Tuesday, April 18, 2006

D League's Slippery Slope

(Editor's note: Every once and a while, when The Sports Guy writes a new column, its prefaced by "this article appears in ESPN the Mag," which is just a bad sign. Those articles just aren't the same as his regular ones. And while you could argue that his articles have been slipping lately and are becoming a little outdated, he's still a fun read, even if he isn't what he once was. Anyways, the point is, when we see "Editors note," our heart drops a little bit. But that's not going to stop us from doing the same thing to you. So, Editors note: This article appears in this week's issue of (our small college newspaper, which will remain nameless for various and sundry reasons). Sorry.)

Sometime last week, the NBA’s Developmental League announced it was lowering its minimum age requirement one year, from 19 down to 18.

The announcement was so seemingly insignificant that I can’t even remember what day it happened on. So some minor basketball league changed an age requirement by a year. So what? I’ve never seen a D league game, and I’m guessing the overwhelming majority of basketball fans haven’t, either. In fact, I would bet my ’92 Dream Team action figures that most basketball fans haven’t even heard of the rule change, and if they did, few cared.

So why is this a big deal? Well, in the immediate future, it really isn’t. But eventually, it could be. It has the potential to completely alter the face of the sport of basketball as we know it (could I be any more dramatic here? I sound like the bad guy in a cheesy movie, revealing my sinister plot for world domination). And no one seems to really care. That’s not good. At least not if you care about basketball.

So who gets affected here? Well, everyone does…but the NCAA is the one with the best chance of getting completely obliterated. If you enjoy college basketball, its officially time to start holding your breath.

The NCAA has to be so ticked off with the NBA. The NBA seems, at least to me, to be the older brother who messes with the younger brother just because he can. First, the NBA institutes its Go to College for At Least a Year Policy, to the absolute delight of the college game. The NCAA was getting all the best players back, at least for a year, which, hey, is better than nothing.

The top prospects had to go to college for at least a year. What were their other options? Go to a prep school and dominate pimply kids with glasses while their peers competed for national championships all while in the national spotlight? Maybe go oversees, collect a decent paycheck and live thousands of miles away from everything he knows - family, friends, culture – just for a year? With the NBA’s new age limit, going to college for a season was the fastest and most viable route to the NBA.

Not anymore. Now that players can play in the D League straight out of high school, the nation’s top prospects can get paid to play, all while living in America and having the undivided attention of NBA scouts while competing against the best talent not in the NBA. Deep breathes.

I mean, if you were a top prospect, why would you even go to college? Live in a dorm, or live in a mansion [if you don’t think an agent isn't going to front these kids money, well…maybe its time you helped Isiah run the Knicks (Parentheses inside parentheses! How fast did Isiah Thomas become a national punch line? Dick Cheney has to be ecstatic.)]? Go to class or go to the club? Have coaches who are bigger (figuratively) than you yell at you every day or have the power to get your coach fired? Maybe the only thing colleges have going for them would be the cute little co-eds over the trashy D League groupies.

Now, this probably won’t happen right away. The point is, college hoops isn’t looking like the Highway to the NBA that it was just about a year ago. All it takes is one enterprising young baller to open the door, and there will be an absolute stampede away from Chapel Hill and towards Roanoke, home of the almighty Dazzle.

And when that happens, the NCAA is done. Without the top talent, the NCAA just isn’t as much fun to watch. This year’s Final Four was a colossal bore, with the only entertainment being the chance Billy Packer would say something so stupid and irritional, even Jim Nance would start yelling at him (Just curious: has anyone watched a basketball game that Billy was announcing and not yelled at the TV? My grandmother? The Pope? Anyone?).

The NCAA was banking hard on the infusion of talent coming in next year. They needed it. But pretty soon, that talent could be in the D League. And it will be even worse than before. Under the old system, maybe the top 10, 15 guys skipped college. But with a readily available pro league as an option, how many top players will skip school? 50? 100? More?

Can you imagine an NCAA Tournament with the top 100 players gone? It would be atrocious. It would be boring. And the most important thing: it would be meaningless. Sure, the NCAA could continue the routine and trot teams out hoping fans would tune in just to see the names on the front of the jersey. But the quality of play would be so eye-poppingly inferior, only the hardest-core fans would keep watching.

All of this is fine for the NBA. This system will probably help them create a more skilled, more talented, deeper and ultimately more fun product to watch. But they are doing it at the expense of the NCAA.

The NCAA may have only one choice: pay its players. And with the NCAA’s well-documented stance on that issue, along with a brain trust that makes MLB’s front office look like a Mensa meeting, I think its safe to say we had better enjoy March Madness while we still have the chance.

The NCAA will “amateur” itself right into oblivion, and March Madness will become a glorified high school tournament. All because of an insignificant rule change in an insignificant league.

Thanks, D League.

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