March 23, 2009

March Madnessless, Part II

(Click here for Part I)

Reggie Harding.


Wait, who? Reggie Harding. Yes, that Reggie Harding. He is the force that destroyed college basketball. For me at least.

So who is Reggie Harding? Just the first high school player ever drafted by the NBA (in 1962, by the Pistons in the fourth round.) And after him, the deluge. Over the next three decades a tidal wave of two players, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby (both in 1975), continued the preps-to-pro onslaught.* So a total three guys in 33 drafts, all because every kid from every inner-city playground dreamed of being the next Reggie Harding. Forget Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Earl Monroe, and Elgin Baylor; Harding towered over them all in the minds of aspiring young players beginning in 1962.

* A handful of others, notably Moses Malone and Shawn Kemp, entered the NBA after bypassing college, but had some intermediate experience -- in Malone's case, the ABA -- in between high school and the Association.

And yet somehow in the mid-90s, things got even worse. Thinking that the 1-every-11-years torrent of high school players entering the NBA was somehow not enough, a Chicago high school kid named Kevin Garnett decided to do something about it. A scant 20 years after Dawkins and Willoughby, in 1995 Garnett was selected fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves. It was Garnett's relatively immediate success that proved to be the death knell of college basketball.

Shocking reveal #2: The first reveal (at the top of this entry) really should have been Kevin Garnett. But in researching Garnett I discovered Harding, and he truly is the early-entry Jackie Robinson. And yet unlike baseball free-agency pioneer Curt Flood, Harding has had absolutely no lasting legacy; before today, I had never even heard of him. Which is shocking when you recall that I am, in fact, Mr. Sports-Know-It-All.

Regardless, it was Garnett who proved that a kid with no college experience could thrive in the modern-day NBA, and he became the role model for other young players. And that, in turn, ruined college basketball. Look, I know that the early-entry-has-destroyed-basketball theory is hardly groundbreaking, but for me it rings entirely true.

Because Garnett's selection completely opened the floodgates. Hell, just the year before when Jason Kidd entered the draft as a sophomore, that was somewhat rare. But everything changed in 1995. Each of the four players chosen before Garnett -- Joe Smith, Antonio McDyess, Jerry Stackhouse, and Rasheed Wallace -- were sophomores; there was a total of five sophomores (Chris Jackson, Kenny Anderson, Chris Webber, Anfernee Hardaway, and Kidd) chosen in the entire first rounds of the previous five drafts combined. As recently as 1990, all but two picks in the first round were college seniors. But the year after Garnett, two more high school players were drafted in the first round, and both Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal became stars, albeit to varying degrees. Additionally in 1996, two college freshman (Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Stephon Marbury) were picked in the top-4, the first time that had ever happened.

In the succeeding years, there were generally two or three high schoolers who entered the draft, some of whom -- like Rashard Lewis, famously -- slipped out of the first round. But the tipping point came in 2001, when for the first time a high school player (Kwame Brown) was chosen first overall. With Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry going to the Bulls at Nos. 2 and 4, three of the top-4 picks were preps-to-pros. It was here that I believe David Stern decided he would impose a minimum age restriction on the NBA Draft -- only he didn't want to implement it until after LeBron James had entered the league.

So let's review. When I was growing up, just about every great player donned a college uniform for at least three years. (Two notable exceptions: Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson, both of whom left school after their sophomore seasons.) This meant three years of Michael Jordan at North Carolina. Four years of Patrick Ewing at Georgetown. Three years of Akeem Olajuwon at Houston. Four years of Chris Mullin at St. Johns. Three years of Clyde Drexler at Houston (two of them with Akeem). Four years of Reggie Miller at UCLA. Three years of Shaquille O'Neal at LSU. Four years of David Robinson at Navy. Three years of Alonzo Mourning at Georgetown. Even without a point guard -- and you could have your choice of John Stockton, Kevin Johnson, and Gary Payton, all of whom played a full four years -- that's a pretty damn good collection of players. It's basically the bulk of the All-NBA team for most of the late 80's through the 90's, and they all played college ball for at least three seasons, within a 10-year period of each other.

Now compare that to this team of All-Stars: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James, Amare Stoudamire, and Dwight Howard. None of those guys went to college. Jermaine O'Neal, Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, Andrew Bynum, and Monta Ellis too. Isn't it hard not to feel cheated? Without a doubt, the quality of play in the NCAA, the level of competition, and even the excitement of the games themselves, all of it suffered.** Can you imagine Kobe at Duke (where he was slated to go) with the Cameron Crazies behind him? Garnett could've single-handedly brought DePaul back to relevance. And what if LeBron had shocked the world and decided to play for his hometown Akron Zips, doing for them what Larry Bird did for Indiana State? Christ, even lesser lights like Chandler or perhaps Shaun Livingston might have been transcendent as college players.

** I think the rivalries took the biggest hit of all. As a kid rooting for the Illini, I really grew to hate the players on the other Big 10 teams because you saw them so much and just got sick of them. Roy Marble? Despised him. Steve Alford? Couldn't stand the sight of him. Antoine Joubert? Jou-sucked. All of these guys faced the Illini a minimum of eight times during their careers, and the constant battles lifted the intensity level of the players as well, who really took those games personally. They remembered the slights from when, say, Indiana beat them by 27 points when they were a freshman, and every game was a chance to avenge some previous ignominious defeat. And while college basketball still has a few great rivalries like Duke-North Carolina, back then virtually all of your conference foes were truly 'conference rivals.' Now that's mostly just a term we use, a relic from days gone by.

