Thursday, July 8, 2010

NCAA vs. NBA: Why You Can't Compare The Two

While the LeBron James saga reaches its long-awaited culmination tonight, the twists and turns of it illustrate just how much more appealing the college game is than its professional counterpart. Above, James' new uniform should he sign with the New York Knicks. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

I have a confession to make. As a kid growing up, I was a huge fan of the National Basketball Association; and received a great deal of criticism from family and friends about how I could not root for the New York Knicks, since I lived in Queens and the Knicks were a New York team. My answer was a simple one: "New York isn't the center of the universe," I said. "There are 26 (at the time) other teams out there. I want to become a fan on my own terms. At least I'm not a Bulls fan." (Although Michael Jordan is my favorite player of all-time) That, along with two guys named Shaq and Penny, led to me becoming the Orlando Magic fan I have been since 1993.

Enough about my NBA allegiances. As I got older, I followed college basketball with increasing interest, and my love for the college game intensified when I became the play-by-play voice of St. John's men's basketball back in 2007 upon my introduction to the irreplaceable part of my life that is WSJU Radio. Since then, the amount of NBA-related programming I watch has dropped exponentially; while my affiliation with the college game has transitioned from fan to media member, sometimes a little bit of both.

Today, (and for the last several weeks following the Lakers' latest NBA championship) the world has been fixated on the conclusion of what will go down in history as the biggest offseason and free agent class in NBA history, paced by two-time reigning Most Valuable Player LeBron James. Reports conflict with each passing second regarding James' destination; with Cleveland, New York and Miami perceived to be the three finalists, each with a different logical explanation. It is this "As The World Turns" saga that proves just how much better the college game is when compared to the pros, and I'll tell you why by giving the same arguments I use when defending my belief that college football is better than its NFL counterpart.

For starters, college basketball doesn't have anywhere near as much speculation as NBA free agency. Yes, recruits often change verbal commitments faster than we change the channel; and some may even do so at the last minute. (See Terrence Jones spurning Washington at the 11th hour to sign with Kentucky) The media frenzy surrounding recruits also pales in comparison to NBA offseason coverage, and as a member of the college basketball media, I can tell you personally that ESPN (or any other network for that matter) doesn't dispatch reporters to Chapel Hill and Durham if the number one recruit in the country narrows his choices to North Carolina and Duke. I'm not going to say anything about the kid making the decision on national TV, because that has been done many times in the past; including Brandon Knight signing with Kentucky, as well as Matt Leinart and Sam Bradford announcing their decisions to stay in school after each had won the Heisman Trophy.

Second, the college game allows you to root openly for a team, whereas a great deal of professional sports fans simply pull for a team for the mere fact that one of the best players in the league calls that club his employer. I may be guilty of rooting for the Miami Dolphins because of Dan Marino; but to explain the college game, I'll paraphrase a line from my good friend Joe Benigno of WFAN: "The players may change, the coaches may change, but the school remains the same." I've been a Carolina and Michigan State fan since the mid-1990s, and a St. John's fan since 1991, when I watched Lou Carnesecca coach a team led by the late Malik Sealy; a team that enabled me to reconnect with my youth once I started going to school there and calling their games on a regular basis. You really can't jump on the bandwagon in college unless you're new to the game, and the best part of rooting for schools is that you can follow every departed player in his professional career.

Next, (and I'm sure I'll attract some comments on this one) there is no allure of contracts or guaranteed money in the college game. I learned at a young age that "greed is the downfall of man," and my mother always told me not to take a turn in that direction. As I currently write this, I am seeing a number of LeBron-related stories in newspapers, on web sites, Twitter, and just about every sports network my cable box can handle; and I can't help but think that greed really is the downfall of man, especially after seeing how many big-money contracts across all of the four major sports have not panned out. Hopefully LeBron doesn't suffer that fate, since he truly is one of the best players in the game today, but who's to say this drawn-out process won't affect him going forward? You don't have to worry about that in the college game. Yes, players are younger, and as such, need to be further developed; but John Wall didn't have to worry about endorsement deals or signing a contract after he gave John Calipari his verbal to Kentucky. In other words, the kids these players truly are get to live their lives while simultaneously enjoying the remainder of their childhood.

On that note, I feel it is safe to say that the pressure to succeed at the collegiate level is nowhere even close to that felt within the ranks of the NBA. I'm not saying there's no pressure at all, because nothing could be further from the truth. When Florida won the national championship in 2006, the pressure was on for them to repeat, which they eventually did. When Calipari signed his blockbuster recruiting class last year, the pressure was on Wall, Cousins and Bledsoe to raise a banner in Lexington for the first time since 1998. Kentucky lost in the Elite Eight to West Virginia, and a number of Wildcats fans probably view last season as a letdown. However, they will get over it temporarily before putting pressure on the new recruits to do what last year's group couldn't do. Those are only two programs out of the 300+ in Division I, and no two programs operate exactly the same.

Also, the feeling of betrayal that will be felt by fans regardless of where LeBron James ends up next season (especially if he chooses not to remain in Cleveland) is not harbored for long in the college ranks. A school may feel jilted at the altar if a recruit picks its adversary over them, but if the player is ready for the next level before he even steps into an arena, the feeling subsides once the kid declares for the NBA draft. Not only that, but there are more than enough prospects to go around for the elite programs in Division I college hoops; while there are only a handful of free agents every year. Moreover, not every NBA team is able to accommodate players the likes of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and that only makes the chances of landing a franchise player even smaller.

Finally, while one bad move can set an NBA team back several years, (see the Portland Trail Blazers passing on Jordan for Sam Bowie, only to replicate that move 23 years later by taking Greg Oden over Kevin Durant) one bad year has a greater potential to reset itself once the nets are cut down in the national championship game. There have been much more and much greater turnarounds in the college ranks than the relatively stable NBA, where the same teams usually stay on top for years at a time. Let's be honest, how often do you see NBA versions of George Mason and Davidson making a run to the conference finals? It is that unpredictability that makes the college game more appealing to watch; and coupled with the many reasons listed above, makes college basketball the better alternative to professional basketball.

Just for the record, I will be part of the now-shrinking plurality that feels LeBron James is headed to the New York Knicks, (my rationale for the picture of James in a Knicks jersey) and if I'm wrong, it won't be the first (or last) time. At least I can justify my reasoning for not being a Knicks fan again, especially now that people may be coming at me with "They have one of the best players in the game!"

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