[The college basketball season just tipped off, and so, too, has the usual jawing over which game is better: pro or college? This full-throated, “I’m-right, you’re nuts” argument has been alive and sometimes unwell for decades. But there have been some thoughtful installments on this perennial question, and that includes this point-counterpoint from Dick Vitale’s 1989-90 Basketball Annual.
The great Dick “Hoops” Weiss, then with the Philadelphia Daily News, argues on behalf of the college game For Weiss, who also covered the NBA for many years, his preference came down to the tradition and passion of the college game. The NBA simply paled in comparison.
Mike Weber, a sportswriter with the Newark Star-Ledger, wasn’t buying Weiss’ argument. Over the years, Weber had seen it all on the basketball court. That included the night NBA referee Darell Garretson took a head-first lunge at him along press row for allegedly flashing “the choke sign.” But between Garretson’s stranglehold and covering some really bad New Jersey Nets teams, Weber never lost his love for the association. For him, watching the college game was like sitting in on the junior varsity.
Who’s right? You make the call 30-plus years later. Up first wielding his pen—or Smith Corona typewriter—is Hoops Weiss]
Okay, I admit it. I still get goose bumps just before the start of the NCAA Final Four. For me, that’s the most electrifying moment in sports.
I became addicted to college basketball at an early age, when I used to take the subway down to the Palestra in West Philadelphia every Saturday night to watch the Big 5 teams play. I can still remember the magical night in 1963: Jim Boyle scored at the buzzer as the underdog St. Joe’s, coached by Jack Ramsay, upset a third-ranked Bowling Green team that had Nate Thurmond and Howard Komives.
I even recall where I sat for the LaSalle-Villanova game in 1969, when Kenny Durrett and Howard Porter were sophomores. And I must confess, the only time I lost my objectivity as a young sportswriter and had to leave my seat on press row occurred the night Villanova defeated Western Kentucky in triple overtime during the 1971 NCAA semifinals inside the Houston Astrodome.
The memories are so vivid because the individual games were so significant. That, in my mind, is what will always separate the college game from the NBA and what has created so much passion for the game throughout the season.
Court of Dreams: A big game in college basketball, with all its color and pageantry, almost seems to transcend sport and become a spectacle. Why else would students at Duke stand in line for almost a week just to get a prize ticket to the Carolina rivalry at Cameron Indoor Stadium?
For one thing, the popularity of the game has reached an all-time high. Last April, the NCAA received more than 150,000 applications for its annual Final Four lottery. In an era when the NBA is still basically restricted to cable until the later stages of the playoffs, all three networks are willing to air college packages every weekend, and CBS is willing to bid $46 million, just to keep the tournament under its wing.
The reason is simple. College basketball is more intriguing and the atmosphere is more captivating than the NBA. College basketball has a charm the pros can never duplicate and a loyalty their ticket managers can only hope for.
High Spirits: No one is about to argue the relative abilities of college and NBA players. Still, there is a certain unpredictability to the college game that the NBA, in the end, can never seem to generate. The younger age of college players and the high energy level their enthusiasm can create over the course of a shorter schedule, do much to make up in spirit what the athletes may lack in talent.
After all, when was the last time you felt college players didn’t give 100 percent? And when was the last time you walked out of a college game and felt you didn’t get your money’s worth? Can you say the same thing about New Jersey and Miami in January?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the NBA playoffs. I’ve covered 12 championship series. But the long stretches of the year seemed like a Bataan death march. All too often, NBA players have to suffer through three games in four days and then are too exhausted from travel to play at peak levels.
The college season is much more compact. With limited exceptions, it starts in December and is over by the end of March. College schedules are set up for teams to play their best. There is more preparation time for individual games, more strategy involved, and more emotion. I can still remember the week in 1974 when Notre Dame broke UCLA’s 88-game winning streak. Irish coach Digger Phelps ended every practice prior to the game by getting his players to cut down the nets.
The Buck Starts Here: For a rare few college players, the carrot may be an eventual pro contract. But for most, the driving force is a desire to perform, not to increase their paycheck. In the pros, on the other hand, the average salary these days approaches $600,000. Journeymen free agents are commanding multi-million-dollar contracts. Basketball commentator Al McGuire once said that the only way he would take a professional coaching job was if he were paid $1 more than the highest-paid player on the team.
Maybe it’s just my imagination, but the NBA seems so cutthroat, so cold at times. On the very day when the city of Detroit was honoring the NBA champion Pistons, management was exposing starting forward Ricky Mahorn to the expansion draft. Mahorn was quickly plucked up by Minnesota, a harsh reminder that the NBA is all business.
