Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Smartest (And Longest) Thing You'll Read About the 2011 NCAA Final Four

The business of sport has always lived and died by its own hyperbole.

Professional sports leagues wear no veil. And they make no apologies. Their official color is either black or red. Civic pride is a cute benefit, but the home team really only belongs to one person--or one corporate entity. So their hype machines churn out whatever story best suits the bottom line this year. And they'll do the same next year.

Collegiate sports, on the other hand, tend to be a big gray contradiction. Student-athletes are supposed to represent the hermaphroditic ideal of how an institution of higher learning trains both the mind and the body. The games in which those brainy-brawny "amateurs" perform are presented to us as aspirational morality plays meant to stir institutional pride. While the exaggerated loyalty inspired by institutional pride guarantees any NCAA athletic program some annual revenues, Nike didn't lock the University of Kentucky into an all-school contract worth eight figures because 37,000 Wildcats pay their dues to the UK alumni association each year.

The NCAA Tournament, or March Madness, is the ultimate exercise in hyperbole. It generates hella money because the NCAA and all of its partners traffic in classic story lines without regard for whatever the truth really is. As long as the games are exciting, the excitement becomes the truth. And the narrative of the 2011 NCAA Final Four couldn't be more exciting or more classic. No matter who wins this Saturday, there will be a Cinderella and there will be a Blue Blood for Cinderella to dance with on the biggest Big Monday of this basketball season.

Somewhere behind that storyline, I'm afraid, there is also the awkward question of how the NCAA defines itself. When the world of college basketball has split so neatly into two separate, but equal classes, can we really be expected to believe the great fiction that the organization's mission is to preserve the integrity of "amateur" athletics? Indeed, has that ever really been its mission?

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In the Days of Wayback
You can't fault the NCAA for being a bunch of carnival barkers. They get it honestly. The NIT--which used to be the bigger of the Big Dances--was founded in 1938 by a bunch of New York writers. They sold the event to a conglomeration of New York universities shortly thereafter. It was a small affair that occupied Madison Square Garden, basketball's largest stage, each spring to provide a showcase for potential NBA prospects. The meat market featured six teams at first. Then eight in 1941. Then twelve in 1949. Then a whopping fourteen teams in 1965. The New York-based NIT had a pretty good run before ultimately being eclipsed by the NCAA Tournament somewhere around that time. That's when John Wooden began to transform UCLA from mere California rock to bright, shiny American diamond. (Perhaps with an alleged nudge from Sam Gilbert.)

From the establishment of the NCAA's progenitor organization, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS), in 1906 through 1955, all of its member institutions were lumped together for the purpose of obeying the same rules of play in order to create a safer experience for players. (That's why the NCAA existed in the first place: to create a single standard of rules for amateur sports in the United States.) The NCAA Tournament launched in 1939 with only eight teams. It was quicker to expand than the NIT, but it stumbled early by limiting invites to conference winners. In the late-1950s, when the NCAA started to segregate the major universities from the small colleges, its basketball tournament began inviting 20+ teams. Also, the percentage of U.S. homes owning a television climbed from 10% in 1950 to 87% in 1960 making the media capital of the world a slightly less necessary marketing tool. Before Lew Alcindor's size 19 ever touched Westwood's lush grasses, the NCAA had taken small steps that would coincide with a national technological infiltration to eventually create everyone's favorite Q2 passion play. Along the way it would have to survive its first major identity crisis.

In 1951, the New York District Attorney filed the first of dozens of charges as part of a major point shaving scandal. CCNY, the only school ever to win the NIT and NCAA Tournaments in the same year, was at the heart of the scandal. Half of its roster got indicted. Most received suspended sentences. As the scandal engulfed other programs--seven in all including Kentucky--the question that would come to threaten the NCAA's greatest fiction emerged: are the players truly amateurs or are they major components of a massive business enterprise?

