John Feinstein has seen the future of college basketball, although he doesn’t quite know it. Feinstein’s latest book, The Last Amateurs, panegyrizes the Patriot League, a dinky Division 1 conference that comprises schools like Holy Cross, Lehigh, and Colgate, as well as Army and Navy. It’s probably best known as the league in which a gangly 6-foot-7 plebe morphed into David Robinson, and according to Feinstein, it is the kind of place where the kids play not for fame, the adulation of millions, and cash-stuffed envelopes from alumni, but for the humble and unimpeachable love of the game. Plus, they’re very diligent about their studies, just like their mamas always told them to be.
Feinstein could have located this same indomitable undergraduate spirit on, say, the squash courts at Yale or the ultimate Frisbee lawns at UC-Santa Cruz. But he chose basketball because he wanted to make a larger statement about how screwed up the sport is at the major college level. And of course, he’s right about that. Although even Feinstein would probably stop short of saying so, it’s hard to imagine there’s a single big-time college basketball program out there that doesn’t bend or break the rules, or disingenuously avert their gaze when somebody else does it for them. The whole system is a petri dish for corruption—think of it, billions are made by everyone but the kids who are the main attraction and who are expected to be grateful for a chance at an education they scarcely have time for. The coaches are like serial adulterers. Some are so good at cheating that nobody, not the wife and kids and certainly not the NCAA, suspects a thing. The others mess around indiscriminately and eventually get caught. Like Bill Clinton, they have a weakness they can’t contain.
The strange thing is what a sensational product comes out of all this corruption. Even with undergrads leaving for the NBA in droves, the talent level in the NCAA this year is extraordinary, a huge leap forward from just a decade ago. I went to Duke in the late ‘80s, when the Blue Devils were in the midst of a run that culminated with the powerhouse team of Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, and Bobby Hurley. But good as they were, the current top-ranked Duke team, with guys like 6-foot-9, 270-pound Carlos Boozer and superquick point guard Jason Williams, would hammer them. So would teams like Michigan State, Seton Hall, and Maryland (never mind the Terrapins’ early stumbling, they are stacked). Sure, there is the plenty of carping about how players today lack an appreciation for the fundamentals and are obsessed with the theatrics of slam-dunks, blah, blah, blah. But as they have gotten bigger and stronger and quicker—and who knows exactly why that is—they are simply more effective basketball players. If you’re dying to see someone set a good, crisp screen, there’s plenty of that on display at Division 3 (oh, and in the Patriot League, too).
Still, if NCAA basketball were a stock, this would be a good time to sell. Next year, the NBA will probably launch its own development league, a 10- or 12-team circuit based in cities without NBA teams. The league is being coy about its plans, partly because of the reservations of the players’ union and partly for fear of pissing off the NCAA, which is understandably concerned. The official purpose of the new league is to provide a reliable and accessible pool of minor-league talent. The unofficial purpose is to crack open a new market for the NBA brand; the NCAA, after all, generates tremendous profits marketing the talents of developing players, while the NBA is suddenly facing a miniepidemic of empty seats and sagging TV ratings. A hot new subsidiary would sure be nice.
If the NBA’s junior league does get underway next season, it will be some time before it’s competing with, say, Duke and North Carolina for high-school phenoms. Early on, the NBA will insist that it has no intention of luring kids away from college. But it already does that anyway, and this will only expand the range of possible recruits. A minor league will have a long way to go to measure up to all the history and fanfare of the NCAA, but the NBA brand will make the league a powerful draw for young kids, as will the offer of an immediate (and totally legit) paycheck. When it starts to go this way, we will hear thunderous rhetoric from all precincts about the value of a college education and the irreplaceable undergraduate experience. But eventually, Feinstein’s vision will come shining through—the entire NCAA will be denuded of top-flight talent, and all of Division 1 ball will be just like his hallowed Patriot League. Good solid American kids doing it for the love of the game. With TV ratings about equal to pro soccer’s.