The recently concluded NCAA Basketball Tournaments, at all levels and with both genders, ends another season of excitement and pure joy for the participating players, coaches, and die-hard, pure basketball fans. Basketball is not over - not by a long shot. What just ended was the part of basketball that has remained untainted and exciting to watch, and has maintained its place among games that are played for pure joy, competitive drive, and within a spirit of innocence. We are now about to plummet into the highly anticipated, two month long NBA playoffs - a season unto itself. The NBA playoffs are a season within a season carefully designed to elongate fan participation and in the process, extract every possible dollar of revenue from them. Yes, there is more basketball ahead, but how it is defined takes on a whole different meaning.
What is it about college basketball that is such a huge attraction to the fans of this nation? What prompts the buzz as the regular season winds down and teams jockey for post-season recognition with the hope of a bid to a major tournament? What is it that captures the heart and soul of millions of Americans as we test our knowledge of basketball skill by choosing winners in tournament brackets, participating in office pools, taking time off from work, going to great lengths and expense to obtain tournament tickets, and fixating ourselves to television sets - sometimes for 12 hours a day? The answer is: Purity!
The American people flock to this "Madness" because the pure nature of the game remains in tact at this level. Young men and women put their hearts and souls on the line to achieve a coveted goal. They hold nothing back. Every ounce of energy, intellect, and physical capability is given freely and applied openly to reach their goal. Any sacrifice necessary for the good of the team is offered without hesitation. Every game captures the true spirit of putting all resources forth toward the goal of victory. Without such effort, there is no tomorrow. There are no second chances. Lose one game and go home. Individual statistics, pride, injury, and personal obstacles must all be put aside and at the same time blended together into a mold known as teamwork. Despite the external hype to the contrary, the players and coaches know that teamwork is the only path to success. When teamwork is put into motion, anything can happen, and just about anything does. The result of great teamwork is unpredictable. That is why the bracket pickers are seldom correct. That is why so-called underdogs rise to the top, and that is why Americans love this three-week period of basketball insanity! Being part of a contest where the outcome is unpredictable up until the final buzzer makes for grand entertainment. The spirit, drive, and purity witnessed on the court tugs at the very heart of the American psyche and American tradition.
The version of basketball that now lies on the horizon is very different. It is known world wide as the NBA playoffs. One might logically think it is just an improved level of basketball play, a few notches higher than the just completed college season. But, those in the know see the NBA in a much different light. The difference? It comes down to one thing - money. Money in the form of revenue that is generated from the American fan: to pay the astronomical salaries of the players; to sustain the multi-tiered administrative structure of the league offices; to keep the media from examining the many internal blemishes of the operation; and, to keep the well oiled machine's image impeccable and untouchable in the public's eye.
Think about it. How many times have we witnessed a true upset in the NBA? The playoff seeding procedure is based on the results of an 82 game season. Once the bracketing is determined, it becomes nearly impossible for an "underdog" team to prevail in a seven game series. A poor shooting night in a college basketball tournament spells defeat and an immediate trip home. In the NBA it is just a small inconvenience for the powerhouse team and means another revenue producing crowd for the next game. The front office execs, league office, and owners can hardly hold back their smiles. Back when round one of the NBA playoffs was the best of five games, the underdog had a remote chance. In the best of seven, they have virtually none. The strongest regular season teams will always prevail. That is how it is designed to work. String each series out and extract every possible dollar of revenue. Talk about playing the odds! The NBA front office and owners win with this structure just like the house is always the winner in every casino around the world.
So what does it all mean to the American basketball fan? How does the "One and Done" college format compare to the "Best of Seven" revenue-focused NBA format? It simply means the heartfelt, energetic, lay it all on the line, exciting college format disappears from the court when the NBA teams take over. The competitive purity exemplified in the college game vanishes once the pros take over. No longer do we witness the enjoyment of suspense-filled games from the opening jump to the final buzzer. The reality of another game tomorrow combined with the guaranteed paycheck - win or lose - creates a complacent approach to each NBA game. The outcomes are predictable. I can tell you this is a fact. I have witnessed and experienced the process first hand, which, among other things, is highlighted in my book, Personal Foul. Other than the spotted appreciation and hype of individual accomplishments on the court, the excitement wanes. And, should you find a moment of competitive teamwork taking place, you can bet it is a fleeting moment occurring somewhere only in the final seconds of a game.
Three weekends of basketball purity or two months of daily, complacent, predictable games? Hardly a choice. No wonder there is a feeling of emptiness when the Final Four champions are crowned.
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