Fairy Tales Can Come True: Back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, college basketball was dominated by one team, UCLA. Hall of Fame coach John Wooden set a standard of excellence that will never be matched, and the results were fairly predictable.
These days, the NCAA Tournament has become more of a grab bag. Anyone can win. It has become a showcase of Cinderellas like North Carolina State, Villanova, and Kansas. Who can forget North Carolina State coach Jimmy Valvano running around like a madman, looking for someone, anyone, to hug after Lorenzo Charles scored on a dunk at the buzzer to give the Pack a stunning victory over Houston in 1983? Every year, it seems, there are at least 20 to 25 college teams capable of capturing the brass ring. And every year there is a Seton Hall, [NCAA tournament runner-up in 1989].
There is virtually no chance for those fairy tales to come true in the NBA, particularly in a best-of-seven playoff setting. When was the last time an underdog won the NBA championship? You can make a case for Golden State in 1975. But that’s it.
In the pros, the best players always win. There was little question in anyone’s mind that Detroit was the best team in the NBA last March. Maybe the Pistons wouldn’t have swept the Lakers in four games during the finals if Magic Johnson and Byron Scott had not suffered hamstring injuries, but the Pistons still would have won.
Breaking the Mold: In college basketball, the script is ever-changing; there are always new faces entering the picture and new prodigies on the horizon.
Granted, there are always certain programs like Georgetown, Syracuse, Indiana, North Carolina, UNLV, Michigan, and Duke, which will always sign their share of blue-chippers. Yet, no one has a lock and all the great ones. The talent seems much more divided throughout the country. The biggest names, for instance, in the class of ‘92 prior to the season were: Alonzo Mourning, Billy Owens, and Shawn Kemp. The freshman who eventually made the biggest impact, however, was guard Chris Jackson of LSU, the Calvin Murphy of the 1990s. Jackson, who averaged close to 30 points, combined with rugged 6-foot-6 senior Ricky Blanton to lift the injury-prone, Prop. 48-riddled Tigers into the NCAA Tournament.
In college basketball, hope is only a player away. It only takes one blue-chipper to bring attention to a program, even if he does not play for a so-called glamour school. What’s more, this year LSU, with the addition of highly publicized Prop. 48 center Stanley Roberts and prize 7-foot-1 recruit Shaquille O’Neal, should start the season in the Top 5. Lionel Simmons, who was only peripherally recruited by the Big East, has emerged as an All-America forward at LaSalle. Gerald Glass, who transferred to Ole Miss from Division II Delta State, has surfaced as the best forward in the SEC.
There is also room for players who do not fit the mold, and that’s the beauty of the college game. There is room for the slow-footed three-point shooter and the 6-foot-5 power forward who might not receive a second look from pro scouts. Not everyone is the next Magic Johnson. Not everyone has to be.
There can be success on various levels of collegiate basketball, from Division I through Division III and in the NAIA. The Division III final between Wisconsin-Whitewater and Trenton State may not have made national television, but it was just as important to the players and fans of those two schools as Michigan and Seton Hall’s.
In the pros, there is only one level of success. The NBA is the end all and be all. In all, there are only 324 roster spots available this year in the NBA, about 12 players per team. There are over 1,000 teams playing college basketball.
Leader of the Pack: Not every team is blessed with great talent, but many still succeed because there are so many outstanding coaches capable of affecting the game’s outcome, even with the 45-second clock.
Consider the Princeton-Georgetown game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Providence. Princeton coach Pete Carril put on a clinic, despite his emotional one-point loss, spreading the floor, using the shot clock, and torturing the over-aggressive Hoyas with back-door layups. The college coach is, for the most part, in control and fundamentals are still a major part of the game. There is room for teaching on the college level and patience for those young players considered projects out of high school. There was also room for innovation and new ideas, which has allowed technical geniuses like Bob Knight of Indiana, Dean Smith of North Carolina, and John Thompson of Georgetown to leave their mark on the game. They will no doubt go down as major contributors to the growth of the game and may one day be considered linear descendants of such greats as Clair Bee, Nat Holman, and Pete Newell.
Each has brought a unique perspective to the game. The college game allows that, it has room for different styles. Last year in the WCAC, there were two teams—Loyola Marymount and St. Mary’s—which used contrasting philosophes to reach the NCAA Tournament’s 64 team field. During the regular season, Loyola averaged more than 100 points; St. Mary’s held teams to less than 60.
