March Madness vs. the NBA Cont’d: Meaning in the ‘Monotony’

And now that you’ve read Moore’s slightly deranged but damn accurate representation of the college game, feel free to proceed to even more NBA vs. NCAA ramblings in response to Andrew Sharp’s attack (but not really attack) on our beloved NBA banner. There are plenty of straw men involved (I guarantee that all of said straw men were hurt in the making of this post) and it’s really just a series of thoughts sparked by the Sharp-Moore discussion rather than any kind of direct response.

I’m not like Andrew. I’m not like Moore. And I’m probably not even like you. I really, generally dislike NCAA basketball in almost every respect, because the product is so inferior to me that it’s maddening. Some of this you should really know — the talent level, wasting 25 seconds of every possession as the shot clock dwindles, the inability to execute simple basketball plays — and the rest of it Moore already hammered out. So I’m not going to pretend for a second that the basketball part of March Madness even remotely interests me, aside from the rooting interest in my beloved Longhorns (R.I.P.) and for prospect scouting purposes. The game just isn’t that good. I know that makes me an NBA snob, and I’m proud to say that’s the case. I prefer the superior game with superior players that produces a superior product, and if you’re inclined to call that snobbery, then by all means.

With that in mind, what you’re watching with March Madness is only kind of basketball. It’s a show. It’s glittery and it’s fun, but resembles the sport that the big boys are playing in the L in form only. That’s where I find Moore’s Lifetime/IFC metaphor particularly apt. It’s not that the pro game is particularly intellectual in nature (though it certainly does seem to spark more intelligent discourse than a lot of other sports, which probably includes NCAA ball), but to assume that independent cinema is somehow deeply intellectual is an equally misled assumption. It’s simply more engaging on any level aside from our most base. Human beings love to watch train wrecks, read chain e-mail stories of triumph or heartbreak, and generally digest as much drama as humanly possible. It’s interesting. It’s exciting. I get that. But the intrigue and excitement isn’t coming from the basketball, it’s coming from the tournament framework. It’s artificially created to drum up interest at the sake of actual competition. It taps into something very real and evocative, and it can be appreciated for that. But while the one-and-done format is incredible for entertainment value, casual/mainstream interest, and TV ratings, it’s not so great for actually crowning a real champion.

Which kind of (not really) segues into another point: for some reason, the point of comparison has become March NBA vs. March Madness, and that’s not really fair. If the argument is that the NBA’s regular season is in a lull and boring at this point, it’s hardly fair to compare it to the most competitive portion of any sport’s term: the playoff. If you’re comparing the NBA to the NCAA, you should be looking at the regular season vs. the regular season, and the playoffs versus the tourney. I’d take the NBA regular season over the college season in a landslide; the college regular season is entirely irrelevant. Teams play in-conference and select out-of-conference foes, and though I know the selection committee does their best in determining tournament seeding, that factor along with many others goes into an ultimately doomed analysis that has a huge impact on how the tourney plays out, regardless of its lack of validity.

And I know this puts me in a minority, but I’ll take the NBA playoffs over the tournament in a heartbeat. There are few greater joys for a basketball fan than watching two evenly matched teams call and respond over a seven-game series, and the in-game and between-game adjustments for teams that know each other well are just incredible. Game sevens still bear the drama the tournament has come to be known for, meaning the only thing the tourney really has going for it is sheer volume.

Volume which distorts our view of events to make Cinderellas more important than they really are. Just like every Kobe game-winner sticks out to us more than his missed shot attempts in the clutch, every upset creates an imprint while the predictable outcomes don’t. We forget about all of the years where the Final Four are all #1 or #2 seeds. We forget about every time UNC or Kansas or Duke rolled over another inferior opponent. Those things just aren’t that important, and so those blowouts — full of bad basketball but devoid of the tournament’s drama because of the lopsided margins — aren’t evaluated in the NCAA vs. NBA debates. Every NBA game isn’t good, and I’ll be the first to tell you that. But there is so much good basketball to watch in the average NBA regular season that the overall product isn’t even comparable. The tournament doesn’t crowd out the bad basketball with good, but simply makes the bad basketball more important. It’s cool if you want a mindless diversion or a betting gimmick, but if you’re in this for the sport? For appreciation of a game and its athletes? You can certainly do better.

The reason why people love the tournament is because the players change, the teams change, and none of it matters. People cheer for laundry — just like in any other sport — but they’re mostly cheering for circumstance. They want a team to win because there’s money on the game or the bracket, or because they’re a “Cinderella” story and make dreams come true with rainbows and unicorns. It’s not so much a game or a tournament as a round of Mad Libs, in which _______ (previously unknown NCAA quasi-star from a small school) hits a big shot to beat ________ (big name program of your choice with title hopes). I know it busted your bracket, but did you hear me? It made dreams come true!

There are incredible things going on every night in the NBA if you know where to look. Maybe things get a bit monotonous if you’re solely plugged into one team, but I’d even argue against that point (unless you’re a fan of the Pistons or Sixers). League Pass opens up a world of possibilities for basketball fans, who have the ability to watch a greater amount of big plays, great players, and spectacular performances. It may not be “WIN OR GO HOME” every night, but there’s something to enjoy in the pro game during almost every day of the monotonous regular season.

Look, this isn’t meant to attack fans of college basketball. Some people like pro basketball, others like college. And some people juggle geese. I treat NBA and NCAA basketball as two pretty separate sports, because that’s essentially what it comes down to. If you appreciate college basketball for what it is, power to you. Just like anyone who can properly enjoy soccer, baseball, hockey, or boxing. Power to all of you. But if we’re comparing apples and oranges, I’ll still argue to the death that oranges are the better fruit. Y’know, because oranges have a shorter shot clock and world-class talent.

It’s a matter of preference, and I prefer the NBA. Hence why I’m writing on an NBA blog. And kind of ripping college basketball. Maybe NBA games really are just 48-minute variations on the pick-and-roll, like Sharp said. But those variations can’t be separated from the players that run them. The plays aren’t empty, because each player executes in a completely different way; a Tony Parker pick-and-roll really isn’t even the same as a Chauncey Billups pick-and-roll, even if the possible results are “pass to big man,” “drive to basket,” and “pull-up jumper.” Everything is so deeply contextual and specific, and that’s why it matters. We care about Shaun Livingston and Leon Powe because of their stories and because of what they’re able to accomplish. We care about Ali Farokhmanesh not because he’s Ali Farokhmanesh, but because he hit one shot before likely fading into obscurity forever. I know he’ll appreciate his minute in the sun and he should. It just doesn’t make me feel any better about the whole system, and how little the individual players and the teams themselves actually matter.

Seth Carstens