It's after midnight, and it's your third TV game of the night, but still you watch. New Mexico or New Mexico State is playing Cal State-Somebody, and you can't turn it off. The NBA represents--or should represent--the evolutionary apex of this sport, but you wouldn't be sitting there, bleary-eyed, if it were the Clippers playing the Kings. Why is that? Why do so many hoops fans swear by the colleges and swear at the pros? Here are the reasons why.
1 College basketball has no labor problems and always begins its season on time. The NBA is in a protracted lockout, its players unwilling to accept a "hard cap." College players actually want a hard cap: It's called a mortarboard, and you get one at graduation.
2 In college, arena names pay homage to classy coaches (Dean Smith Center, John Kresse Arena). In the pros arena names pay homage to coach class (Continental Airlines Arena, Delta Center, United Center).
3 The NCAA has a no-woofing rule that forbids trash talk. In the NBA dunks are punctuated by crotch grabbing and soliloquies barked into the baseline camera.
4 There's no Ahmad Rashad in the college game.
5 In college players travel with their homework. In the pros players travel with their posse.
6 Correction: The pros don't travel at all. Traveling is never called in the NBA. How else do you explain Allen Iverson?
7 In the NCAAs seniors weep like babies when they lose. In the pros loser players whine like babies all the time.
8 P.J. Carlesimo at Seton Hall; P.J. Carlesimo at Golden State.
9 At Indiana State, Larry Bird ruled. The pros have the Larry Bird Rule.
10 Forty Minutes of Hell describes coach Nolan Richardson's intense, trap-happy Arkansas defense. It also describes the last 30 seconds of most NBA games.
11 In college you have to keep an eye on your GPA. In the pros you have to keep an eye on your CPA.
12 Cheerleaders Leerleaders
13 A no-name player like Texas Tech's Darvon Ham makes SI's cover by shattering the glass in the NCAAs. In the pros big-name players like Charles Barkley make the court docket by shattering the glass--of a bar window...with a fan.
14 Bench players enthusiastically wave towels in college. In the NBA a benched Robert Horry petulantly throws a towel in the face of his coach, Danny Ainge.
15 Indiana has storied Assembly Hall. The Lakers have shameless Arsenio Hall.
16 John Wooden's Pyramid of Success was a compendium of homespun wisdom, meted out to his basketball-playing pupils. Pat Riley's The Winner Within is a compendium of business tips, available to anyone with $22.95.
17 The intensity level in a basketball arena is inversely proportional to the elevation implied in its name. Thus, the Pit (at New Mexico) is basketball's summit. The Summit (home to the Houston Rockets) is the pits.
18 At Temple players show up for practice every day at 5:30 a.m. In Portland, J.R. Rider shows up for practice--periodically.
19 In college high-spirited pep bands play during timeouts. In the pros ceaseless technopop swallows all other sound.
20 College players spend days in Psychology 101. NBA players spend days in court-ordered counseling.
21 In college one postseason loss and you're done. In the pros one postseason loss and you have only three left.
22 The pros have nothing quite as cool as Kansas's "Rock Chalk, Jayhawk" chant.
College is The NBA is
Carolina Blue Charlotte Teal John Chaney Don Chaney Cinderella Cinderfella Walk-ons Holdouts Ralph Sampson Ralph Sampson
28 At Princeton four players without the ball move in a pattern of symphonic precision designed to flummox opposing defenses. In Philadelphia four players without the ball stand around demanding "the rock."
29 In college Sweet 16 is cause for celebration--you're in the regional semifinals! In the pros Sweet 16 is cause for celebration--it's the age of consent in New Jersey!
30 In college corrupt programs are put on probation. In the NBA entire teams can't be put on probation, though the Portland Trail Blazers have come close.
31 College players give 110%. NBA refs expense 110%.
32 Selection Sunday, and all the speculation over how and where teams will be seeded, beats watching the NBA standings by a mile.
33 Utah Utes coach Rick Majerus: palaverous quip speaker. New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy: cadaverous crypt keeper.
34 In Praise of Cheating
Admit it. You love the fact that Jerry Tarkanian's an outlaw. You love that he has loaded his Fresno State roster with guys you wouldn't let in your door, even if the Broncos' offensive line were standing behind you wielding polo mallets. You love that there are more fast-talking snake-oil salesmen schmoozing recruits than there are peddling used cars.
You love it because cheating, or the specter of it, gives college hoops a delightfully nasty edge. Either you're convinced someone's cheating, or you're pretty sure they're cheating, or you know they would cheat if given the opportunity. Your guys? They play it straight.
You love the guessing game. Does North Carolina cheat and not get caught? Or are the Tar Heels paragons of rectitude? Has Bob Knight taken to stuffing hundred dollar bills down the sweat socks of his juco transfers? Or does he remain one of the game's last angry men, swimming against the tide of corruption? That kind of debate doesn't happen in the NBA, where a fan indicts individuals, not entire teams. So what kind of buzz do you get out of booing Dennis Rodman? You'll only start cheering again when Michael Jordan gets the ball.
You love the morality play that is college hoops. You love it when a school with a squeaky-clean image, like Duke, goes up against a team with a checkered past, like UNLV. Or you may root against the Blue Devils because you think they're sanctimonious prisses and you derive a perverse joy out of believing that the Rebels hand out Range Rovers to backup point guards. But here's the point: You root. --Jack McCallum
35 PARITY/AIRITY When a team such as Villanova, an eighth seed in 1985, wins a championship, it affirms the notion that any team can win. When did that last happen in the NBA?