The pro game seems more homogenized. Rick Pitino coached the Knicks using a lot of college ideas borrowed from his days at Providence, utilizing the three-point goal and full-court pressure. The NBA, for the most part, relies on a simple formula that is based on zoning one side of the floor.
The college game simply gives you more.
[With that, Hoops Weiss put down his pen. Up next to advocate on behalf of the pros is the Newark Star-Ledger’s Mike Weber. No picture of him to be found via my usual sources. But imagine a stout pundit with a big voice and strong opinions. That’s Mike Weber. Take it away, Mike.]
Imagine paying a man to explain why he prefers the NBA to college basketball. Might as well pay him to say he likes breathing more than the alternative, truth compared to lies, reality compared to fantasy, the best as opposed to, well, second best. The first two minutes, the middle two minutes, with the last two minutes, the pro game has it all over its college stepchild. If one seeks the absolute best basketball, the game at its peak, sooner or later one gravitates to the NBA. And stays there. The reasons are myriad, and yet basic.
The Athletes: They are quite simply the best in professional sport. You won’t find a pot-bellied third baseman or a lard-bottomed defensive lineman able to stay with an NBA player for even a quarter, much less an entire 48-minute NBA event. Could any thug on ice in the NHL dare to match cardiovascular efficiency with even the 12th man on a typical NBA team? Eh?
Critics say the pro game is often little but a track meet. That’s supposed to be a put-down. What it is, is a glorious observation of one thing that makes this game so great. The contest often unfolds at speeds which most college teams only approach during controlled fastbreak drills in practice. Indeed, the NBA court often resembles a 94-foot Olympic meet, featuring athletes who tackle wind sprints and come up with relentless bursts of acceleration. The pro game is about speed; name one truly great half-court team. From “up tempo” to “run-and-gun,” it’s the only way to winning fun.
Who Do You Want to Watch Anyway? Players dominate the pro game; coaches the college game. NBA mentors can diagram and drill, set up and sketch out X and O all night long, but in the end talent wins.
Strategy in the college game may be an interesting sideshow, but in the NBA talent is the main event. There have been—and still are—some NBA coaches who would have their philosophies become more important than the quality of play. They will celebrate their own so-called genius, rather than their players’ abilities. Rick Pitino, former New York Knicks coach, is a perfect example. Now, he’s back where he belongs, amongst the collegians at the University of Kentucky, where he will be allowed to control and dictate—he will, in fact, be revered for this—to a far greater degree than possible in the NBA.
Dean Smith, the sensational coach at the University of North Carolina, is another prime illustration. He wins big, but does so at the expense of excitement. Can you imagine, in the pre-shot-clock days, Smith using his old four-corners offense through 100 games a year, exhibitions and NBA playoffs included? And you know he’d try. You can bore some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t bore all of the people all of the time. Certainly not 100 times a season.
College players get jammed into a system, as opposed to systems being designed around their talents. Could anyone have predicted that either James Worthy or Michael Jordan would be as individually brilliant as they are in the NBA today?
In the NBA, players get to play. And fans get to enjoy. To watch Jordan these days is to see a man walking on clouds. If he isn’t the finest player living or dead, he’s in the photo. Against the world’s finest athletes, he’s apt to score 40, 50, even 60 points any given night. He has led the NBA in scoring three years running, averaging 37, 35, and 32 points per game. As a collegian, he never averaged more than 20 points and never scored 40. It’s not that he wasn’t capable; it’s that Smith’s system was always the true star, greater even than Jordan.
So Good, So Long: The ability of NBA players to be so good for so long brings up another difference between those who play for pay and those who pray for pay.
Collegians compete in a shorter game (40 minutes to the NBA’s 48) perhaps 35 times a season, if their teams are among the most successful. Successful or not, the pros go through seven or eight exhibitions, 82 regular-season games, and as many as 26 additional playoff outings en route to the NBA championship. Lovers of the undergraduate game become all agog when Ronnie Raceway, or some such named superstar, scores 35 against Old Siwash and comes back two nights later with 40 against P.D.Q.U.
But how much would Ernie Elevator fare if he then had to face four games in five nights, an NBA norm? It’s one thing to be overwhelming once, another to be terrific twice, but consistent excellence marks a pro’s game.
Now Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Shot Clock? What collegiate apologist didn’t at one time attack the NBA for using the 24-second shot clock? It was, they said, an artificial way of speeding up the game. It was, they said, a fake way of injecting excitement into a game which didn’t engender its own.
