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Between Good and Evil: Your NCAA and Mine

By Bob Liss

I. Anticipation: Day One

And this was going to be the year I got my big thrill back from college basketball! Larry Brown, now at SMU, was set to contend for the national title, with a solid group of veterans, supplemented by a spectacular freshman recruit: Emmanuel Mudiay, who instead opted to play professionally in China, and is projected to be a first round choice- very possibly a lottery pick—in the upcoming NBA draft.

Brown and I are New Yorkers from the same era. He is 74, whereas I turn 72 (the age at which my two all-time favorite coaches, Al McGuire and Jack Rohan, died) this month, the month after I finished my eighth year moonlighting as an assistant high school coach at a San Francisco private school. We overachieved all the way to the State Final in our Division, meaning that our season did not end until the second of three NCAA weekend double-rounds!

All this attention to high school meant I was away from college ball for the most part this year, though all the while aware of Kentucky’s win streak, especially since they played my alma mater Columbia, which somehow gave them one of their best games. Kentucky Coach John Calipari was fond of quipping that his team was undefeated but imperfect (which the Columbia game amply demonstrated), perhaps reflecting Coach Cal’s own imperfect path through championships and resignations, leaving abandoned programs saddled with severe penalties for his recruiting peccadillos.

So this year’s NCAA tourney was a new kind of experience for me: my unfamiliarity with many of the top teams left me relatively more attuned to the coaches than to the players. I had succumbed to what I have long decried: the accelerated focus on of celebrity coaches with CEO-like salaries, which has become a form of branding.

How foreign the new breed of expensively suited coaches seems from the personas projected by McGuire and Rohan. With the best players departing from the NBA after only a year of college ball (an enforced servitude), it’s all about the coaches now, with father-son dramas, as always, readily available as sub-plots.

But I’m a loyal Larry Brown fan, and I wanted to see what he could do, even without the star player he had lost. SMU’s opponent was UCLA, one of Brown’s many stops during his itinerant career, where John Wooden’s old job was currently being occupied by Steve Alford, who, like Duke’s Mike Kryzyewski, had played for Bobby Knight; K at Army, Alford at Indiana.

Putting the game on in the second half, I found a beleaguered Brown, suffering visibly and audibly from a harsh case of laryngitis, perhaps even more than from losing Mudiay. SMU had fallen behind 44-34 against much-maligned UCLA, which the NCAA Selection Committee had defied logic, analytics, statistical and anecdotal evidence by inviting to the Dance at all. Soon, there followed a veritable avalanche: nineteen unanswered SMU points. Brown’ s hoarse voice seemed somehow to have a direct line to heaven, which was more than answering his wildest prayers.

But UCLA stormed back, and the game ended with a controversial goal-tending call on a clearly errant shot, crediting Bryce Alford, Coach Steve’s son, with his ninth three-pointer of the game, the game-winner. Several camera reviews of a call that was not formally reviewable showed it to have been technically correct, though profoundly unsatisfying, and sadly subversive of the rule’s purpose and intent. Larry Brown, though not exactly speechless, seemed to have nothing to say.

So Brown was out, but Day One was still a spectacular extravaganza, a wonderful tip-off for the tourney: five games decided by a single point, whereas the record for an entire tournament is seven; Georgia State and the University of Alabama at Birmingham both victorious as #14 seeds; a thirty foot game-winner by the Georgia State Coach (Ron Hunter)’s son R.J., whose dad had postponed surgery for the Achilles tendon he had injured in a burst of excitement just a week earlier during the team’s celebration of its conference tournament victory. Coach Hunter had a special chair built, allowing him to roam the sidelines while coaching. He dramatically fell out of it when his son hit that winning shot.

II. Calipari’s World

But after the thrills of Day One, what was there really left to follow, with so much player turnover, making the usual contending teams unfamiliar? The over-riding question was whether anyone could compete with Kentucky, where Calipari’s genius at gaming the system of “One And Done” has made him a distinct brand: the coach who offers intensive in-practice NBA training for one year, maybe two, if deemed necessary. Cal’s best recruits often commit late, because they want to know who their team-mates will be and to make sure the guys in their projected slots will be moving on and making room.[1] His dribble-drive offense is easy for great athletes to learn, and allows the coach maximum flexibility in making appositional substitutions. With his itinerant NBA-intern players, Cal strikes a clear agreement: he develops them, and they move on. Yelling is included. He lays his cards out plainly.

In his six years at Kentucky, he has made it to four Final Fours, and two Final games, including a title with Anthony Davis in 2012. He has twice tied his own 2008 Memphis team’s NCAA record of 38 victories; single season records have included 38-1, 38-2, and 35-3. What’s more, Calipari has radically transformed a highly distinct tradition, forging his own winning style without apparent deference to the image a coach in the lineage of Adolph Rupp might be expected to uphold. He’ll sell you any car in the lot if you just meet his smile head-on. Nobody seems to mind.

