break at the college level, but he did — with an array of sick passing skills, sure ball-handling and other-worldly court awareness. Led PC to the Final Four in 1973, when he was a consensus All-America and Lapchick Award winner as the nation’s outstanding senior. He was the NCAA East Regional MVP that year, and made NCAA Final Four All-Tournament team despite the Friars going out in the semis.
6) Jon Lucas (Maryland, 1971-74): Hey, if Len Bias belongs on the list (no. 7) without having won anything, or even coming close, Lucas does, too. Death didn’t moot his NBA career, but drug abuse did. In terms of the James Dean Rule, that’s gotta count for something. Besides, Lucas was an extraordinary talent whose college career was, to say the least, eventful. Three times an All-American (twice a first-teamer), he was also an All-American tennis player. Two of his Maryland teams (with Len Elmore and Tom McMillan) can be counted among the best never to play in the NCAA tournament — back then you had to win the ACC to gain entry, and they couldn’t beat David Thompson’s NC State. The rules changed his junior year and they went to the Elite 8. As a senior, Maryland somehow went 22-6 in the ACC and, again, didn’t make the field of 32. A superb assist man and lock-down defender, he nevertheless managed to average 18 ppg and 6+ assists over his four years in College Park. Dereck Whittenburg averaged 11.3 points and 1.8 assists over his four years in Raleigh, and the iconic moment for which he is best known? An air ball.

THERE ARE SEVERAL more Honorable Mentions I’d still take over Klosterman’s Questionable Six:

• Calvin Murphy (Niagara, 1968-1970) — Three-time All-American… Totally unstoppable as a collegiate scorer… 5’9” guys have been known to achieve in the college game (Bobby Hurley), but they rarely score 2,548 points in 77 games (33.1 ppg)… 1963 national champion in baton twirling.
• Phil Hubbard (Michigan, 1975-1979) and James Bailey (Rutgers, 1975-1979) — These guys go together, in my mind, because they simultaneously led separate teams to Final Fours as undersized, freshman centers then went on to log superb four-year careers in the late 1970s. Indeed, that freshman year, Rutgers went 31-0 before losing to Hubbard’s Wolverines in the national semifinal. I’ll take either one over Jerome Lane, who did nothing but board and bust a backboard or two.
• Stephan Curry (Davidson, 2005-2008) — Jury’s still out on whether his NBA career will prove more meaningful, but this guy was electric in college, personally brilliant and clutch, while carrying a sub-standard team deep into a couple NCAA tournaments. David Rivers couldn’t carry his jock.
• Marvin Barnes — People forget what an absolute stud this guy was in college. If you need a punk on the list, at least include one with major talent and a predilection for pimp lids and fur collars.
• Gordon Hayward (Butler, 2008-2010) — Dembo had one great NCAA tournament. Hayward had two, and was the most complete player, as a freshman and sophomore, on two teams that came achingly close to winning two national championship games. Then he went pro, accomplishing more in two collegiate seasons  than most fail to do in four.

And then there’s the curious case of Patrick Ewing. Klosterman is silent on the subject, reserving his most blatant bit of hedge-betting for the inclusion of Lew Alcindor, at no. 1, arguing quite rightly that no college basketball player has ever been so dominant. But that was “Lew Alcindor”. It was “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” who logged the meaningful professional career. A contrivance to be sure, circumventing the “can’t have been a more meaningful pro” qualifier, but canny. We’re obliged to indulge the author here because, well… because he got this ball rolling.

Ewing is another matter. I’m a Boston guy; I went to see this phenom play at Cambridge Rindge & Latin. Despite the fact that he played his entire pro career for the rival Knicks, I wanted him to be a great pro. But it’s hard to view Ewing’s NBA achievements as anything but underwhelming. No titles, two Finals appearances, and through it all, in some pretty remarkable ways, his game never fully developed. Yes, he was 11 times an all-star but just once was he named All-NBA first team. Klosterman barred Elvin Hayes from the college list, despite a spectacular and iconic stint at the University of Houston, because his pro career was just too long and formidable. Hard not to put Ewing in the same category, but just as hard to argue he wasn’t a more influential, charismatic, “meaningful” college player: three NCAA Championship games in four years; one title and two excruciating near misses that were no fault of his; laid down the footsteps to D.C. for other big men to follow (Motumbo, Mourning); and, lest we forget, while at Georgetown, Ewing pioneered the habit of wearing a short sleeved t-shirt underneath his sleeveless jersey: a fashion trend that persists to this day.

Ewing was, of course, named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. That struck me as a stretch at the time, and now I know why: wrong Top 50.