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March Sanity

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

For a long while we have not been seeing college basketball at its best — the coaches are unpleasant and the most talented college-age players aren’t playing college ball. Still, I’ll be watching a goodly share of March Madness.

Are you ready for March Madness, the Big Dance, the Final Four, the feast of college basketball that will dominate the next two weeks of the lives of all respectable couch potatoes hooked on sports? I, somehow, find I’m not, and I’m trying to figure out why. Might it be that I’m already surfeited with college basketball, and that the upcoming NCAA tournament presents itself rather like an enormous pudding after an already too heavy meal of altogether too many previous courses?

The problem, alas, is not that simple. All the college basketball I’ve watched this season seems to have deliquesced into a single game, with the concluding score being 64 to 57, in favor of the team I have decided to root against.  One game I did see that stood out this past season was Notre Dame, at home, defeating Louisville at the end of a fifth overtime. I wasn’t so much cheering for Notre Dame as I was against Rick Pitino, a coach I’ve watched regularly trade in loyalty for dollars — nothing, let it be noted, singular about him in this — but also yell at his players in public in an unattractive way. Like a number of other coaches, Pitino is averse to sitting down during a game, and attempts to direct play standing up at the sideline, a distraction to everyone.

College basketball and football coaches — a small number of exceptions allowed — may be among the most unpleasant human beings in American public life. What has made them unpleasant is not just the competition that has put them under intense pressure, but also the money that rains down on those who come out of that competition as winners. Immense television revenues fall into the coffers of colleges with winning football and basketball teams. The salaries for college coaches at the highest levels are up there in the millions, and these salaries are not given for character building or instruction in elegant manners. Watching them on the sidelines, red-faced, screaming at referees and umpires, calling out their own players, the phrase that comes to mind to describe most college coaches is “ugly customers.” There have always been such coaches — Jerry Tarkanian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Bobby Knight at Indiana, Woody Hayes at Ohio State — but nowadays they seem to preponderate.

One of the things I shall be cheering for during the NCAA basketball tournament is that certain coaches don’t make it to the final four. That John Calipari and his Kentucky team aren’t even in the tournament this year is cause, in my view, for hiring a small marimba band in celebration. Because of their coaches, I’d like to see Kansas ousted early — so, too, Louisville and Ohio State, and a few years ago I would have added Duke.

College basketball and football coaches — a small number of exceptions allowed — may be among the most unpleasant human beings in American public life.

I’ve decided I was wrong about Duke and Coach Mike Krzyzewski. I tended to root against Duke not only because they were such consistent winners, but because it had (and, so far as I know, still has) one of the most wretched English departments in the country, filled with Marxists, deconstructionists, and other assorted goofies. (Nobody said couch potatoes were logical.) I also thought of Duke as a school for spoiled children, which is what, on the West Coast they call USC (University of Spoiled Children). But I’ve changed my mind about Duke because it has supplied so many professional players — Carlos Boozer, Elton Brand, Mike Dunleavy, Luol Deng, Grant Hill, and others — who have shown impressive discipline on the court and don’t do egregious things off it. Coach K. must be teaching something worthwhile besides the imperative of beating North Carolina.

Part of my problem with college basketball is that for a long while now we have not been seeing it at its best. The reason for this is that the most talented college-age basketball players depart the game as soon as possible to play for the big money in the National Basketball Association. The result is that the best college-age ballplayers aren’t playing college ball. Nor are they around long enough for solid teams to form — teams that have been playing together for three or four years, and know one another’s moves and grooves. The money to go pro is just too tempting, especially when the education offered isn’t, for the most part, all that serious.

I’ve changed my mind about Duke because it has supplied so many professional players who have shown impressive discipline on the court and don’t do egregious things off it.

Some of the very best players now in the NBA, in fact, have never bothered to drop into a college classroom: Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and LeBron James most notable among them. They have shown no ill effects for missing out on college. Lots of other excellent pros — such as Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony, and Anthony Davis — have spent only a single year playing college ball. “Just imagine how magnificent LeBron would be with a solid liberal arts education behind him” is a joke perhaps too often repeated chez Epstein.

On the subject of a sound, or even an unsound, liberal arts education, is there anything more depressing than when, during a timeout in a college basketball game, the camera hones in on 10 or 20 kids in the stands, half of them with their faces painted red or green or blue, screaming that their team is number one? Higher education indeed. Another twist of the inanity rag is the new cheering sections that some schools have devised for home-court games in which everyone, dressed in school colors, hops up and down for what seems to be the full course of the game. The idiocy of this makes banging thunder-sticks together from behind the basket to distract visiting team free-throw shooters seem positively court of Versailles in its refinement.

I note that I’ve done lots of grumbling here, none of which will keep me from watching a goodly share of NCAA tournament games. I’ll be at my post, television on, sound turned off, happy that I shall not have won (because I shan’t be entering) a Wendy’s restaurant contest that includes lunch with the former college basketball coach and current maniacal, upbeat announcer Dick Vitale. Surely one of the great negative pleasures is not to be in the same room with Dick Vitale. “Awesome, baby,” as Vitale himself might say, “with a capital A.”

Joseph Epstein is THE AMERICAN’s couch potato and the author of the book Essays in Biography.

FURTHER READING: Joseph Epstein also writes "The Complex Life of the Couch Potato," "The Artist Athlete," and "Football’s Head Games: The Concussion Question." Andrew Rugg blogs "On Sports, Superstition, and Politics" and Andrew Biggs writes "Stimulate the Economy: Eliminate Salary Caps in Pro Sports."


Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group


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