Not now, but maybe later? However convivial he appears, Cal has left the two previous programs that he had taken to the Final Four (UMass in 1996 and Memphis in 2008) saddled with probationary restrictions from which he did not have to suffer personally.[2] But Kentucky basketball is its own world. Winning is expected, and even horrific scandals are quickly absorbed and converted into punctuations in a run-on sentence of Ruppian glory.[3]

III: Getting To Indianapolis

The entire tournament was framed as an even-up battle between unbeaten Kentucky (34-0 going into the tournament shooting for a record-shattering 40-0) and the rest of the field. From that perspective, not much happened of note after Day One: Villanova went out early, and Michigan State surprised everyone, which should have surprised no-one, by taking Nova’s bracket’s designated slot in the Final Four.[4]

Meanwhile, Wisconsin eliminated Arizona with a charismatic performance from 6’9” Sam Dekker that established him and 7’ team-mate Frank Kaminisky as a duo with enough size to have a chance to deal with Kentucky’s extreme overall height, while Notre Dame came close enough to show that Kentucky could indeed be beaten.

And then there was Duke: Kentucky’s shadow perhaps? Coach K, however different his image, had traveled the cash-lined road from maverick hold-out for only four year players to appropriation of Calipari’s Mad Method: Duke was starting three blue-chip freshmen, including probable NBA top NBA draft choice Jahlil Okafor and projected top ten pick Justise Winslow.

With the smooth-talking Calipari, what you see is what you get, regardless of his words, while K, who is college ball’s all-time winningest coach, is a past master of impression management. It seems like less than the quarter century it actually is since K was battling for his first title (1991), no less a place next to John Wooden in the pantheon, after having been repulsed so soundly by Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV outlaws in 1990. K’s saintly Woodenesque image co-exists with the rumor that his half-season leave of absence in 1994-95 for back surgery was concocted to avoid having his record blemished by a losing season (13-18; 2-14 in the ACC).

IV. Final Four

Awaiting the Final Four, with Duke facing Michigan State, the obligatory pre-game embrace between Coaches K and Tom Izzo betrayed obvious fraternal affection, as did the hugs of Cal and Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, the only one of the four as yet without a championship notch in his belt.

With Duke and Kentucky both favored to win their semi-final games, it seemed that a Cal v. K Final would perfectly suit the framework of a Manichean battle that typically fuels narratives of heroism and defeat, good and evil.[5] Cal would stand comfortably in the shoes of the recently departed Tarkanian, whose UNLV team had routed Duke (103-73) in the 1990 Final and was being compared to the all-time great UCLA, Indiana, and USF teams before being dealt its only loss by Duke a the 1991 Semi-Final.

Cal and Tark were naturals as bad guys, mavericks, outlaws, a role cheerfully occupied by Al McGuire in years past. Together, they spanned the moral spectrum that athletic contests like to posit, ignoring the larger context: the impeccably corrupt NCAA’s Evil Empire.[6]

But Wisconsin wasn’t buying into this scenario. Bo Ryan’s anomalous squad sported a sophisticated passing game and four white American starters, ill-suited for the Bad Guy role. Yet, thanks to outstanding games by Dekker and Kaminisky, they were the ones to oppose K’s bunch of McDonald’s All-American One-And-Done freshman, with not a single white starter. We are so used to African-American domination at the highest levels of play that the occasional great white player without exceptional size (like 6’3” freshman Grayson Allen, who saved Duke by personally erasing a nine point second half deficit; then another freshman, Final Four MVP Tyus Jones, took over) almost always captures the underdog-lover, as much as he does the closet racist.[7]

My personal peeve with Kryzyewski has always been his role in pioneering the flop at Army, while playing under Bobby Knight at a time when rule changes made offensive fouls non-shooting fouls, and referee’s habits and predilections were changing accordingly.[8] My vision of K as the embodiment of deceptive sanctimoniousness and fraudulent beneficence flows freely from that association. Its arbitrariness generally escapes me. I need my good guys and bad guys too.

But the smothering man-to-man defense that Duke played in both Final Four games gave me pause to reconsider how I feel about K and his charges (pun intended). Duke’s 68-63 win was richly deserved, unless of course you agree with Coach Ryan that the referees did not control over-aggressive fouling.

Who is to say? Why are my prejudices better than yours? John Wooden was widely thought to be a saint, but is said to have known about and looked away from booster Sam Gilbert, who took care of the bribes, payola, and other sordid/assorted infractions. According to me, Jerry Tarkanian was a courageous crusader against NCAA hypocrisy, whereas you might have thought him to have been a sleaze-ball.

Yes, Larry Brown has proved himself a great coach, with both NBA and NCAA championship rings (at Kansas, where he inherited a young Calipari from outgoing Ted Owens as his assistant!) to testify to his talents, though Brown’s itinerant career has been punctuated with a variety of feuds and betrayals that had given him a reputation for being a petulant child. But, as with Rick Pitino, truly great coaching tends to show itself after a while: after I got through watching his Kansas Jay Hawk and Detroit Piston teams, Larry Brown was mah man.

McGuire? A king in the booth after winning it all in 1975 at Marquette, and getting out young; the man whose idea of the good life was that he didn’t decide until he was in his car whether he would be making a left or a right after leaving his drive-way. With heroes like Al, who needs villains?