When players like Connie Hawkins were cast aside by the NCAA as pseudo-criminals, the TV rights and the apparel contracts that would come to define its business model did not exist at all. Maybe the folks at Kentucky, the first basketball superpower, were living well but the spoils of the NCAA Tournament were still rather fresh. Where the players were concerned, we could presume that 20-year-olds who endured the Great Depression were prone to worry less about the illusion of integrity and more about having a few dollars in their pocket. While safety concerns had abated, rule enforcement was the obvious heritage and the easy choice of mission for the NCAA. The players, who were already getting free educations, had to pay, so they did and the NCAA had a story it could stick to while the business model slowly emerged.

By the time Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar claimed his third NCAA championship (and UCLA's fifth) in 1969, 95% of U.S. households owned a TV and the NCAA Tournament was being partially broadcast on NBC. Alcindor/Abdul-Jabbar--and Bill Walton after him--created a Goliath for some college basketball fans to root against. The mythology of Coach Wooden's noble leadership provided a righteous hero for other college basketball fans to worship. Wooden may have been the best, but he wasn't the only coach to be iconified. Phog Allen (Kansas), Henry Iba (Oklahoma State), and Adolph Rupp (Kentucky) all have large buildings named in their honor. (Clarence "Big House" Gaines would be on that list had his school not been cast aside with the other little guys.) The stories were easy enough to sell, but revenues remained modest. That began to change in parallel with Blue Ribbon Sports' import business evolving to become Nike, Inc.

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Magic and Bird and Georgetown and Sonny...on CBS!
The NCAA Tournament had always pegged its own mythology to the local legends and larger than life characters who danced on its stage. Before there was UCLA, one of the Bay Area's finest, Bill Russell, lead the San Francisco Dons to two consecutive titles. Zeke from Cabin Creek, who was really Jerry West from Chelyan, West Virginia, set some Final Four records while wearing a Mountaineer uniform. About that same time, Ohio's own Jerry Lucas captained the Buckeyes to three Final Fours (including two championship game losses) and Indianapolis native Oscar Robertson won three player of the year awards while essentially playing in his backyard at the University of Cincinnati. Also, there was a guy named Wilt something who came from Philly and played for Kansas. The Big Dance had long relied on star power to capture the sporting public's attention (and dollars). But nothing was quite on the scale of Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird.

A lot has been said about their rivalry so there isn't much new to say here. What's important is that their one-sided tussle in the 1979 championship game set a record for TV ratings that still stands...30 years later. The reason so many people tuned in was, more or less, to witness the NCAA's first great Cinderella story. It's not obvious in the narrow view, but when you zoom out, you can see it come into focus. Bird's team, Indiana State, had not ever played in an NCAA Tournament game before he laced up his sneakers for the Sycamores. Going into the final game of his senior season, Bird's team was undefeated. Magic's team had won two straight Big 10 championships and had narrowly lost in the Elite 8 round of the previous year's NCAA Tournament to eventual champion Kentucky. The white guy wasn't a clear underdog, but the faint sketch of that narrative was beginning to color part of the tournament's mythology. With ratings like that, the NCAA clearly didn't mind working the potential of the storyline.

Before Magic took down Bird in Salt Lake City in 1979 in front of a national NBC audience, Texas Western beat up on Rupp's runts outside of Chocolate City in 1966 in front of a non-national, but highly volatile crowd. The racial mechanics of college basketball changed gradually and remarkably across those 13 years as the doors at major basketball-playing universities were being opened to all Black players and not just the Lew Alcindors. While players clearly and rightfully benefited, HBCUs that used to be able to field teams that were nearly on par with Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina, et al suffered from depleted pools of available (and interested) talent. This accompanied a general talent consolidation that would play out from the late 1970s through the 1980s and into the 1990s.

Ironically, as integration began to gentrify the rosters of college basketball programs in the 1970s, the NCAA chose to draw harsher lines dividing its member institutions. Instead of just major universities and small colleges, the NCAA created Divisions I, II and III. After the NCAA tightened the criteria for what kind of institution could be eligible to compete in the Big Dance, it opened the tournament to more and more teams.

