Call this a disclaimer or whatever you will, but I am a fan of Chuck Klosterman's work. I picked up his book of essays Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs during college at the behest of a friend who was a fan, and in the years since I have read all of his non-fiction and enjoyed --- if not downright loved --- most of it. He writes about sports and culture with obscure references to things long past and he comes from a rural town that he never quite fit into. He is me.
I don't think this is a very cool admission for someone in the modern blogosphere to make, but I've never really been all that cool to begin with so what the hell. Whether it is the general backlash against Grantland for some of the editorial decisions made there or simply dissatisfaction that Grantland has yet to live up to its considerable hype (and or promise, depending on your particular horse in the race), there just seems to be a painted target on the back of Simmons, Klosterman et al. On top of that there is the not insignificant portion of people who exist somewhere on the sports/pop culture spectrum that just don't care for Klosterman's style. I hear it, and I can read it myself, but I'm still not totally convinced. I'm too much of a pop culture geek to dismiss Klosterman's work out of hand, and sometimes essays on Nirvana, Saved by the Bell, or the Uni-bomber Manifesto just hit the spot.
However, there are things about Klosterman's style that bug me, and his latest article on the so-called Kentucky Death March showcases one of them.
The premise is pretty simple: Kentucky is very, very good at basketball, and going into Final Four weekend the Wildcats seem to be the kind of overwhelming favorite that is rare in a sport characterized by its ever present uncertainty, and a championship tournament that seems to teeter on the edge of chaos. The team is stocked with NBA caliber talent to such a ridiculous degree that people are already making comments that the Wildcats should be playing, and beating, NBA bottom-feeders like Washington.
Freshman Anthony Davis is unquestionably the number one pick, and is already starting to inspire some to consider just what kind of far reaching effect he could have on the league when he gets there. The kind of athleticism and defensive prowess he displays is different from someone like Aaron Craft, a supremely gifted defender who guts out possessions with maximum effort and is a great defensive player because he wills himself to be. Coaches love to preach that offense is about talent and defense about effort, but Davis is the rare exception. This isn't to say the effort is lacking --- that is far from the truth. It just looks that way. Craft plays defense in the kind of physical frenzy that makes glowing adjectives about grit and tenacity drip from the mouths of announcers. Davis simply leaves them slack-jawed and speechless. He is not only the biggest, most athletic guy on the court, but he understands the flow of the game to such a degree that he often finds himself in just the right place as well --- a dangerous combination. As if that weren't enough to build a championship team around, Kentucky also has Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, probably the most NBA-ready swingman in the draft and quite possibly the second pick off the board. It is an embarrasment of riches.
This team is so good it is scary. At least it is to the three other teams in New Orleans and Chuck Klosterman.
What is scary isn't how easily Kentucky can win the title, it is what Chuck thinks is coming down the pike once the nets come down. This isn't just a dominant team winning a national title, but a dominant team rewriting the rules for how to win a national title in the modern age.
Klosterman is still one helluva writer, and when he talks about John Calipari it almost makes me forget that I find the Kentucky coach just a bit repulsive and sneaky.
"When CBS interviewed Calipari and Davis the day after the Cats obliterated Indiana in the South Regional, they displayed a rapport that suggests Calipari is simply unlike the vast majority of men who spend their adult lives screaming at 19-year-olds for failing to box out. What makes him different, I suspect, is that he cares about "young people" more than he cares about The Game Of Basketball. And that's a deceptively complex perspective."
What follows is the kind of exposition that is Klosterman at the very top of his game. He surmises that the root of the problem that most "basketball people" have with John Calipari isn't that he breaks the rules to get his players in school or stocks his team with players that have no intention of fulfilling that pesky first part of Student/Athlete, but that he has no problem acknowledging the fact that he is interested in building a team full of one-and-done NBA lottery prospects in a time and place when that is not only acceptable by the rules, but somewhat advantageous when done properly.
"Calipari has professionalized college sports, which is great for him and good for his recruits. It's just discomforting for anyone who likes NCAA basketball, assuming they're drawn to the same game that lives within their memory. He's built awesome teams for seven consecutive seasons, usually by overhauling his entire roster with transitory superstars who are only attending college because there's no reasonable alternative."
Calipari has staked a claim to winning his way, and if you love The Game of Basketball you should have a problem with this.* These are essentially the two sides of the same "sanctity of the game" argument that pops up anytime a time honored practice or unwritten code is gradually pushed aside in favor of the current realities that exist in professional and major college athletics. Coaches making millions of dollars? Coaches like Bo Schembechler and Joe Paterno knew it wasn't about the money, but the game. Pay student athletes? That is spitting in the face of the ideal of amateurism that college sports was built around. Adjust the rules of football so that the men who play it have a reasonable chance to make it past 40 without their bodies breaking down and their minds deteriorating into a fog of depression and dementia? That isn't the spirit of the game.
So what happens next Monday when Kentucky strolls through another easy victory and the Calipari method is vindicated for the first time in history with a national title?
