Skip to main content
Original Issue

Absence of Madness College hoops needs a splash of color from the kind of characters who once brightened the game

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.