In the year that Michigan State broke Indiana State's hearts, the NCAA Tournament invited 40 teams. The next year, 48 teams competed for the national championship. The tournament grew a little bit more during each of the next three years: 52 teams in 1983, 53 teams in 1984 and 64 teams in 1985. You may remember those years as the ones that John Thompson's Georgetown teams booked three Final Four trips during Patrick Ewing's Hoya career. (You may also remember kids named Jordan, Isiah, Olajuwon, Worthy and Drexler all enjoying their shining moments.)

Thompson became the first Black head coach to win the NCAA Tournament and his iconoclastic teams--mostly Black players at a mostly White university--provided the first cultural apex after the racial integration of college basketball. Their story resonated with audiences that wouldn't have been highly regarded by broadcasters back then, but who did matter to the makers of sneakers and other apparel.

Sonny Vaccaro did two things to alter college basketball's business model. He started connecting individual basketball programs with the sneaker companies to a) provide the schools with free equipment and b) provide the coaches and institutions with supplementary income. Hoya Paranoia probably would have been number one in the hood without Sonny's help, but with it the Starter jackets and those navy on gray Nike Dunks claimed a very profitable place within consumer culture. The NCAA, as you might guess, liked that quite well.

Sonny also created a couple of showcases (The Dapper Dan Roundball Classic and the ABCD Camps) to connect high school kids with the college recruiters who needed talent to help their teams compete. They were meat markets kinda like how the NIT used to be, but they focused on an earlier segment of the supply chain. The culture of his showcases combined with the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 to set in motion the full monetization of the pre-NCAA experience.

The Act stripped the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which predates the NCAA, of its governance role and shifted authority for setting rules regarding amateur competitions to the U.S. Olympic Committee. Before 1978, the AAU was primarily a tool to develop track stars. Not long after the Act passed, AAU basketball borrowed loosely from Sonny's model to slowly, but completely transform the development process for basketball players and pad the pockets of previously non-vested parties. In response, the NCAA padded its rule book with nebulous new standards that seemed meant to confuse the people who were playing Sonny Vaccaro's new game. To preserve the illusion that it was dedicated to protecting the integrity of amateurism, the NCAA waged mini-wars with folks like UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian. The organization was morphing into a labyrinthine monstrosity of rules that threatened to turn everyone--or at least the people who had professional basketball aspirations--into outlaws.

Throughout all of this, the cost for the tournament's TV rights jumped from $16 million for three years to $30 million to $55 million. CBS and ESPN swooped in to take over the duties of broadcasting the NCAA Tournament and danced awkwardly for a decade while expanding TV coverage of tournament games from just the final rounds to every game. Well, almost every game aired somewhere on TV at some point during those years. Most importantly, the question for broadcasters had shifted from "Where will our audience come from?" to "How do we give our audience everything they are thirsting for?"

What we saw clearly during this era was more teams with more potential star players participating in the tournament while the broadcasting infrastructure was maturing to more effectively amplify the madness. The story of the NCAA Tournament was being made more and more plain and the narrative options available to makers of hyperbole were synching neatly with the emerging business enterprise, which was beginning to re-divide college basketball into distinct amateur and semi-professional classes.

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How the Fab Five Gave Birth to LeBron James
When college students around the country matriculated to begin the fall semester of 1991, the business model for the NCAA Tournament had entered its final iteration. More than 30 at large teams were invited to quarrel with more than 30 conference champions over who was really the best team in the country each year. CBS had spent $143 million for the exclusive TV rights to broadcast all of its games for five years. Coaches at Division I programs had staked their positions within the marketplace and, like some of their legendary predecessors, had become institutions that could rival their employers for fame, power and wealth. In doing so, the most powerful coaches and the most famous programs monopolized the top talents creating a relatively narrow hegemony that also provided ample opportunities for limited Cinderella stories to emerge. The sneaker companies and apparel manufacturers were investing more and more money in the NCAA's great scheme and were getting richer and richer as a result. The question of compensation for Division I college basketball players lingered very quietly in the background, but little serious thought was given to significantly changing the scholarship structure that had existed since the 1950s. In short, times were good for the NCAA Tournament in 1991.

And then the world met Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson.

