Madness, But Not Greatness
Nope, not the first day of spring. That is still another week away. As the college and NBA postseasons hit us back-to-back, we as basketball fans absolutely live for the next three months. Smell the air (Ahhhh). There is no better time to be alive. But in the past 20 years, the NBA Playoffs has overtaken the NCAA Tournament as the best postseason in basketball.
I grew up a college hoops junkie. I couldn't get enough. In college, I was the guy that followed my favorite team around the country, painting my face and wearing ridiculous outfits (let's forget the obscene cheers we started and the harassment of opposing players, coaches and fans). My friends and I skipped class to watch 13 straight hours of the same re-fed Sportscenter episode just to see what highlights of our game they would show.
Come March, I was in as many pools as possible and was too excited to sleep the night before the first round games. But then I grew up (now I can only watch the same Sportscenter three times in a row before switching) and get much more jazzed for the two-month extravaganza that is the NBA Playoffs.
Don't get me wrong. The NCAA Tournament remains one of the most exciting events on the sports calendar (I'm still in three pools this year, but that's way down from 10 years ago). With all of the attention and all of the pressure, it is a great preview of what the best players on the college level might offer an NBA team.
But while the teams and competition have remained entertaining, we have gone through a pretty long dry spell (more reminders of college) where we are no longer seeing greatness of historical proportions from the young talent on display. I won't say that the college postseason has lost any of its luster, but it has certainly lost some of the star power of its talent in the past two decades.
College is supposed to be about learning the skills you need for the real world (at least that's what my dad said in his pep talk before he drove away). Whether you become a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, a writer (everyone's dream job) or a professional basketball player, education is the key to future success. For the athletes, it's not only about improving on skills, but also about learning how to win.
The Best Ever
Just because someone plays well in the NCAA Tournament, greatness in the NBA is not guaranteed. But there was a time when it was. Whereas so many legends of the game, names like Russell, Lucas, Alcindor and Walton, were regulars in the Final Four every year in the 1950's, 60's and 70's, we are not seeing future legends in the Final Four any more. From 1979 to 1982, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and James Worthy won titles and MVPs. (Worthy is often neglected in people's memory because Michael Jordan hit the championship shot, but all three won NBA titles later on.) These guys learned how to win in college, and then made it their job in the NBA.
I remember when Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor went a combined 21-0 in the NCAA Tournament (Okay, I remember reading about that many years later). The only individual selected the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player three times averaged 25.7 points and 18.8 rebounds and shot 64.1 percent from the floor in six Final Four games from 1967 to 1969. Alcindor (also known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) led the Bruins in scoring in 10 of 12 playoff contests. San Francisco's Russell grabbed an incredible 50 rebounds at the 1956 Final Four (23 against SMU in the semifinals and 27 against Iowa in the championship game). No other player has retrieved more than 41 missed shots in two Final Four games or more than 21 in the final.
But these were not the only legends to win at both levels (even if they didn't win the Final Four MVP). Oscar Robertson, who won an NBA title with Kareem, averaged at least 29 points and 10 rebounds per game each of his three years in the tourney. UCLA great and Lakers champ Gail Goodrich (someday, "legendary NBA TV host" may supercede both of those other titles) is the only guard to score more than 35 points in an NCAA final and averaged 35 points per game in the 1965 Tournament. And how can you forget Bill Walton's 22-of-23 in the 1973 title game against Memphis (Actually I did, until R-Pete reminded me of it).
You can even look at the guys who lost in the Final Four or the championship because the competition was so good. Wilt Chaimberlain, Bill Bradley, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon (as well as Akeem Olajuwon) and Clyde Drexler (who is giving "Big Dance" a whole new meaning this month) all fell just short in college, but were still able to win in the NBA. Just about every year, we were treated to greatness on display in the NCAA Tournament and all of these guys went on to become Top 50 NBA Players.
But that is not happening anymore. In fact, since that time, the breadth of quality players has dropped considerably and the players who win in college are no longer the same superstars who win in the NBA. That is because best college-aged players are IN the NBA (or the D-League).
One Shining Moment
A quick trivia question: In the past 20 years, how many NCAA Final Four Most Valuable Players, the stars who led their teams to a title, have gone on to win an NBA title?
The correct answer is two. Richard Hamilton, winner with Connecticut in 1999, won an NBA title with the Detroit Pistons in 2004. Glen Rice won with Michigan in 1989 and then the Lakers more than a decade later. That's it.
The rest of the 90's yielded very little in the way of transcendent NCAA-NBA greatness. Final Four heroes like Ed O'Bannon (two disappointing seasons with the Nets and Mavs), Miles Simon (never stuck with the Magic) and Jeff Sheppard (I'll admit, I looked that one up) were unable to apply their learned lessons in winning to help an NBA team. In fact, aside from Rip Hamilton, an All-Star with Detroit, there are only five former NCAA Tournament MVPs even left in the NBA - the last five to join the NBA - Shane Battier, Juan Dixon, Carmelo Anthony, Emeka Okafor and Sean May.
