Timberwolves drop two; March Madness rages on

Categories: Sports
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You might think that mid-March, what with its pageant of college hoops, would be kind of a difficult time to cover a struggling, depleted NBA team. And in a way that's true. There's nothing quite as dispiriting as watching a bad team play out the string, especially when they do it as poorly as the Wolves just did in bad losses to Oklahoma City and Atlanta. No doubt about it, they certainly appear to be having way less fun than their collegiate counterparts. Yes, the NCAA tournament games are incredibly intense, flowing over with youthful exuberance. But I'll still take the NBA any day. 

Private Dancer, a Dancer for Money

There's no denying college hoops' appeal, especially in the postseason. The crowd is frenzied; and the players get after it with a fervent zeal rarely seen in the NBA. No doubt, the last few minutes of Wisconsin's overtime victory over Florida State and Ohio State's loss to Siena were about as stomach churning and exciting, as rife with extreme effort and school spirit (or whatever) as sports can get. In fact, it can seem to many people, especially on television, that the pros are lethargic and uninspired by comparison, that they've lost some of that youthful passion, that "love of the game," as they say on TV.

And there's some truth to that. The excessive length of the NBA season certainly is a huge drain on the players' energy and will; it would be impossible to constantly play at the NCAA tournament's fever pitch every night of an 82 game season.  One thing I've grown to appreciate, though,  in covering an NBA team is the immense self-discipline and emotional fortitude, not to mention physical toughness that it takes to play consistently well over the course of those 82 games. Most people, college basketball players included, have no idea what it takes to play every game with someone like Dwyane Wade's or Kobe Bryant's  consistent effort, intensity and skill. As Kevin McHale put it, speaking of Randy Foye's obvious fatigue: "Everybody wants to be Michael Jordan. But when they get it, very few can handle the mental and physical grind."

When pros refer to the fact that it is, in fact, "their job" to play basketball, most people shake their heads at what they perceive as a diluted purity, a diminished passion. And playing in the NBA is probably less fun than college basketball. But what those pros, most of the time, are really saying is that they take the game seriously enough to will themselves through pain, fatigue and stress over the course of an insanely grueling seven months. That's a totally different kind of passion.

The Caged Bird Sings

Let me also suggest that college players play as frantically as they do not simply because the college game and season are shorter, or because they're more impassioned than their wealthy NBA bros, but because they're just not skilled or poised enough to play more calmly.  Indeed, one look at Kevin Love and Corey Brewer is enough to remind you that, although the pro game is significantly quicker and more athletic, most NBA rookies must learn to slow their bodies down, to play with a calm and focus that allows their skill and athletic ability to take over. And make no mistake, with college basketball's diluted talent pool and the infusion of international players into the NBA, the Association's skill level is greater, by a few orders of magnatude, than that of the college game.  

What's more, the college game is designed to level off disparities of skill.  College rules (the 35 second shot clock, the less stringent defensive rules, the closer three-point line) allow teams to pack the lane on defense, squeezing off space for players to maneuver and encouraging plodding, painstaking, overmanaged offense. So the irony is that, although in the NCAA individual players seem to be playing more frenetically, the game itself is considerably slower and less free flowing. All this creates a more team-oriented game but it also serves to circumscribe the skill and style of the game's best players, putting the game in the hands of coaches, those ultra-controlling patriarchs for whom strict adherence to a system is the ultimate virtue. That doesn't sound like much fun.

Unlike the NFL, in which the players' athleticism tends to cancel itself out--since everybody is incredibly fast and incredibly strong, almost nobody is transcendently so--the NBA actually has more space, both physical and philosophical, for its great players to flourish. Witness Russell Westbrook, one of the Timberwolves' tormenters in Sunday afternoon's loss to Oklahoma City. Westbrook was a terrific college player, but his incredible energy and physical dynamism, not to mention his creative passing skills have only really blossomed in the NBA, outside of the overstructured confines of UCLA coach Ben Howland's system. Love, by contrast, whose attributes of "hard work," "selflessness" etc are the paradigmatic college basketball virtues, was UCLA's huge star.

I'm not trying to deny that March Madness is thrilling and emotional and lots of fun.  But, and I know these demoralized Timberwolves are not the greatest proof of what I'm arguing, if it's beautifully played basketball, that gorgeous synergy of individual and group expression, that you're after, I suggest sticking with the pros.  
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