In the cultural genealogy of college basketball, the Georgetown Hoyas reluctantly begat the UNLV Runnin' Rebels who immediately begat the Fab Five. Those young men who wore maize and blue uniforms while being coached by Steve Fisher were one of the first generations of players to be empowered by the AAU showcase culture. This meant their play was perceived as being built less on fundamentals and more on athletic braggadocio. That perception led the five young men to be vilified by some and idolized by others. (It made for brilliant theater during two consecutive Marches where racial animus reared up in tandem with a cultural clash between generations of fans.) Their AAU experience also lead them to think of themselves more as potential businesses and less as noble competitors who should be grateful for their free educations. (To wit, one of the players is frequently cited as the most important recruiter in the Fab Five equation.) Consequently, they began to ask questions about the NCAA and it's beautiful money-making machine. The answers they arrived at settled the question of how "amateur" athletes should be compensated.

Chris Webber graduated to the NBA after two seasons. Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard followed him after three. They were not the first early entrants into the NBA's work force. Every young athlete owes Spencer Haywood a debt for blazing that path. What three-fifths of the Fab Five did was take the first step for LeBron James.

LeBron James is the most famous AAU alum who did not compete at track and field. As he aged toward eligibility for the NCAA or the NBA, the threshold for early entry shrank from the three-year bid Michael Jordan did at North Carolina to the two-year bid Chris Webber did in Ann Arbor to Kevin Garnett's leap straight from Farragut Academy to the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1995. LeBron turned 11 that year. Like the Fab Five before him, Garnett was not the first to walk that path, he was merely one of the most important walkers of it. Some of Garnett's peers matured like he did to become the greatest NBA talents of their generation (Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady). Other skippers of college barely sipped a cup of coffee in the business that's just a little bit bigger than the NCAA.

When four high school players were chosen within the first eight picks of the 2001 NBA draft, it appeared that young players had gained full control of their module of basketball choices. To that point, though, no single player had obtained immediate success in the NBA. The argument that great talents should develop first at the NCAA level still held. At least a little bit. When LeBron dropped 29 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 4 steals in his 2003 NBA debut (against Webber's Sacramento Kings), he gave agency to the NCAA's lone remaining non-vested cohort. LeBron's performance throughout his rookie season demonstrated that 18-year-old giants didn't have to wait for Luther Vandross to sing in order to enjoy their shining moment. This was not so good for the NCAA. Would every A-List college prospect cut a straight path to the league that would cut checks for them? What would the NCAA do without its great talents? Would the tournament flatten out and lose its sex appeal? Would casual fans still buy NCAA merchandise? How could it possibly justify a nine-figure broadcast deal for a game featuring a small school from Virginia and an even smaller school from Indiana?

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Two Can Win
In 2005, the NBA closed the door on high school players bypassing college by instituting a minimum age requirement. The age rule yielded a new phenomenon and a new story-line: the one-and-done players. These are the guys everyone knows are biding their time in the purgatory of college basketball while they age up to the NBA. They create some intrigue for fans, but generally take a back seat to the NCAA's newest favorite hyperbolic tactic: bracketology.

Thanks to ESPN's Joe Lunardi, the bulk of the conversation about college basketball focuses on who should get into the tournament and where they should be seeded. It's a months-long obsession with the middle that mirrors the national dialogue about college football. The emphasis is on resumes and who deserves what. The games themselves are a co-star (or even a supporting actor) in these debates. The end result is that everyone has access to similarly deep reservoirs of data about the teams that do make the tournament so anyone can feel like an expert when the brackets are finally revealed on the second Sunday of March. Which is why 3 people out of 300 million picked this year's Final Four correctly.

Speaking of this year's Final Four, let's tease out the stories of each of this year's semi-finalists:

Connecticut: Best player. Best team. Best conference. One of their school colors is blue and they have the pedigree to go along with it. Jim Calhoun has coached the program to two NCAA championships and one NIT championship. He has sent 26 players to the NBA. In February, Calhoun was cited by the NCAA for failing to create an atmosphere of compliance. That might mean he got in trouble for something. No one is entirely sure. He is coaching in his fourth Final Four.