To be fair, we have to give them the benefit of the doubt and a few more years to win an NBA ring. Of those guys, Houston's Battier (who, along with Dixon, stayed all four years at their respective schools) is on a team that has the best chance of doing some damage in the postseason. Anthony and the Nuggets are in jeopardy of not even making the playoffs. Okafor and May are at least a year (or more) away. Of course, they all have plenty of time left in their careers to win an NBA title.
Now I'm not saying the latest college stars are doomed to repeat this recent history (Battier was a History of Religion major at Duke). But we know that there was a time not too long ago when leading your team to a college championship pretty much guaranteed NBA stardom. That is no longer the case. The option to enter the NBA as an underclassmen means that the best basketball players in the world have fewer chances to win a college title, instead opting to take their game to the best league in the world.
Had Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Lebron James gone to college (or if Vince Carter, Gilbert Arenas and Allen Iverson and had stayed in college), there is no guarantee that they would have won a title or two. Their talent was undeniable when they came out of school (and still is), but there was still more they could have learned in college. They certainly missed out on that undergraduate education in winning. Making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament used to be the best preparation for the next level - learning those valuable leadership skills with the intense scrutiny of millions of people watching and learning to take control of a team when the season is on the line.
The Best Never
Of course, there have been a lot of NCAA champions who never won an NBA title. When you watched Patrick Ewing, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and David Thompson play in college, didn't you think they would be champions at the next level? How could they not be, right? These are players who learned all of the lessons stars should be learning in school, yet the biggest (one shining) moment in their basketball careers came and went before ever reaching the NBA.
Ewing, who won a college title with Georgetown in 1984, came closer than any of the others, playing in the NBA Finals in 1994 and watching on the bench with an injury in 1999. Thompson won with NC State in 1974 and was a consensus First-Team All-America in 1973, 1974 and 1975, but never came close to winning a title of any kind at the next level (though was the runner-up in the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk contest). He was a four-time NBA All-Star and was the game's MVP in 1977 and 1979, but injuries and substance abuse cut his career short.
Unlike Ewing and Thompson, Laettner and Hurley never came close to achieving the greatness they experienced at Duke. But Laettner had a better NBA career than you might think. In 13 seasons, finished with 11,121 points and 5,806 rebounds, played in 45 playoff games, was voted into the all-rookie-team in 1993 and became an All-Star in 1997 Star Game (Let's not forget the gold medal with the 1992 United States Olympic Men's Basketball Dream Team). Yet he never became the superstar many had expected, especially when you compare him to the two centers drafted ahead of him in 1992.
Laettner was drafted third overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves after Shaquille O'Neal (first overall) and Alonzo Mourning (second) in the 1992 NBA Draft. All three ultimately played together on the 2005 Miami Heat. While the other two won a title together in 2006, Laetter was one year shy of winning a ring with the Heat. But that is not how we will remember him. Laettner is one of only four players to play in four consecutive Final Fours and he holds a lot of other NCAA Tournament records (and you can't watch television in March without seeing his famous last-second shot against Kentucky in the 1992 Final Four over and over and over again).
Hurley's NBA career took a more unfortunate turn. After becoming the NCAA all-time assists leader, leading the Blue Devils to back-to back national championships and earning Final Four MVP honors in 1992, Hurley was a lottery pick for the Sacramento Kings as the 7th pick in 1993. However he was involved in a horrific car accident during his rookie season. He returned to the NBA for the 1994-1995 season, and only played four more years beyond that. (He retired with career averages of 3.8 ppg and 3.3 apg.)
Thanks to the NBA's implementation of a 19-year old age requirement prior to last season, the NCAA Tournament has regained a bit of its superstar talent (imagine this year's college hoops season without that new rule), though requiring stars to play one year in college does not an education in winning necessarily guarantee.
Meanwhile, the entire basketball world is enamored with a pair of college freshmen (as they should be). We won't mention their names here because, well, who knows... Maybe they will stay in college (plus, I am deathly afraid of the NCAA's lawyers). Personally, I doubt either one will be around long enough to pose any serious challenge to Kareem's record of three Final Four MVPs (remember, Lew/Kareem did not play as a freshman). And Florida's best player, who is only a junior (Again, I'm not mentioning any names...) has a chance to do something that hasn't been done since Walton in 72-73, which is win back-to-back MVP awards.
But as the best in the college game lace 'em up over these next few weeks, one thing has become clear. No matter how good we think today's college stars are or how good they may ultimately become, they still have a lot of learning to do.
Enjoy these next few weeks of excitement (Go Quakers!) and get ready, because it is just the beginning... the NBA Playoffs are just a month away.