And then there are the tales of redemption, generally following the disillusionments. Pitino survived and endured the tragic loss of a child and an extra-marital affair that he had to acknowledge to avoid blackmail, before becoming the first coach to win titles at two different schools: Kentucky and Louisville no less. And the endless lineages: Phog Allen at Kansas counted Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp among his players.

So, yes, college ball is about the coaches, and the NCAA is an irredeemably corrupt organization, but for the fourth straight year, the new television format that airs all games in their entirety dramatically enhanced the coverage. For the Final four, though, it was a bad decision to replace Clark Kellogg with the bland Grant Hill as Bill Raftery’s sidekick doing the color. Kellogg, though not in McGuire’s league, had improved enormously in Billy Packer’s big shoes.

The language of sports is perhaps the most idiomatic of tongues, but idiom risks sliding effortlessly, unnoticed, into cliché. The vernacular of sport links the religious with the mundane. This truth has some paradoxical elements to it: the arena of sports is not known for producing the world’s most intelligent people, but the strategic sense of athletes—even more so coaches—is exceptionally acute. So, we like to think, is their intuitive grasp of possibilities, their ability to assess probabilities, to predict outcomes. Now, the new religion of metrics (which Charles Barkley righteously decries) dominates sports reportage, alternately debunking and appropriating intuitive discourse and shelving more fanciful and romantic notions as “having the hot hand.” Sophisticated statistical analyses have suggested that the idea of “being in a zone” is empirically unsupportable, but find me a great shooter who doesn’t scoff at the statisticians trying to encroach on what he believes is his true art form.

Probably it’s Hill’s Duke pedigree, as the Blue Devils (Jay Bilas, Jay Williams, Hill, Mike Gminski, Jim Spanarkel) have fairly (or unfairly?) taken over the media spots. Hold those Polish jokes, Wooden loyalists. We may soon have to endure listening to K join Bob Dylan in singing along with Sinatra’ “I did it my way.” But Calipari gets the royalties.

I’m gonna try to look in more next year, but only if I stop coaching high school before I’m older than Jack and Al; or I’ll just soldier on with Larry Brown, searching until I find my own Emmanuel Mudiay.


1 The shocking depth of this year’s Kentucky team was the unintended result of too few of last year’s stars moving on to the NBA. The Harrison twins actually hurt their NBA stock by staying for a second year.

2 Calipari’s 2008 Memphis team won a record-setting thirty-eight games, went to the Final, and seemingly had it won going away when Derrick Rose took over in the last ten minutes, only to hand it back to Kansas at the end, a “give-back” that was reminiscent of Cincinnati’s having handed the 1963 (pre shot clock) championship to Loyola of Chicago by initiating a stall over the last ten minutes, managing to lose a game that it had thoroughly dominated for the thirty minutes of actual play.

3 Rick Pitino brought Kentucky back from probation to NCAA title in seven years.

4 Michigan State’s Tom Izzo has a fantastic track record of overachievement through toughness. In the NBA, four year Michigan State player Draymond Green’s brilliantly intuitive play for Golden State cannot help but reflect on Izzo’s coaching.

5 Classic Duke-Kentucky battles not only include Christian Laettner’s game winning 104-103 overtime win in 1992, but also the classic 1966 semi-final the year that Adolph Rupp’s and Pat Riley’s all white Kentucky team lost the historic Final to Texas Western, which started five blacks.

6 Over a quarter century has elapsed since the Olympics began to countenance professional participation, but the NCAA continues to make an Orwellian sham of amateurism by mandating the use of the term “student-athlete.”

Adding his voice to that of historian Taylor Branch and activist scribe Dave Zirin, New York Times op-ed contributor Joe Nocera has made a cause of advocating for Branch’s recommendation that the NCAA pay a salary to its players; instead the NCAA requires (as a ploy to avoid requiring them to compensate its de facto employees) that its players be called “student-athletes.”

In his March 5, 2012 op-ed piece “A Union Stands Up For Its Players,” Nocera proclaimed: “The NCAA exists to rationalize the tawdry fact that the labor force of a six billion dollar business—the estimated revenue of college football and men’s basketball—receives no compensation.“ The numbers only get bigger.

7 Uncomfortable talking plainly about race? Take a lesson from Rick Pitino: hectored for running up the score in a recent game where he had removed his starters, Pitino shot back “But I had four white guys and an Egyptian in there.” Having weathered his personl travails, as well as the hatred of Kentucky loyalists when he became a turncoat at Louisville, Pitino somehow managed to get an easy pass on this one.

8 It used to be that offensive fouls were simply charging fouls, and meant shooting free throws. Back then, referees were loathe to call a charge; to do so would deflate the game’s momentum, while everyone re-located to the opposite free throw line, prolonging exposure to the crowd’s abuse and thrown objects. This was at its worst in Syracuse, where Dolph Schayes hammered freely with his off arm as he diagonally traversed the lane.

For other articles by Bob Liss, go to http://bobliss-shoot-the-ball.blogspot.com/.

From April, 2015

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