Kentucky: Winningest program in the history of college basketball. (By at least two metrics.) The bluest of any Blue Blood basketball school. Ever. They play seven guys. Half of them are freshmen. Odds are strongly against any of the freshmen becoming sophomores. Last year, five Kentucky players were selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. The Wildcats are the third team coach John Calipari has taken to the NCAA Final Four. This could finally be the year he gets a championship vacated--as his previous trips to the Final Four were. Oddly, Calipari has never been sanctioned by the NCAA.

Butler: Last year's national runner-up. Also, last year's Cinderella team. Their home gym is the place where Jimmy Chitwood clinched the state title for Hickory High. Head coach Brad Stevens joined the Butler staff as a volunteer after leaving a job at Eli Lilly. The best player from last year's squad left school early to play in the NBA. His teammates are playing in their second consecutive Final Four.

Virginia Commonwealth: This year's Cinderella. Had to win a play-in game to qualify for the field of 64. Has beaten a team from each of the following conferences: Pac-10, Big East, Big 10, ACC and Big 12. Their coach, Shaka Smart, has one of the coolest names in America. This is his second season as a head coach at any school. He is coaching in his first Final Four.

This is the first year of play since the NCAA decided to expand to 68 teams--a clever stroke that deepened the conversation about seedings and who should be invited to compete. That means Virginia Commonwealth has already skewed history's grading curve. The Rams are an obvious tournament darling and could be cast as the greatest giant-killers of all time if they were to cut down the nets on Monday night.

If Kentucky's kids were to climb the ladders after Monday's game, they would deliver the eighth NCAA championship to their fans in Lexington (end everywhere else). It would be a return to glory for a program with a mostly glorious tradition. (As long as we don't count their late acceptance of Black players and those seasons they were placed on probation in the '50s and the '80s.)

A Connecticut championship could be seen as a vindication of Jim Calhoun in his recent battles against the NCAA Rules Committee. Or maybe it would be an exclamation point on the Year of Kemba. Either way, the drama associated with the Huskies is thick enough to satisfy the hyperbolic standards of the NCAA Tournament.

And that leaves Butler, arguably the most compelling team remaining. We can assume that the scrappy, jump-shooting, backdoor-cutting collection of student-athletes is precisely the kind of kids so many people are referring to when they assert that the NCAA is WAAAAAAY better than the NBA. ( is not.) The Bulldogs are certainly the Whitest of the four semi-finalists. That could be a completely meaningless fact. It could also explain the subliminal attraction of some White fans to this particular underdog. Setting race aside, the Butler story is obviously one of unfinished business as they lost last year's final when a buzzer-beating half-court heave was a half inch off. From a purely story standpoint, one has to wonder if there is a touch of destiny about this team given the number of bounces that have fallen in their favor this year. Maybe the fates really do want to make up for that loss to Duke.

The more we contemplate the possibilities for this year's Final Four, the more it becomes obvious how the overarching narrative concerns the stratification of college basketball. The two games that will tip on Saturday articulate that divide. On one side are the teams that are feeder programs for the NBA. Their players may not all be one-and-done, but the primary purpose for signing with a Kentucky or a Connecticut is to improve your prospects of collecting a paycheck from a professional league. For these programs, course work is an obligation. Like lifting weights and eating breakfast. Education is not a reward or a pathway. The athletes from these programs who earn their degrees are anomalies. And if the graduates never see a paycheck from a professional league, you may even call them aberrations. The coaches at these programs are millionaires. A couple times over. Their names are filtered through the NCAA hype machine to sustain the madness even as their professional integrity is called into question again and again. The rules makers themselves are too rich to care whether or not they've abdicated their responsibilities as enforcers. The appearance of authority is a valid stand-in when its time to write the scripts that make the money.

