I’m not sure when or why it happened, but it seems that in the past few years a new March tradition has arisen to accompany the NCAA tournament. On blogs and Twitter—recently, even at major outlets — it has become commonplace for hoops fans to bag on the college game with smug, joyless abandon. College players can’t shoot, I hear, or most of them can only drive one way. While these brave critics are doing the world a great service—I would never have realized that amateur, younger basketball players are less proficient than trained and tenured professionals without them — I’m unusually salty about it this year, for a few reasons.
I get the sense that NBA fans consider themselves the urbane, enlightened denizens of the hoops world. I also get the sense that there is a slack-jawed straw man pro fans are still responding to. College fans are treated as perspective-free provincials, yokels too blinded by tribalism to consider whether they’re watching decent basketball. But of course, there are Sacramento Kings fans whose passion matches any University of Kentucky graduate, and while the Kings of course have more talent than UK, you could hardly argue their play is the more pleasing product.
I believe further that NBA partisans see themselves misguidedly as on the right side of race relations; the college game has for so long been associated with culturally white signal words and white figures of authority that I can see why this would be the case. You know, “hustle,” “playing for something bigger than yourself;” I readily concede that the tradition of infantilizing college athletes, and particularly college athletes of color, is beyond tiresome. But all sports, and really almost all American institutions, have been built around the “virtues” of white signal words, and it’s unusual to see potential fans throw the baby out with the bath water on this account. Certainly pro football, baseball, hockey, and even basketball have struggled in similar ways. We’re still not ten years removed from the NBA instituting a dress code, after all.
But perhaps the most annoying thing about college detractors pointing out the flaws in the game is that they’re already perfectly visible. I won’t speak for too many others, since I’m sure on the right message boards there are still plenty of “college players hustle more” mouth-breathers, but most people watching college basketball are aware of its warts. Let me make this point again: it is thoroughly laughable to constantly point out how much worse college athletes are than older, full-time, more talented and more experienced professionals. Stop doing it. We can tell.
And most of us are watching anyway. College basketball is not exciting for the same reasons that the NBA is. The NBA is exciting because even when the stakes are lowest — when exhausted players meet on a back-to-back in mid-March — there is a potential for some really beautiful basketball. College, however, is exciting precisely because the environment is less conducive to excellence, and because the rawness of its players changes how we feel about the game.
Take the recent explosion of North Carolina’s P.J. Hairston for example, because I am an immense North Carolina homer. Playing his third game in three days with 8 stitches on his injured non-shooting hand, Hairston poured in 28 points while hitting 6 threes. It was exciting for the reason any great play is, yes, but also because it was emerging talent showing itself despite all the constraints placed on it. 35 second shot clocks, relentless zone defense, the differences in physical maturity between players — these are all things preventing the college game from aesthetic fulfillment, but sometimes nascent talent breaks through anyway.
Amateurism infuses the NCAA the way professionalism the backbone of the NBA. The idea of a professional, the man who finds an appropriate measure of dedication and humility, is the standard by which most NBA players are judged. But in the NCAA, youth and imperfection rule the day. When certain people say that college players “hustle” more, they’re mistaking hustle for the mania of youth. In college, and not just for athletes, everything is life and death. Players cry. They mock other fan bases. They get to school eighty pounds too heavy or too light. The whole point of the enterprise is that these are not only unformed talents but unformed people, competing on an extremely visible stage and under tremendous pressure. If that’s not at least as compelling as watching the Pistons in springtime, then you and I have irreconcilable differences as fans.
So listen, we know. We college fans do not need you to describe to us what we’re watching. Save your self-satisfied critiques, because they aren’t addressing the real reasons we watch. We have not mistaken a 6’1” point guard who can only dribble one way for Chris Paul. We understand that they miss a lot of open jumpshots. But the college game provides a different context, one in which an open jumpshot is a small fraction of the objective.