By AARON SHILL
For basketball junkies — the kind who can find meaning in a twenty-year-old rebroadcast of an ABA game on Classic Sports Network — any kind of basketball is good basketball.
But if there is anything fans can learn from the NBA lockout, it’s that when it comes to the excitement, tradition and atmosphere of the game, all things are not equal.
Being a junkie myself, the absence of NBA basketball helped me come to an important realization — something I’ve heard Dick Vitale rant about for as long as I can remember. And although I have made yet another emotional investment in the fate of my beloved Utah Jazz, this year’s basketball campaign has taught me something.
The NBA has nothing on college ball.
When it comes to roundball in the college ranks, professional basketball is nothing more than a glossed-over, second rate version of the game we call “hoops.” I offer as evidence the Jazz’s 80-65 victory over Dallas back on Feb. 26, where both teams spent 48 uninspired minutes lagging their way up and down the court as if they had Jeff Van Gundy wrapped around their ankles.
After the Mavericks fell behind in the first quarter, Dallas head coach Don Nelson yanked his starters and kept them on the bench the rest of the game. Nelson defended his actions by saying, “I was hoping to stay competitive in the game, but that didn’t happen. So we did the next best thing and played the game out.”
Played the game out? Can you imagine John Chaney, Bobby Knight or Gene Keady taking such a ho-hum approach to the game?
On the other hand, take a look at what has been happening this past week in the NCAA tournament. That school to the north (the one that wears purple) sent one of the nation’s most tradition-rich programs packing. Tiny Gonzaga has been a giant killer, beating the No. 2 seed Stanford to make it to the Sweet 16. Southwest Missouri State has pulled off two shockers against Wisconsin and Tennessee. These teams — expected to go nowhere — are captivating the sports world with every momentum-building shot and every towel being waved by the players celebrating on the bench.
I do realize that few NBA regular season games carry the same significance as an NCAA tournament game, especially if it’s a contest that involves the Mavericks. But anyone who has watched the “Big Dance” knows there is something the college game has that the pros just don’t.
Call it heart.
It’s not always about the range of a player’s jumper or the quickness of his crossover. You see, the NCAA tournament features players who are willing to leave their limbs out on the floor just to play the game they love. In the NBA, players sit out with hurt fingers or simply disappear when they want to do some gambling. For every Michael Jordan, there are about 10 Derrick Colemans whose approach to the game is altogether too passive.
The NCAA tournament features teams like Florida A & M — teams that are thrilled with the prospect of getting hammered in the first round. These players work their guts out all year long just to be a part of March Madness. But in the NBA, players like Stephon Marbury can’t even be happy with a $71 million contract.
And then there are the fans. College crowds feature face-painted students drunk with school spirit, ready to wage war on the opposition with what’s left of their already shredded vocal chords. Compared with the country-club atmosphere of the NBA crowd, college basketball arenas are carnivals of emotion. And while you can find plenty of true fans at the Delta Center, you will probably find just as many who attend the Jazz games merely as a status symbol.
In the sports world, great college basketball programs are larger than life. Schools like Indiana, Kentucky and North Carolina command respect and loyalty from fans and players alike. In the NBA, nothing is larger than the dollar signs. Just ask Marbury.
Fortunately for basketball junkies, there are still a few weeks left to watch the game in its most pure form. And for those who have yet to sense the beauty of the college game, tune in to March Madness. You may see something you rarely see in the NBA, like a guy setting a hard screen or a player diving after a loose ball.
At least the college game hasn’t forgotten what’s important.