Saturday, March 29, 2008

Air Ball!

Matt Yglesias seems to think he's taking a purist's stance when he boils his criticism of the NCAA tournament down to a simple matter of talent. Of course, the NBA's players are, by several degrees, more talented than the NCAA's. He wants to see the best play the best. I can understand that. But it doesn't always follow that the most talented people you can put in the same room together always create a product of superior quality. If that was true, we could reliably count on our best actors and actresses to unfailingly make great movies. I think we can all agree that Clint Eastwood, Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Laura Linney, Laurence Fishburne, and Marcia Gay Harden are as fine an assemblage as you can put together on paper. In practice, however, they collaborated on Mystic River, and the result was an embarassing, cover-your-eyes awful movie with some of the worst acting I've ever seen (Linney and Robbins, in fact, have never given worse performances).

There's a level where, I believe Matt understands this, and so he identifies the success of the NCAA Tournament as one where competitive drama makes up for the lack of pure talent. "More madness!" he says. Expand to 128 teams! Play twenty-five minute games! And then a whole bunch of stuff that not even he takes seriously*. To my mind, I'd improve the tourney by sending one more major conference team to the NIT, thus eliminating the play-in game, and insist that universities do more things like Davidson did - pay students way to the game - because, ultimately, this is about the lives of college kids and their enjoyment. As far as talent goes, the NCAA talent pool would be a lot better if the NBA didn't poach so much of it! But I think everyone can understand the distinction between "amateur" and "professional" and between "twenty-year old" and "thirty-year old." Matt's insistent negging of the college game's level of talent just seems obtuse. It's a demand to solve a problem that can't be solved - even if we were to all agree it was a problem. Hey! I am better at walking than most infants, so why don't people take pictures of me walking around instead of their inferior spawn, crawling on all fours?

Meanwhile, let's examine what the NBA achieves with its level of "talent." In the first place, as skilled as the NBA players are, the league seems very limited as far as what skills and talents are valued and nurtured. We can see the limitations of NBA players pretty glaringly when they play in international competition and, with increasing frequency, get run out of the gym by players whose pure talents are vastly inferior.

Furthermore, the NBA may have superior players but the league seems actively antagonistic of the superior play that has led to many teams - the Spurs and Pistons, especially - winning titles of late. Good team defense has always been the hallmark of NBA champions - it was for the Jordan-led Bulls as much as it has been for the Duncan-led Spurs, but it's clear that the NBA would prefer an uptempo, free-wheeling, score-happy game that teams like the Phoenix Suns favor, or at least a game played by photogenic stars. Last year, the NBA hyped LeBron James to the point of nausea. We were all WITNESSES, remember? Well, I mainly witnessed his inferior play getting ganked by a bunch of bores who could get their grind on. I get the feeling that the league openly dreads teams like the Spurs succeeding - yet they play to the Yglesias' standard: they are the superior products produced by the best players in the world.

Finally, what Matt seems unable to appreciate it that the fundamental difference between the two products - the thing that makes the NCAA tournament more exciting to watch than the NBA, is that it is a single-game-elimination affair. Teams get one chance at each other. Now, naturally, no one in their right mind wants to see Mississippi Valley State play UCLA in a best-of-five or a best-of-seven series, but the audience for the upcoming Atlanta Hawks-Boston Celtics series can't be that large either. More to the point, the NCAA Tourney format keeps the focus on the players, and their passion and intensity. For all the superior talent in the NBA, the playoffs are a coaches affair. No professional sport experiences a more radical shift from player talent to coach talent in the playoffs than the NBA does - it's a product of moving from 82 fly-by-night games to a concentrated series against a single team. Coaches have a much larger impact on playoff outcomes than players do, and, as a result, it can be pretty dull...until we're finally down to brass tacks in the elimination games.

But this is just a technical analysis of the two sports. In general, the superiority of the NCAA Tournament lies in two reasons. The first is a user-friendly format that allows for things like office pools and fan participation in events they normally wouldn't participate in. The second, and the more important, is that illusory or not, we have come to believe that the the college game can bring us, as viewers, closer to the heart of something that is sublime. I enjoyed watching Caron Butler and Darius Songalia lead us past the Sacto Kings last was perfectly fine basketball. I can't complain. But I'm never going to remember it like I remember Hampton knocking off Iowa State in the first round of the 2001 Tourney, or last five minutes of the George Mason-UConn game three years ago, or watching Maynor's jump shot eliminate Duke last year...there are many others.

We expect the best the NBA has to offer to provide us with memories that lift our spirits and amaze us. But when anonymous college kids do the same thing, that's another thing entirely. I mean, hell - I'm of the mind that the invention of basketball served no better purpose than to give the world this video.

So, anyway, Matt: we get it. You don't like watching journeymen who will graduate to careers other than basketball play each other. Milwaukee plays Chicago tonight at 8:30pm. Enjoy!

* Mat sez: "Why not give the previous season's WNBA champions a shot at the big dance? And how about the two high school all-star teams put together for the McDonald's All-American Game. And how about a foreign element? FIBA Europe organizes an Under-20 tournament for European national teams, let's bring some of those on board." Ha, ha, chortle, darling! Hey, for FUN, maybe your god-forsaken New York City Knickerbockers could try it out as well!

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