College basketball badly needs color, and those colors are in the Crayola 64-pack that was Wimp Sanderson's plaid sport coat, the white towel John Thompson carried on his shoulder (as if he were burping an infant) and the checkered dishrag that Guy V. Lewis fingered like worry beads at Houston. Remember it? The red-and-white rectangle that appeared to have been lifted from a Pizza Hut tabletop, or from Yasser Arafat's haberdasher?
Everyone says college basketball misses upperclassmen, but what it's really missing are dreamers like Al McGuire, who said, "I like seashells and balloons, ribbons and medals, bare feet and wet grass." Mike Krzyzewski works in a penthouse office accessible only by electronic fingerprint scan and has seashells and balloons confiscated at security. Fine. But for every Coach K—a roundball Rapunzel, locked in his tower—we need a Jimmy V, running in loafers, looking for someone to hug.
When did college basketball throw in the towel on style? Soon this might almost literally be the case, for Fresno State coach Jerry Tarkanian—who uses his towel as a terry cloth tobacco plug—is pondering retirement after this season. But it's also metaphorically so. In 1970 Pete Maravich, hair shaped by a Poulan Weedeater, scored 44.5 points a game for outlaw LSU. In 2002 Jason Conley, wearing a crew cut and with about two thirds of the Pistol's point total, leads the nation in scoring for... Virginia Military Institute.
Bo Lamar, Austin Carr, Austin Peay. When Fly Williams played at Austin Peay State University and fans chanted, "The Fly is open, let's go Peay," and Afros sprang from headbands like mushroom clouds, college basketball had names: Pembrook Burrows, Lancaster Gordon, Baskerville Holmes. The finest player now in college is Duke's Jason Williams, and he is, at best, the third most famous basketball player with a variation of that name, after the one who smoked blunts and was accused of baiting Asians, and the one charged with manslaughter in the death of his limo driver.
Nobody today says much of anything that's interesting, Nolan Richardson notwithstanding. John Llewellyn is an associate professor at Wake Forest who has made a formal, soul-sucking study of the postgame quotes of college basketball coaches. "After a while you begin to think you've heard it all before," he says. "And odds are, you have." But at the height of Phi Slamma Jama, you could have filled Bartlett's with Benny Anders alone. Why say you passed the ball to Akeem Olajuwon when you could say, as Houston forward Anders did, "I dropped a dime on the Big Swahili"? What happened to the game's poetry?
"There's no money in poetry," said the English poet Robert Graves. "But then there's no poetry in money, either." College basketball has too often sold out the former for the latter. Georgetown and St. John's, traditional rivals, did not play each other this season in the Big East, a conference that's been swollen by schools like Virginia Tech and Miami, whose principal interest—and whose principle and interest—are in football.
Other rivalries simply withered and died. Not long ago, before Carolina blew, there was Carolina blue, and the Tar Heels actually stood a chance of beating Duke. Once, too, there were epic individual showdowns between men whose names (Sampson), size and pedigrees now seem less old school than Old Testament: Alcindor versus Hayes begat Walton versus Everyone begat Ewing versus Sampson versus Olajuwon.
The regular-season games between these behemoths got us through the winter, for this was a time when the regular season determined so much more than it does today: namely, how many SEC teams—six or seven?—will make the NCAA tournament.
So bring back bare feet and wet grass. Scold not those players who wear their uniform tops untucked, but rather reprimand those who tuck them in. McGuire's Marquette unis, with piping on the shirttails, were designed to be untucked, and to wear them otherwise was a violation of the dress code.
"Every love affair ends," McGuire liked to say. "Eventually you see the girl in curlers." But college basketball, even in curlers, can still entrance us, especially in springtime. Let's not forget what Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said the other day, after a tough loss. "It's just like Nietzsche said," declared Prosser. " 'What doesn't kill you won't destroy you.' " Uh, yeah. Exactly. There's hope for this game yet.