On the other side, as ever, are the genuine student-athletes. The kids who pull on Butler or VCU jerseys make the NCAA's great fiction of amateurism possible. They're not breathtaking physical specimens. They look like the eager intern you'd task with completing a stack of TPS Reports. Maybe a couple of them will earn their livings from basketball. Maybe they'll even play professionally. They probably won't leave campus after two semesters. (Unless Google wants to hire them.) Their coaches are not millionaires. Not yet. And they haven't been accused of rules violations. That we know of. It may be entirely too cynical to assume the inevitability of the worst for this class of basketball programs. And it may be unfair to all of the people who represent those programs. It isn't unreasonable, though, to wonder what is under Cinderella's dress.

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After the Dance
In order for hyperbole to be an effective marketing tool, there has to be a kernel of truth driving its declarations. In the last decade, the NCAA Tournament has delivered some legitimately captivating stories. We can bullet point a few of them to stir up fond (or not-so-fond) memories:

* The Flintstone Kids: Michigan State (2000)
* Duke Doing What Duke Does (2001 and 2010)
* The Orange Hero: Carmelo Anthony's triumphant march (2003)
* The Quest for Perfection: Illinois (2005)
* The Carolina Homecoming for Roy Williams (2005)
* The Green and Yellow Cinderella: George Mason (2006)
* The Pony-Tailed Villain: Joakim Noah (2006 and 2007)
* The Overlooked Son of a Former NBA Player: Steph Curry's scoring binge (2008)
* The Shot: Mario Chalmers for Kansas (2008)
* The Black and White Cinderella: Butler (2010)

The dance really is big. The madness really is beautiful. And the spectacle really is spectacular. We don't just believe these things, we know them to be true. We also know that the world of college basketball is flat. Any Division I school really can win this thing. Regardless of which class of players they conscript to suit up for them. That is the greatest NCAA fiction of all because it is, in fact, no longer a fiction.

So what will we remember from the 2011 NCAA Tournament? We'll definitely remember this final foursome in some form. We'll probably remember Jimmer. Kemba will make sure we remember him, too. We may remember Duke's inexplicable flameout. We may remember the return of Steve Fisher. We might remember the first experiences we had jumping from network to network trying to decide which game to watch as the playing field isn't the only thing that has flattened. Indeed, college basketball fans now have as much authorship over the story of the NCAA tournament as does the rules-making organization itself. (Do we even care about the stark line separating the two classes of competitors?)

College basketball may have arrived at yet another identity-defining tipping point, but its business is hardly in crisis. This Final Four, like the dozen or so that preceded it, will sell out a football stadium and will attract millions and millions of TV viewers. With the current NCAA President indicating that he is open to a discussion regarding a rethink of compensation for Division I basketball players, the institution may even be looking honestly at its reflected image. Maybe. "Open to discussion" is hardly a synonym for "taking action to correct." We can hope, though. When we run out of hope that reason will prevail, we will have the hype. We will always have the hype.

After the 2011 NCAA Championship Game mercifully ended, two men representing the NCAA congratulated Jim Calhoun and the Connecticut Huskies for defeating the Butler Bulldogs. The men also congratulated the city of Houston, all of this year's tournament teams and the fans who tuned in from around the world. At no point did they acknowledge the atrocity that had just been committed on that court. At the end of this year's March Madness rainbow was an empty, rusted out kettle. The gold had been left somewhere on the other side of the Sweet 16. And the only charm to be found anywhere in the building was Clark Kellog's earnest stream of wordplay.

Kemba Walker and his teammates wrapped their torsos in t-shirts that had been emblazoned with several characters. The three largest read: "No 1." The design could have been interpreted as "number one" or "no one was better" or some other piece of braggadicio. The subtext of the shirt implied that the ranking was the mark of the champion and not, like, the act of vanquishing all of one's opponents. It drew a line back to the endless conversations about the NCAA's method of choosing who is the best Division I football team. When paired with the recent "We Put Our Money Where Our Mission Is" PSA, the great takeaway from this year's Dance appears to be: the NCAA will control the parts of the story it wants to control and it will leave the rest to the beholder(s). Maybe any thinking about how "student-athletes" have drifted into two separate but equal classes is just a silly writer's exercise. The NCAA's core purpose, like any other business, is to simply stay in business. And when story is your currency, your doors will probably never close.