I often watch the ESPN “100 Greatest Sports Images of the 20th Century” video that sits on my desktop. The whole thing is basically just a montage set to Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” But one image became particularly interesting to me recently — that of Bobby Knight tossing a chair onto the Indiana basketball court in protest of a referee’s call. The scene is matched with these lyrics: “Live and learn from fools and from sages.” In this case, Knight is one of the fools, while Joe Paterno and Scotty Bowman are the sages.
But just weeks after becoming the winningest coach in NCAA Division I-A Men’s Basketball history, the man notorious for lashing out at officials played the sage, not the fool. In commenting on the new NBA regulation that requires prospective draftees to be at least one year removed from high school, Knight said it to be “the worst thing that’s happened to college basketball since [he’s] been coaching.”
The man’s got a point. Requiring players — otherwise determined to go straight to the NBA — to play a year in college is detrimental to universities and disruptive to their basketball programs (though it would be exciting). A player who does not care about going to class and doesn’t even think about graduating only promotes the attitude that certain schools are about playing basketball rather than learning.
I’m not naive. I know that most professional prospects, even those enrolled in school for three or four years, don’t attend class or do work. They are at UNC, Duke and the like to improve their skills for the next level. But there is a difference between those players who are committed to the team — to improving and to winning — and those who are treating university enrollment as a truck stop on their road to stardom. As a result, a divisive and damaging attitude pervades the entire program.
Sure, some teams can hope for quick success on the back of a Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. And any fan would tell you that the thought of Durant dropping 30-plus per game come March is thrilling. But this is not good for college programs and doesn’t provide any benefits for the players either. If anything, these young stars are only given one more year to mature among relative peers (I say “relative,” because I think it’s clear that the aforementioned Oden and Durant are really men amongst boys).
This is a problem not completely foreign to the Yale athletic community. Hockey is really the only one of the four major professional sports for which Yale athletes are frequently considered to be professional prospects. A football player here and there gets drafted, and some even see success as a fullback or tight end. But you rarely see Ivy League football, baseball or basketball talent obtain the success of a Jeff Hamilton ’01 or Chris Higgins, who was originally slated to graduate in May 2005.
Higgins, Yale’s highest draft pick ever, did not graduate with the class of 2005. Instead, he high-tailed it out of New Haven to join the Montreal Canadiens following his sophomore year. In two seasons with the Bulldogs, however, Higgins did live up to expectations, tallying 31 points with 14 goals in his rookie campaign and 41 points with 20 goals the next year.
After Higgins’ departure, the Yale men’s hockey team finished outside of the top three in the Ivy League for three consecutive seasons and longtime head coach Tim Taylor retired. Not until this season, with the arrival of some new talent, have the Bulldogs really competed for an Ancient Eight crown. Can the team’s slide be credited completely to the departure of a single player? No. But while it doesn’t make all the difference, one phenomenal player, especially in the collegiate ranks, can have a tremendous impact on his teammates. The player’s departure can then be as disruptive as his presence was constructive.
If more Yale student athletes did not complete their four years in the Elm City, Yale teams would not only struggle to compete but would also become less interesting for fans. After all, part of what is fun about watching college sports is seeing players mature and then mesh with new, younger talent.
The NBA is not doing itself, the NCAA or the sport of basketball a favor by basically requiring stars to play at least one year of college basketball before turning professional. Instead, it is advancing a perception that the NCAA is just an unpaid minor league, where talents like Greg Oden and Kevin Durant are forced to spend a year suspended in an ambiguous and liminal role. The NBA really ought to make players stay in college for two or three years, like the NFL, or allow drafted players to stay in college after being drafted and re-enter the draft following their junior year, like Major League Baseball.
Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on Tuesday.