Who can now argue that the shot clock, albeit a 45-second one, has not essentially saved the college game from its own self-destructive tendencies? No more tiresome stalls with eight minutes left, no more moronic ball-holding exercises to allow Outmanned U. to fool its fans into thinking it actually could stay with the University of Better Talent.
Three’s Company: To think that the college powers actually laughed at the NBA’s three-point shot when it was the pros’ private domain. In the past few years, colleges have embraced it, tinkered with it and, instead of leaving it at a proven effective distance (23-24 feet), they screwed it up by making their shot embarrassingly easy.
By setting their three-point line at 19 feet 9 inches, the colleges have turned a lot of 40 percent jump shooters into 20-point-a-night scorers and promoted the proliferation of thick-legged suburban driveway shooters. Keeping the distance under 20 feet insults anyone who knows the degree (or lack thereof) of difficulty. It was a tacit acquiescence to the obvious fact that most college kids can’t play a man’s game with a man’s rules.
Getting Defensive About Defense: That the pros play no defense is the leading myth in sports. Fact is, most college players don’t play defense. They dance, becoming puppets in a slip-sliding zone. The small guys stay clear of the basket, the bigger guys move closer and the biggest guy waddles in the paint, waving arms, shuffling feet, hardly ever getting to meet the guy he actually should be guarding one-on-one.
Collegiate zone defenses eliminate the need for defensive technique, the various skills necessary to be successful in the NBA. Pro players lacking those qualities can run, but they cannot hide. They are quickly exposed, exploited, and lose worth in a league that recognizes the value of man-to-man defensive abilities. Sure, teams incorporate zone tendencies—trapping man-to-mans and the like—but only to a moderate degree. No NBA team ever won anything without being able to guard somebody straight up.
NBA skills are so advanced that the inherent advantage of the offense—knowing how and where you’re going—routinely results in gaining that critical first step. That’s usually all these athletes need. It isn’t for lack of effort that NBA teams score 112 points every night, it’s because the scorers with their inherent edge are many times simply unstoppable.
If you don’t believe it, check out one of the NBA’s fun-for-all summer benefits, where defensive intensity is purposely turned down. Two summers ago, in Magic Johnson’s game, one side broke 200; in Dominique Wilkins’, the teams scored a total of 342 points. Without defense, every single NBA game would look like that. These guys are that good.
All You Have to See is the Last Two Minutes of an NBA Game: Of all the arguments spit at the pros, this is by far the most unfounded. Since most basketball games are decided by fewer than five points, it stands to reason that the outcome usually will hang in the final 120 seconds.
But it’s the first 2,880 seconds where the game’s plots thickens: the outcome is defined by its early point runs, pressure defenses, hot hands, and cold feet. It’s tantamount to saying that the only exciting thing at baseball games are home runs hit in the ninth inning, or that only fourth-period touchdowns deserve crowd reaction. Try watching the game for its intrinsic beauty and observe the players as purveyors of grace, even though some of them are bigger than a lot of defensive tackles.
College Hypocrisy, or Who’s Kidding Whom? Ask a pro why he plays or coaches the game, and he’ll tell you, ultimately, it’s for the money. No song and dance about getting an education or giving one. Big bucks basketball, Scoring For Dollars, pay me or, well, heck, pay me.
It is the hypocrisy of college athletics which galls most decent-thinking individuals. All this talk about seeking a degree and improving the mind and winning one for old I.O.U., when college coaches find out every year the only thing mattering to upper campus is winning and NCAA Tournament revenue. Players are volunteer labor, and many coaches are greedy profiteers. They’d like to think they’re molders of men, preparing today’s youth to be tomorrow’s leaders, but they’re actually perpetuators of a system which rewards them for one thing only: victory.
It takes the strongest sort to resist the temptations inherent in that system. College coaching salaries are often-times a small fraction of their annual take. Winning college coaches have their incomes padded by grateful alumni. Winning coaches get big bucks to do TV and radio shows. Winning coaches get big shoe contracts, and big payola from the manufacturer. We are no longer speaking of teacher-coaches, we are speaking of mini-conglomerates.
The pros are transparent. Winners get paid big—losers get fired. No one is trying to educate anyone, players keep their own sneaker endorsement money. Pros don’t have to hide how much meal money they receive. And if Tony down at the local pizzeria wants to give his favorite star free pies every night, no one has to worry about the NCAA considering it an illegal payoff.
And why would the latter ever happen? Because any talented collegian knows that the only real game is played in the NBA, and he’ll do just about anything to get there . . . short of going to class, perhaps.