Monday, March 30, 2009

March Madness: Heaven without the Stars



A while back I wrote a piece called Swimming is Boring in which I made the case that swimming was, well, boring. Sure, Michael Phelps was a huge star in the middle of an awesome accomplishment, but the actual sport – long lean hairless guys swimming back and forth – was kind of boring.

Is it possible that the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is the opposite? The actual games are thrilling. Anybody who watched Nova-Pitt or Siena’s double overtime victory over Ohio State can attest to that. But the players – I’m sorry, scholar athletes – are, um, how do I put this? Let's just say you should enjoy them now, because if recent history is any guide, these guys won't be tearing up the NBA anytime soon.

This wasn’t always the case. For a long time the NCAA tournament was a showcase for future NBA legends, a place to see players on the verge of becoming the greatest athletes in the world.

MOP Tops

From 1955 to 1961 the winners of the Most Outstanding Player (MOP) of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament were:

1955: Bill Russell
1956: Hal Lear
1957: Wilt Chamberlain
1958: Elgin Baylor
1959: Jerry West
1960: Jerry Lucas
1961: Jerry Lucas

Pretty impressive, huh? Not only did all of them but Lear make the Hall of Fame, they were each honored in 1996 as being among the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history. Plus, while Jerry Lucas was winning MOPs the best player in college hoops was Oscar Robertson, who appeared in two Final Fours. That run was nearly equaled in 1979-1984:

1979: Magic Johnson
1980: Darrell Griffith
1981: Isiah Thomas
1982: James Worthy
1983: Hakeem Olajuwon
1984: Patrick Ewing

That's 5 more members of the NBA's 50 Greatest (and the 6th, Griffith, won NBA Rookie of the Year). That's not counting Indiana State's Larry Bird, who faced Magic Johnson in the 79 title game, or Clyde Drexler, Olajuwon's teammate at Houston. Oh, and the year Worthy won the MOP the title-winning shot was hit by his freshman teammate, kid named Jordan.

In the 30 years between 1955 and 1984, the MOP was won by a future Hall of Famer 15 times! (That's not counting 2-time MOP Bill Walton who won an NBA Finals MVP and was named to the NBA's Fifty Greatest - but isn't in the Hall of Fame).

Starless Nights at Today's Tourney

But don't look for today’s NBA superstars in a March Madness highlight film.

Lebron and Kobe are the monster stars of today’s NBA, but neither played college ball. Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal had distinguished college careers, but neither played in a Final Four.

Chris Paul made it to one Sweet 16. Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard skipped college. Steve Nash won a first round game with Santa Clara, then jumped to the NBA. Chris Bosh spent a year at Georgia Tech then turned pro. Dirk Nowitzki and Yao Ming came from abroad.

Of today's big stars, only Dwyane Wade played in the Final Four. But Kansas whipped his Marquette team by 33 in the Semis, so it wasn’t exactly a game for the ages.

As for the MOPs since 1984? Hoo boy. Glen Rice had a 15-year career, going to 3 All Star games. Carmelo Anthony has made two All Star teams and has a shot at a good career*. But after that it's pretty grim. Mostly a bunch of guys who barely played in the NBA, much less starred.

Who Cares?
Does any of this matter? Probably not. The sport’s popularity continues to surge, for a bunch of reasons.

First of all, there is the power of the office pool. More than five million brackets were filled out on espn.com, including one by Barack Obama (I hope he’s better at his day job). Don't ever bet against a sport that has a huge gambling component.

Second, there is the built-in renewable fan base of the student populations of hundreds of Division I schools.

Third, great sporting events don't need future legends to be great. The Olympics prove that every four years, never more so than the Miracle on Ice team.

And finally, as someone who has been lucky enough to have gone to a Final Four/Championship weekend (North Carolina's 2005 title), I can tell you it is a very special event.


Still, something has been lost in the process. When casual fans like me think back to the 1998 NCAA title game (featuring Most Outstanding Player Jeff Shepard! And leading scorer Michael Doleac!), it won’t be with the same recollection of those great tournaments of the mid-80's.

The new one-and-done rule means that future Kobes and LeBrons have to play one season of college ball. So maybe we’ll get a glimpse of these undisciplined freshman on the way to NBA riches. But don't get your hopes up - even Magic and Bird didn't do their thing as freshmen.

Ah, who cares? Three of my Final Four teams are alive and if North Carolina takes the title I’ll win my office pool. Go Tar Heels!

* Update (1/21/11): Since this post was written, Carmelo Anthony has gone from "a chance at a pretty good career" to a Top 10 player. But still - he's the very best former college champion in the NBA over the past 30 years, and I don't think anyone is ready to compare him to Wilt, Russell, Magic, Bird, Jordan and so many others.


1 comment:

HCN said...

Bravo. I've been saying for years that swimming is utterly boring. You watch the athlete move slowly left to right, then he moves slowly right to left.