36 JUWAN HOWARD VS. JUWAN HOWARD Juwan Howard was the most endearing member of Michigan's Fab Five. Hours after he signed his letter of intent in 1990, he discovered that his grandmother, who raised him, had died of a heart attack. Playing with a tattoo dedicated to Grandma Jannie Mae over his heart, Howard became a star during his three seasons in Ann Arbor, helping the Wolverines reach two straight NCAA title games and later fulfilling a promise to her by graduating with his class. While he was at Michigan he befriended a young AIDS patient named Randy Walkowe and later served as a pallbearer for him.
Then Howard joined the NBA as the fifth player taken in the 1994 draft, by Washington. He missed his first training camp because of a holdout but signed a 12-year, $37 million contract. Two years later he exercised an escape clause in that deal and became the focus of a bidding war between Washington and Miami that resulted in a seven-year, $105 million contract with the Wizards. That same year Howard was named in a paternity suit, which was settled out of court; then he was arrested for drunken driving. (He entered an alcohol education program in order to get the charges dropped.) On the court Howard has averaged 19.1 points a game as a pro, but the underachieving Wizards have won no more than 44 games in any of his four seasons and have never won a playoff game. Bottom line? Perhaps no one else better illustrates how the NBA's big money can change a player, or at least the public perception of him. --Tim Crothers
37 Good: Fathers take their daughters to Tennessee Lady Vols games. Bad: Fathers take their daughters to New York Knicks games.
38 A ticket to the Final Four--good for all three games at a price of either $80 or $100--may be the best value in all of sports.
39 We look at Michael Jordan in 1982 and think, Oh, to be young again. We look at Jordan in '98 and think, Eau de toilette.
40 In college a coach calls for a pick-and-roll from courtside seat. In the NBA, Dyan Cannon calls for a California Roll from courtside waitress.
41 With college ball you get the wit and wisdom of Dick Vitale on about 150 broadcasts a year. Oops, that's one for the NBA.
41 The NCAA actually made its season shorter six years ago, cutting by one the number of games a team can play, and the season ends by April 1. The NBA season is endless.
42 Lou 'do Riley's mousse
43 NCAA tournament buzzer beaters--by Christian Laettner, U.S. Reed, Bryce Drew, Tate George--outnumber the NBA's postseason buzzer beaters. (We refuse to go back as far as Jerry West against the Knicks in 1970.)
44 College basketball has the Cameron Crazies, the raucous student section at Duke. The NBA has certifiable crazies, like deranged Washington attorney Robin Ficker.
45 ZONE DEFENSE
"It was definitely settled in 1897," wrote James Naismith in his 1941 book Basketball: Its Origin and Development, "that a basketball team should consist of five men." Oh yeah? So a hundred years later why were three members of the Chicago Bulls standing off to the side watching Steve Kerr throw the ball in to a posting-up Michael Jordan? Worse, why were three members of the Sacramento Kings standing around watching Tariq Abdul-Wahad throw the ball in to Lawrence Funderburke? Welcome to the NBA, Dr. Naismith, and don't karate-chop your spectacles to bits in frustration. With their rule stipulating that only man-to-man defense can be used, the pros have created a predictable and aesthetically displeasing offensive atmosphere in which two basic plays--the isolation and the pick-and-roll, both of which involve only two of the five offensive players on the court--are used a sickening percentage of the time. Worse, offense-impaired centers, such as Manute Bol (left), are deliberately stationed 25 feet from the basket solely to pull the opposing center away from the action.
College clubs, unencumbered by the illegal-defense rules that perplex NBA fans, players and sometimes even refs, can double- and triple-team a dominant scorer and prevent him from getting the ball, thus forcing the scorer's teammates into the action. Does that sort of defense make a back-to-the-basket scoring center like Hakeem Olajuwon appreciate the freedom of the NBA, where he can't be double-teamed until he catches the ball? Sure. But it also means that if you enjoy team offense--a forgotten concept in the pros--you should stick to the college game.
College defenses can employ all sorts of alignments that force an opponent to find creative ways to score (witness Utah's use of a box-and-one defense while upsetting Arizona in last year's NCAAs). College defenses can change minute to minute--for instance, going into a zone after made shots and man-to-man after misses--thus forcing teams to make adjustments on the fly. Isn't that what Dr. Naismith had in mind? --J.M.
46 Only in college hoops can the crowd storm the court after a big win.
47 College is Bob Knight in a sweater. The NBA is Del Harris in Armani.
48 Fathers coach their sons (Valpo's Homer Drew watches Bryce) in college. In the NBA, sons ask, "Where's Daddy?"
49 The college game gives us a chance to see raw young players like Bryant (Big Country) Reeves develop. The pros give us a chance to see old players like Charles Barkley deteriorate.
50 College is the place where the game reinvents itself each autumn, introducing a crop of unfamiliar faces, including freshmen, junior college transfers and foreign imports, destined for stardom. The five players on the following pages, sure to have an outsized impact on the season to come, have arrived from diverse addresses, from the hinterlands to the Netherlands, to fertilize the game for another season. So turn the page and meet...