Still the Chicken Littles make their arguments. Here's why each of their points is a big turkey:
"Fans like to watch established stars," Jack Mac wrote last spring. "The charm of the college game is watching players and teams develop over the course of three or four years." In fact, the charm of the college game rests with the players and the teams on a roll come tournament time—the Loyola Marymount of Gathers and Kimble; Michigan's Fisher Nut Company—and nonce heroes like Lorenzo Charles, Harold Jensen, Keith Smart, Donald Williams and Scotty Thurman, who rarely play a minute in the NBA. As for those who think nothing of swapping their youth for a premature place in the play-for-pays, I say let 'em go off to assemble their entourages of toadies and tape their hypocritical stay-in-school PSAs. The players really worth getting to know—Van Horn, Eric Montross, Grant Hill, Tim Duncan and Jacque Vaughn—do play four years.
Yeah, fret the doomsayers, but the exodus is out of control. When will it end? It'll end when kids contemplating an early exit realize that, of the 88 players to declare early for the NBA draft this decade, fewer than half are still in the league. Eventually college coaches and pro scouts alike will start saying, "Go pro early? I dare you. I Yinka Dare you." And the pendulum will swing back.
But in the meantime TV ratings are down. Of course they're down. If Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine were on television three times a night, five nights a week, Seinfeld's ratings would be down too. And while the audience for the national-championship game has diminished slightly over the past few years, more people are looking in on the signature stretch of the NCAAs—the first two rounds. When the hoop is good, the audience is there, even before NCAA time. Witness the SEC tournament final last March between Kentucky and Mississippi State, which went head-to-head with the Orlando Magic and the Phoenix Suns, Shaq versus Charles, and drew a higher share.
The NBA's mission is to create dynasties and drawing cards, superteams and superstars—superbrands that they can sell, sell, sell. The suits in the suites hate parity and unpredictability, for they make a mess of carefully laid marketing strategies and raise the possibility of a Charlotte-Utah NBA Finals when a Lakers-Bulls matchup would be better for business. But college basketball derives its glamour from its rear admiral coaches and their flagship programs—Krzyzewski's Duke, Pitino's Kentucky, Smith's Carolina, Knight's Indiana, Thompson's Georgetown. And the game's essence lies with its swabbies, the annual infusion of high schoolers and jucos and (more and more) mercenaries from overseas. All that turnover begets parity, which begets a crazier postseason. The madder March becomes, the more the public falls under the NCAA tournament's lunatic spell.
"One of the reasons UNLV, Duke, UCLA and Kentucky won the tournament [in recent years] was that they were able to get their great players into the senior class," says Pitino, for whom that task is particularly difficult because he, more than any other coach, sells his program as a way station to the NBA. But he's right: The Wildcats wouldn't have won last April without the steady contributions of seniors Tony Delk and Walter McCarty. Similarly, Duke has sat astride the game for most of the past decade precisely because no Krzyzewski-coached Blue Devil has gone pro early, and UCLA would have reverted to one-and-done tournament form if senior Ed O'Bannon hadn't captained its 1995 champs. There's something just about a system in which, if you cut out early, your school won't cut down the nets.
What's more, isn't it great fun to watch how all those early exits force the control-freak coaches to behave "like the little Dutch boy," as Wake Forest coach Dave Odom puts it, scrambling to plug holes and make do? Even what's bad about college hoops is good: With broken curfews and dorm altercations, ill-gotten 4 x 4s and cash-stuffed overnight envelopes, it's still the place where, as Al McGuire used to say, fortune is fickle because "the cheerleader can always get pregnant."
In short, college ball is a game of change, actual and imminent—change that we should celebrate, not denigrate. So let the Cassandras whine on. The only Cassandra I'm listening to is Cassandra Wilson, who offers these lines as invocation to the months to come: "In and out of stages like the phases of the moon/We can shine so brightly let the fullness soon come soon come soon."
Now playing, the 1996-97 season. Dead man's walking.