I guess college basketball will be ruined.
Now, that is being a little bit harsh to Chuck, but he does toe this line briefly before backing off. Let's run it back:
Kentucky is really good, and it got that way by bringing in a bunch of young kids that had no intention of graduating. Instead of pretending these kids are the next generation of scholars, Calipari simply shrugs his shoulders and says something along the lines of "well, if they have to spend a year in college, why not do it here?" This has been wildly successful before, but has always fallen short of the ultimate prize for a variety of reasons. These stumbles have comforted the landed gentry of college basketball that loves amateurism, wholesome television programming built around a strong nuclear family and a laugh track, and four-year degrees. Once, however, Kentucky proves that there is no childproof lock on the door to a national championship to keep out those pesky freshmen, then the wheels are going to come off the whole thing.
Either Kentucky wins and all is lost, or Kentucky loses and the country keeps its false innocence in the belief that college basketball is still for college students.
It's a helluva pickle. It also isn't true.
It is easy to frame the issue in black and white terms. The way Kentucky has assembled its team under John Calipari does run contrary to a lot of the things many of us love about college basketball, and it would seem that a Kentucky national title would tilt the scales in favor of star power over player development even more than it already is. I mean, most of us here just spent a year rooting for Michigan not only because it was our team, but because we wanted to see Zack Novak and Stu Douglass graduate with something to their names (which they ultimately got). But this isn't an either/or type of dilemma, and any attempt to make it so is simply coming up with logical fallacies and trying to pass them off as fact because writing about the death of college basketball as we know it is easier than acknowledging that we really don't have a good handle on exactly where college basketball is even at in terms of the past, present, and future, and even if we did the only right way to win is the way that works without taking advantage of a bunch of college aged kids.
Players leaving early for the draft is nothing new. It is just that now, in the age of the NBA rule prohibiting high school seniors from entering the draft right away, the NCAA has a glut of hyper-talented freshmen with no other options. What Calipari is doing is simply responding to market forces. If anything, his approach should be celebrated as pure, naked capitalism. Is it good for the game? That depends on what you are looking to get out of college basketball. If it is just some stodgy old ideal about a group of kids playing for school pride for four years, you might want to start watching more low level high school basketball. If you just like watching exciting, unpredictable basketball, the presence of teams like Kentucky ups the former and depresses the latter. The game itself is still largely the same.
None of this is Kentucky's fault, and that is where Klosterman ultimately commits his biggest error. An error that he is prone to make. Klosterman is very adept at tearing away the layers to distill the things we see in popular culture to the most basic motivations and principles, but when you do that too much you inevitably end up losing the forest for the trees. Yes, this game is a microcosm for the way college basketball has changed over the past two decades, but that doesn't mean it is the college basketball's Little Bighorn.
A Kentucky win doesn't change the landscape of college basketball. It isn't a means to a disastrous end, but an end in itself. That this Kentucky team is even possible comes from a vast number of changes in college basketball and amateur athletics over the past two decades.
Blame NBA front offices for shifting their draft strategy toward pro potential vs. college production. Blame the prodigiously talented but immature high school stars of the late-90s and early aughts that jetted for the NBA and overlooked the important development that happens in the college game. Blame David Stern for adjusting the rules to keep high schoolers from jumping straight to the league (not that Stern cares, but what the hell, blame him anyway).
Most of all, blame the NCAA for clinging to its draconian ideal of amateurism instead of adjusting to allow for professional basketball prospects to both pursue and education and secure a contract that will guarantee their financial futures. Let the kids get drafted and stay in school to improve their games and mature as both players and men. Wouldn't that be the greatest service one could provide to a bunch of teenagers that have dreamed about playing in the NBA since they were old enough to walk?
Just don't blame Kentucky.
In the end, a Kentucky national title isn't an affirmation of some new paradigm in college basketball. It doesn't swing the balance of power to the top ten programs in the country any more than those programs have already enjoyed ridiculous advantages over the competition. Kentucky isn't even the kind of hyper-specific all-freshman threat that Klosterman is ultimately worried about. Of the top six players, only half are freshmen while two are sophomores and one is a senior.
The whole college basketball world isn't going to adopt the John Calipari model because A) there isn't enough high level talent to go around, and B) it would have already happened by now.
So when Chuck Klosterman tells you that the fate of college basketball rests on a Kentucky loss this weekend, remind him that The Game of Basketball has already changed, that the old ideals are gone, and that there isn't anything necessarily wrong with that.
College basketball is dead. Long live college basketball.
*(I'm not saying what Calapari is doing is good, just as I'm not saying it is bad. He is doing a masterful job of coaching at the major college level at one of the most demanding jobs in the sport, and succeeding because he found a flaw in the market. I don't feel good about it --- remember, I find this whole thing a little off-putting --- but I'm also not a big fan of Chinese food. However, I'll be damned if I ever confuse my distaste for Chinese food with a morality argument against white rice and Kung-Pow chicken (or whatever it's called, remember, I don't eat it.))