This could be a whole column, but it’s probably been written already: Greg Oden ain’t so hot. He will be, that’s clear. But the guy barely made it through the first three minutes of multiple games before picking up two fouls and sitting until the second half. And he only broke out in the final when the refs clearly weren’t going to call fouls on him and Billy Donovan stubbornly stuck to man coverage, so I don’t think we can be salivating just yet. Someone tell Jim Nantz and Billy Packer to calm down and buy some porn.
But Oden-touting aside, the tournament was amazing. Comebacks, buzzer-beater threes, every Cameroonian basketball player we ever knew existed and then some — all of it.
I’m not surprised I watched so much basketball. Senior essay? Going out? Reassuring my mother that I’m not dead in a gutter on Howe Street? Pfft. Virginia Commonwealth is beating Duke and Coach K looks like he needs some Ex-Lax.
So I know I like the tournament. But what I realized this year was that I wasn’t sure why, what separates it from all the other sports I watch. Why is the tournament better than, say, pro baseball?
Exhibit A: Manny Ramirez. To watch Manny play left field is to understand why I question how you can call some pro baseball players athletes. He doesn’t run to fly balls — he saunters. Once, infamously, he stepped into a door in the Green Monster to take a leak … while the pitcher was pitching.
Even beyond Manny, baseball is not exactly a fast-paced sport. It can get tense, what with “two outs, bases loaded, bottom of the ninth” scenarios. But at bat to at bat, it’s more like “takes a pitch, scratches his nuts, spits.”
Compare this to Mike Conley Jr., Ohio State’s freshman point guard, who doesn’t dribble up the court as much as sprint down it. Or UNC’s Brendan Wright, who can block a shot on defense and then outrun everyone else to the other end for a feed and easy dunk. Energy isn’t just important in the tournament, it’s the limiting factor. Teams have to be able to play at full tilt when the situation calls for it or they’re going home early.
But the frenetic pace can’t be all that makes the tournament so captivating. Pro basketball can match that pace sometimes. Any racing sport maintains a pretty good speed, by definition. What really differentiates the tournament isn’t how fast it goes, but who plays it.
Exhibit B: Dane Bradshaw. Bradshaw was the starting two-guard for the University of Tennessee. I say two-guard because shooting guard wouldn’t really be appropriate for a guy who averages 5.5 points per game. But the former walk-on worked his way to a scholarship, and will now have a scholarship named after him. He averaged 27.5 minutes per game, third-highest on the Volunteers squad, just by doing the little things well.
Exhibit C: Lorenzo Mata. Mata, the six-foot-nine starting center for UCLA, is only marginally more present in boxscores than Bradshaw, with 6.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. But there’s a reason Kansas’ Julian Wright got nothing going inside in the Jayhawks’ Elite Eight loss to the Bruins.
The 32 NFL teams will draft college prospects for seven rounds later this month, and they’ll all be from U.S. colleges. Still more players will get invited to training camps later in the summer. I think it’s safe to assume that the large majority of college football players are thinking at some point in their careers that they’re playing for scouts, for a chance at the big time.
Not Bradshaw. Not Mata. There is no market for “glue guys” who provide the intangibles that keep a team going. The NBA draft is two rounds long, and with the rise of foreign players, a mere 46 Americans were drafted into the NBA last year.
So what do these kids play for? The same thing Rudy did, for those of you who dabble in excellently sappy sports movies — pride. Yeah, I know, it’s corny. But it’s not money, and it’s not fame. It’s something deeper, that leaves hard-luck losers crying at half-court and exuberant champions running into the stands to hug their mothers. (Joakim Noah wins major class points for that one.)
And this is where Yale comes in. Ignore the once-in-a-while hockey or baseball draft pick, and no Yale athlete is vying for the pros.
In fact, in many ways, Yale gives athletes more reasons than most other colleges to not push it. With the focus on academics, it wouldn’t be surprising for any Eli to play merely to stay afloat; you try playing a double-header in this weather with a senior essay looming over your head. And, of course, we don’t have scholarships. If an athlete really doesn’t feel like pushing himself anymore, there’s nothing keeping him from quitting.
And yet we’ve all seen a Yale athlete push him or herself beyond what’s really necessary to “stay afloat.” The story I love to tell is from sophomore year, this one game where future field hockey captain Heather Orrico ’07 took a ball just above her right eye. For those of you who don’t know, field hockey balls are quite hard. Her mother undoubtedly knew this, because I still remember when she screamed directly behind me as her daughter left the field.
It wasn’t even an Ivy game. And that was definitely blood on her uniform. No less than two minutes later, she was back on the field.
If you want overpaid egotistic athletes, feel free to visit your local NBA franchise. For love of the game, and not just in March? Get on a bus outside Payne Whitney.
Dan Adler is a senior in Pierson and a former Sports Editor for the News. His column appears on Thursdays.