After seven seasons in Cleveland, National Basketball Association superstar LeBron James walked away. He walked away from the fans who had watched him grow from a 19-year-old boy into a 25-year-old man. He walked away from the only NBA team he had ever known. He walked away from the city that he had carried on his back, and which, in turn, carried his name across its.
In Cleveland fans’ eyes, LeBron didn’t just leave — he stabbed them in the back. Previously adoring fans burnt number-23 jerseys en masse, removed those iconic “witness” billboards from highways and ripped posters off childhood walls. The level of intensity and anguish felt by the residents of Cleveland was a direct result of the fact that LeBron had played there for seven years.
It is the allegiance that athletes demonstrate to the cities in which they play that creates the reciprocated allegiance the fans feel toward their players, and their team. We experience this here at Yale; while most of our athletes do not turn pro, even the ones that do stay for several years. Alex Lyon, for example, left Yale after his junior year to sign with the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers. In fact, Lyon is the outlier. Almost invariably, Yale’s future professional athletes remain Bulldogs for all four years. Yale football running back Tyler Varga ’15, for instance, played out his senior year before declaring for the National Football League draft. One might argue that our athletes stay because they play at Yale, not at Duke or Kentucky where they would have the opportunity to leave early. But Yale hockey captain John Hayden ’17 stayed on Yale’s ice despite the advances of the Chicago Blackhawks, who tried to sign him after his junior year.
The fact that all our athletes remain on our teams for four years is one of the driving forces behind our love for Yale Athletics. Because our athletes stay as long as they can, because they grow and evolve on our teams before our eyes, it’s easier to love Yale sports. Think about it: nobody falls in love with the player on a one-year contract, and professional athletes don’t make a team’s Hall of Fame after staying for just one year.
This is exactly why I have fallen out of love with college basketball. College basketball used to be the home of allegiances. Rivalries like Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing and Villanova’s Ed Pinckney pulled us into the games as the two took turns winning national championships. When Allen Iverson and Ray Allen laced up in the “Allen versus Allen” bouts, we all inched closer to our TVs.
But NCAA basketball is no longer a home. It is a pit stop for one-and-done superstars, who, at the end of the day, often just don’t care about the schools for which they play.
In the immediate aftermath of UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball’s season-ending loss to Kentucky and one breath after saying, “we came up short, but we’re still a family,” the freshman ditched that same family to declare for the NBA Draft. The cheeks of the seniors he claimed to hold as close as kin were probably still damp with tears.
But how could we have expected Ball to empathize with his seniors? At the very most, freshmen play the same opponent four times, and even that is unlikely. No lasting rivalry could be kindled in such a short span. And, if one were to spark, the flames would be smothered the following year when both teams’ rosters were entirely overhauled.
Ball is not unique. Every year, the best talent in college basketball flees out through the revolving doors of the NCAA into the lucrative world of the NBA. For many, this is understandable. NCAA superstars might not pay college tuition, but life is not the free for the rest of their families. Signing professional checks entirely lifts the financial burden many collegiate athletes face. Nevertheless, the revolving door leaves the NCAA void of almost all its premier talent.
To put things in perspective, former Kentucky stars Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Willie Cauley-Stein, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle, Devin Booker, Karl Anthony-Towns and Tyler Ulis — just to name a few — could all have been on the same Wildcat team if they had chosen to stay in college for four years.
Combining just the 2013–15 rosters from Kansas and Duke, we could have seen starting lineups of Kelly Oubre Jr., Frank Mason, Andrew Wiggins, Cliff Alexander and Joel Embiid face off against Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen, Jabari Parker, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor. Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge could have teamed up for Texas. Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday and Darren Collison all played for UCLA within two years of each other.
The NBA mandates that players cannot enter the draft until they are one year removed from high school, explaining why many of the aforementioned players did not play together, and instead jettisoned off for seven- and eight-figure contracts, which the players often truly need, after only one year.
But this is a change that college basketball needs to make: mandate that NCAA basketball players remain at their universities for more than one year. Create the loyalties that schools like Yale inherently produce, and the NCAA might find that its biggest rivalries get even bigger.