By Rich Levine
In the midst of my 48th straight hour of watching players Ive barely heard of run up and down the MSG floor, theres only one thing I have to say:
College basketball is back!
And I know thats a ridiculous statement.
I know that for millions of fans out there, the notion that college basketball somehow hasnt existed these last few months is more insulting than the ATM surcharge at casinos (and . . . other places). For a lot of people, college hoops has clogged the sports radar since the clock struck Midnight Madness, and has remained at the forefront for the better part of this painful winter.
And I appreciate that.
I have nothing against the grind of the college basketball season, or the game itself, and nothing but respect for the diehard fans.
Im just not one of them.
At least, not anymore.
I grew up obsessing over college basketball.
For most of the 90s, I studied recruiting classes, could rattle off seven or eight guys on each of the Top 25, and probably break you off a pretty good scouting report on the top 50. (In retrospect, it might not have been that insightful during the middle school years.) I watched a ridiculous number of games. I read every magazine (even Lindys!). I had far more pictures of UNCs Jerry Stackhouse on my wall than anything that would now be considered cool. I loved college hoops.
The first reason was just that I loved basketball, and at the time, the Celtics werent exactly the worlds most exciting team. The Big Three were past their prime before I could really appreciate them, and after that, the only remotely cool player in Boston was Reggie Lewis. He died when I was 13. And until Antoine Walker came along three years later, the C's didn't have too much going on (Although, looking back, I wish I'd been smart enough to realize how awesome a Dino Radja poster would have been)
But regardless of the lack of professional options, I also loved college hoops because I felt closer to it. The NBA (especially after MJs first retirement) was old. College players were younger, cooler, and more like me. Not that I actually had much in common with Cameron Dollar and Miles Simon, but it felt like I did. Every one in the NBA had existed before Id started to care. These college athletes were new; they were the future. And that seemed so much more interesting than whatever was going on now.
(It also helped the that around the same time, UMass was consistently one of the best teams in the country and BC made their ridiculous run to the Elite 8. Where you at now, Meat Hook?)
Anyway, Stackhouse was probably the tipping point. Im not kidding about how obsessively I followed him. Its pretty uncomfortable to think back on now. I kept an album of his newspaper clippings (mostly from Basketball Weekly) in my closet. I had his 1995 SI Player of the Year cover framed above my TV. My first AOL screen name: UNC2342 (Jordan and Stack). It was really weird. And then, in the summer of 95, he moved on to the NBA.
I was 15, my favorite athlete was changing leagues, and I had to straighten out my priorities.
That season, Stackhouse, along with Rasheed Wallace and Joe Smith, joined an NBA that was already starting to be dominated by players Id watched grow up through the ranks: Shaq, Kidd, Webber, Penny. And eventually, as the league continued to fill up with more and more of my college heroes, and the time I had available to spend obsessing over sports wasn't getting longer, I had to make a decision:
Whats more important: Is it the game or the players?
And ultimately, it wasnt that difficult of a choice.
I still have my VHS copy of Stackhouses first game against the Celtics. It was a preseason game, and entirely meaningless. Afterwards, I watched it every day for probably two weeks. And from there, the NBA started its take over. Over time, Stackhouse, Wallace, Webber, Kidd and Penny were joined by guys like Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Antoine Walker, Tim Duncan, Marcus Camby, Vince Carter and Paul Pierce.
Meanwhile, players like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jermaine ONeal and T-Mac made college feel a little less important, as did the influx of international talent. There were guys who were too good for college basketball? Does that mean college basketball isnt that good?
It didnt all happen at once; it was more of a slow, decade long shift. But by the end, just like that, my college basketball had become the young NBA.
The time Id once invested into college hoops was now spent watching my favorite athletes compete at the next level. Eventually, the college game became the equivalent of what the college fan in me used think about high schools. I only cared about the stars. Now its gotten to the point where Ill only tune in, at least in the regular season, when a guy like Adam Morrison (yikes), Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, John Wall or Jimmer Fredette comes along. And even then, its never about winning or losing, or even college basketball. Its about the fact that I know this guys going to be a pro, and I want to know more now so that Ill be ready when he gets there. When it matters. Its sad thats its gotten to that, but what can you do.
As time goes on, you have to make sacrifices, and ultimately, college basketball was mine. (Some people graduate with a big-time alma mater to keep them focused on the college hoops. No offense to Colgate, but I never had that.) I cared more about following my guys than finding the new ones. The future wasnt as appealing as the present. And now, my love for college basketball exists entirely in the past.
To this day, Ill be messing around on the court, throw up a bomb and yell, Alex Dillard for three! or Curtis Staples with the dagger! (Its even funnier when I miss the rim entirely.) Ill still laugh any time someone mentions Serge Zwikker or Mamadoue N'Diaye. I swear to God that God Shammgod still comes up in conversation at least once a month. Im just about having an anxiety attack over how great Sundays Fab Five documentary is going to be.
Thats all still there, but as far as today, Im casual at best. The NBA won. It consumes almost all of my basketball focus even if, by now, Jerry Stackhouse and just about every player from my college basketball and then the new NBA is either on their way out or already there. The pros rule my world. I'm in for good.
And as a result, its at this time every year when I feel like an unbelievable fraud.
Because no matter how I spend the first five months of basketball season, come March, Im still a dangerously obsessed 15-year-old. Ill still spend four straight days watching the Big East Tournament, and then set out on a cracked-out cram session to absorb everything I can. Right now, Im lucky if I can name two guys on most teams, but by tip-off next Thursday, Ill be a short-term encyclopedia.
Ill be able to talk the talk, even though most of that knowledge will be the product of 15 minutes spent clicking around a teams online Clubhouse. Of course, that knowledge will be useless. Ill get destroyed in my brackets like I have every year since I can remember. Ill be exposed to be the fraud that I am, and then crawl back under my NBA rock.
But, like every year, Ill have a hell of a time doing it. Because even if I can't hang with college basketball like I used to, for one month, it's still a lot of fun to pretend.
Finally, college basketball is back!