Sports are always defined by their stars. So what happens when you excise the greatest players from a game? You know how people always discount the two titles the Rockets won because they came in the years that Michael Jordan was (mostly) retired? Imagine how it would be if there'd also been no Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, John Stockton, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler, and Shawn Kemp. You would've had Mitch Richmond scoring 40 ppg. That wouldn't have even been a reasonable facsimile of the NBA. And it's almost exactly what transpired with the college game.

Take the 2005-'06 college basketball season. The title that year was won by Florida, but the season was defined by the play of Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick. However, without early entry that would've been LeBron James' junior year, and Amare Stoudemire's senior season. Carmelo Anthony and Andre Iguodala would also have been seniors, Chris Paul and Luol Deng, juniors. Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, J.R. Smith, and Marvin Williams all would have been sophomores, Andrew Bynum a freshman. That's a 12-man rotation that neither Morrison or Redick could crack. So there's a reason that Morrison and Redick have struggled to be contributors in the NBA after being so successful at the NCAA level: they were the best college players simply because none of the best players were in college.

Not coincidentally, that '05-'06 season was the last in which the top high school players could just eschew college entirely, as Stern put in his "minimum age of 19/one full year out of high school" draft requirement, forcing players like Greg Oden and Kevin Durant to become "college students" for (at least) a season before entering the league. I believed at the time that it was first part of a plan to eventually raise the age to 20/two years out of high school, and it looks like that'll be the case. My guess is Stern didn't take the hard-line because of two factors: 1. The players' union might have resisted a measure as drastic as raising the limit by a full two years all at once, so he decided to ease it in. And 2. Immediately raising the limit two years would have completely decimated the draft*** for consecutive seasons and had a deleterious effect on the quality of play. It also would have considerably reduced the chances of a quick turnaround for any lottery team. And so he settled for 19. For the time being, at least.

*** Even the one-year increase completely screwed the Bulls, who had the #2 overall selection in the stripped-down, high school player-less draft of '06. They used the pick to select LaMarcus Aldridge, whom they immediately flipped to Portland for Tyrus Thomas. Now I am probably the biggest Tyrus Thomas apologist around; I believe with consistent minutes he will be a very good player in the league, and he has already taken a huge step forward this season with an increase in his playing time. But still... Had high schoolers been eligible, Greg Oden would have been the without-a-doubt No. 1 pick. Which would have left Kevin Durant to fall right into the Bulls' laps. And for as much as I like Thomas, KD over Tyrus is the very definition of a no-brainer. Of course, whether Paxson would have been too inept to realize that is a whole 'nother story.

So that's what happened. Yes, only the uppermost echelon of players went straight to the pros or left after only a season or two. But it's those very players that make the games worthwhile. It's the people that are four and five standard deviations from the norm that make the difference, and you can't lose the elite and not have it affect the product. I'm trying to conjure up an adequate analogy, but all the ones I can think of come from another sport, because athletics is the one arena where greatness is so clearly defined. So imagine the 2008 US Olympic team -- winners of 36 gold medals -- without its 12 best athletes. So subtract out Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Aaron Piersol, LaShawn Merritt, Angelo Taylor, Natalie Coughlin, Rebecca Soni, Dara Torres, Margaret Hoelzer, Katie Hoff, Nastia Liukin, and Shawn Johnson, and the US gold medal count is nearly cut in half, reduced to 19. Which is the exact same number as those uncordinated spazzes from not-so-Great Britain. We're a country of 300 million people, how can there be such a huge difference if you lose 12 people? Because the 12 are the truly exceptional, while Nos. 13-24 -- the ones you'd plug in to replace them -- are merely great. We watch sports to see the very best, and without them, why tune in? And that is why I stopped being such a huge college basketball fan.

There is a glimmer of hope, however. The college seasons since Stern barred high school players from entering the draft have been much improved, and it was great to see a player like Kevin Durant play a little college ball. Though I did become perturbed when even writers I really, really like -- such as Bill Simmons -- ran stories about Durant having the best freshman season ever. Of course it was great statistically; there was absolutely no competition whatsoever. It's not like when MJ was a freshman, and he had to fight legitimate players just to get minutes, let alone to put the ball in the basket. Durant faced essentially zero resistance. Argh. Anyway, players like him, Oden, Derrick Rose, and Michael Beasley really did help make the product noticeably better. If Stern can somehow get the draft age upped another year -- further improving competition while restoring luster to some of our forgotten rivalries -- I just might jump back into college hoops with both feet.

Maybe then, and only then, will I finally be able to forget about that rat-bastard Reggie Harding.


  1. There little point arguing that college basketball as a product has suffered immeasurably since early entries became so commonplace. That said, it's still infinitely more exciting than the NBA. For instance, I loved this year's Pitt team much in the same way I had an affection for those Kenny Anderson/D Scott Ga Tech teams. Similarly, the experience of actually seeing a college basketball game in person is just way beyond that of sitting in the United Center for any regular season game, sans one featuring LeBron of Kobe. I think what is frustrating me now about college basketball is that many programs like Cal are trying to duplicate the NBA experience at games now (ie. light shows, loud hip-hop, throwing pizzas into the stand). What die-hards like me are looking for in college basketball is an antidote to that sort of manufactured ambiance. I still love the product on the court though, despite the fact that it's been watered down so much.

  2. Excellent points, Bub.

    College games *are* still exponentially better in person than the NBA. Unfortunately I no longer live within shouting distance of Haas, so all of my basketball comes through the telly. And while I love hearing the constant crowd noise of a college game, it's not enough (for me) to offset the dropoff in quality.

    That is a horrible development, that Cal is now employing those annoying NBA gimmicks. You're absolutely right, the college game does not need that crap. If it's part of some misguided plan to bring people like me back into the fold, it most assuredly will not succeed; instead they're just going to alienate the diehards like you.