Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Stay in School??

I actually watched the game last night against the Cavs, and the Bulls looked competitive in the first half at least before getting blown out. The most glaring thing to me throughout the game was how much the Bulls' were outplayed in the frontcourt. Big Z, Boozer, Battie, et. al. totally dominated Curry/Chandler and old man Antonio Davis. I respect how AD is a 'warrior' and is toughing out these games with bad knees, but maybe its time to perform the 'ole "operation shutdown". The man simply isn't moving at full capacity. At least I hope that isn't full capacity. sheesh. Anyway I just praised what the Cavs were doing a couple of weeks ago, so just read that if you want to learn how they've become the playoff contender the Bulls were supposed to be.

What I really wanted to talk about was college hoops. In what is perhaps the most unique of American sports, the NCAA tournament, is about to start. One of my current roomates is from Austria, and I figured that 3 days should be made important for him this semester: the Super Bowl, Opening Day, and March Madness. I think before coming over here he understood the significance of the other two, but trying to explain the tournament (and the preceeding 'championship week') to him was like him teaching me that crazy 'football' he's always talking about. (j/k, I am actually a soccer fan - ed.)

Perhaps the hardest thing to understand for a foreign visitor is how Universities fund and in turn receive such publicity for intercollegiate athletics. There's no such thing like it anywhere else. And while I enjoy watching college ball, especially the Illini, I am also one of those people who maintain that major college sports is a sham. I won't get into the details, but that's just so you know my bias on the topic I'm going to rant on. I have been meaning to get to it for a couple of weeks.

In late February, University of Florida sophomore Christian Drejer (more info here) left the team and school to join FC Barcelona, a professional squad out of...well, Barcelona. (That's in Spain for those without Geography degrees like Michael Jordan).  The circumstances made it a pretty major story since there have only been a handful of such player movements by college players, including Michigan State forward Erazem Lorbek. The most prominent article was written by ESPN's college expert Andy Katz. Yet most of the article was simply quotes from college coaches affected by these decisions, like Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo:

My situation was similar," Izzo said. "I already scheduled with him being here. Half of my problems early were because of what happened. That's an excuse, but it's also the reality."

Izzo recruited Drejer, too, since Magic Johnson knew him from a traveling all-star team that had played in Drejer's native Denmark. Izzo is now glad he didn't get Drejer. The Spartans lost out early in a race that came down to Gonzaga and Florida. Now, two seasons later, Drejer leaves for Spanish riches with five games left in his sophomore season after injuries limited him to only 18 games as a freshman.

"I feel for Billy," Izzo said. "This is a low blow. It's so insulting. Drejer was a little bit like Lorbek. He wasn't their best player and Lorbek wasn't ours. But Lorbek could shoot the pick-and-pop and had a 7-foot, 2-inch wingspan. He was like Drejer in that he was an oddity.

"Drejer was 6-9 but could bring the ball up. He wasn't their best player, but he was one of their best glue guys. He could play different positions and a lot of people won't see the value of him. Like Lorbek, he was a good person, a good kid, too."

"This opens up a whole new door," Izzo said. "This gives the green light for other kids to do it. We already have the most selfish sport, and now we've made it worse. Kids don't even wait until the end of the season? It opens up for an agent to tell a player that is doing well -- like Vedran Vukusic at Northwestern -- that he could get him $500,000 and take him at Christmas time."

Looking at this bluntly, Izzo is chastising someone like Lorbek as "selfish" because he's no longer around to make Izzo's team better. And make him more money and increase the length of his term as the unofficial mayor of East Lansing. I know how we all love to read tables, so lets take a look at how Drejer's and Lorbek's pros and cons list may have formed:

  College Europe
Salary $0 ~$1,000,000
Classes to take 4 0
Opposing talent 18-22 yr olds professionals

Maybe I'm in the minority, but if I'm a young kid and I want to play basketball for a living, I think its far from 'selfish' to consider Europe. This isn't even factoring in the incredibly strict rules the NCAA imposes on athletes, and what their 'education' turns out to be sometimes. Another thing to consider is that both Drejer and Lorbek are European, so they also get to live and play closer to home. There are plenty of other reasons why a player would want to be "selfish" and ditch out on college. I'm not saying that all of these reasons are right, but its insane for someone like Tom Izzo to not look beyond his own self-interest and realize why a player would want to leave his precious program.

Speaking of looking at the interests of the college coaching ranks,  Dick Vitale followed up Katz's article with a short piece of his own, titled   "Drejer's decision to leave Gators a selfish act". His opinion isn't surprising at all given his embarrassing comments during last summer's NBA draft (here's an article to summarize, but they had an unabashedly xenophobic tone during the broadcast if you didn't see it). He knows that his bread is buttered by endorsing the product of American college basketball, so his feelings are understandable. I just wish he didn't make his intentions so obvious.

to be continued...... 


UPDATE(2:41am): Looks like Eric Mclain of Off Wing Opinion (a great sports blog) tackled this topic briefly last month. Check out the post:

European professional clubs, organized along the lines of the continent's professional Soccer clubs, can not only offer a paycheck, but a life that's comparitively hassle free when compared to the lot of the American student athlete. It begins with being able to concentrate soley on becoming a basketball player, without having to deal with the fiction of going to class. Even better, the European professional outfits don't have busybodies like the NCAA looking over their shoulders -- these athletes are professionals and adults, and get treated like them. That means no pesky regulations regarding when practice starts and ends. It means assistant coaches get paid a living wage. And it means not having to worry about whether a meaningless pickup game might wind up costing you a year of eligibility. But the real problem for American college basketball has yet to emerge. Because while it's one thing for a European off the bench to bolt for dollars back on the continent, the real explosion is going to occur when an American kid opts for the European professional leagues straight out of high school or even earlier. These days, the folks at Indiana figure they've always got the inside track on recruiting next year's Mr. Basketball. But it won't be too much longer when they're going to start worrying about scouts from Europe lurking in their gyms with promises of elite basketball training and big bucks, all without the attendant hassles of the NCAA and the fiction of American amateurism.