We had a tradition in my family, and this was probably the only tradition we had: as soon as you reached double digits, you went to Peoria (formerly Champaign) and watched the IHSA state finals. This usually coincided with the first weekend in the NCAA tournament, so it was nonstop basketball. I loved coming back to the hotel, late at night, having watched basketball all day, only to turn on the television and see the final 10 minutes of a West Coast NCAA game (take Purdue vs. Oklahoma, in the round of 32 in 2000, for example).
Simply put, I’ve loved basketball my whole life.
Basketball coincided with the most significant body changes in my life: getting cut from the 8th grade team made me eat myself silly, going from a fairly athletic, albeit stout 13-year-old to an obese high-schooler. Conversely, I shed 50 pounds my sophomore year by playing basketball every morning and afternoon.
When my parents got divorced, the University of Illinois went 37-2. I used to drive around town, listening to the radio broadcast that season, as the fear of a loss (they started the season 29-0) made watching too severe, too stressful. I’ll never forget pulling off the road and crying my eyes out when Dee Brown saved them in a particularly close game at Michigan. He stole the ball on back-to-back possessions, threw a behind-the-back bullet to James Augustine for a thundering slam, and all in all, preserved what was a perfect season. At that moment in time, I didn’t think I would ever be happier.
Hell, the first time my brother and I hugged was when Illinois beat Arizona in the Elite Eight that season.
Don’t worry, I’m getting somewhere, just stay with me. Stay with me.
I always shunned the NBA. Sure, I watched in the Jordan years. I was impressed when Scottie Pippen had to hold him up in Game Five against the Utah Jazz. I was mortified when he returned a Wizard. I was relieved when he finally hung them up. But when that final retirement came, I was done. I wanted no more of the NBA. And neither did most of America. The NBA went into a tailspin, with moments like the Palace Brawl between the Pacers and Pistons (and Ron Artest and two fat, out of place idiot fans) exhibiting how far the game had fallen. The 2004 Olympics didn’t help either.
People moaned about the thuggish nature of the game, the lack of a Larry Bird or a John Stockton. Not to mention a Michael Jordan. Then LeBron came. A significant portion of the population woke up and realized the game was still good. I am of this group.
It was still the highest quality of play in the world, and there was nothing close. The best college players made it. And sometimes even the anointed players in the NCAA couldn’t hack it. The cream always rises to the top in the NBA, with the Adam Morrisons’s and Khalid El-Amins’s left doggy-paddling at the bottom.
But my view does not prevail. Some of the biggest basketball fans I know, some of the smartest fans I know, loathe the NBA. They say it’s boring, slow, lethargic.
“There’s no crowd noise!”
“They don’t try until the playoffs!”
“They don’t play defense!”
I can’t fathom this anymore. These people adore college ball. High school ball more so, at times. And I’ve got a soft spot for the teenage ballers — I’d love to take in a Galesburg versus Moline game — but it’s still a lower quality of play.
March Madness is entertaining, but it isn’t the NBA. Ninety-nine percent of those guys who star in March don’t sniff the NBA. They usually end up playing in Prague or selling car insurance.
Let’s take this somewhere else — I like literature. I’d say I love it, but I don’t want to be that guy. So, I don’t read what’s mediocre; I don’t read Koontz or Grisham, or any other mass-market writer. I read Salinger or Carver or Wright. They’re the best. They’re the Kobe and LeBron and D-Wade of writing.
I think I’ll end this with a plea for any readers, who, like those I’ve described, love basketball but hate the NBA. Please, tell me why, tell me how, tell me anything. I need to know. Fill my inbox with something. Anything.
E-mail Kevin at: firstname.lastname@example.org