24 November 2004

Sending the pros back to school

Even before the Detroit Doonybrook (by the way, is it acceptable to pronounce it "Dee-troit" instead of "Duh-troit?"  It sounds so much better that way; or is it supposed to be "Duh-twa?"  I need to know these things.  From where I am writing this I can spit into a suburb called "Des Plaines" which is pronounced like you are pointing out more than one airplane in the sky, yet when I was in college the capital of that particular state was "Des Moines", pronounced like the letter 'S' had never been invented.  Judges???)...

...where the hell was I?

Oh yes, even before the fight in Detroit last week, I was fed up with the NBA.  Have been for a while, but that is a rant for another time.  I much prefer the college game, and I was reminded of this Monday night, when I attended a college basketball game for the first time in a very long while.

My nephew goes to college in the city now, and has a job as a student manager for the men's basketball team at the University of Illinois-Chicago.  Last night was the season opener for the team, against Georgia Tech, the runner-up in the NCAA tournament last spring and the third ranked team in the country.  I was able to obtain a pair of tickets so a friend and I went to the game.  (Full disclosure-the tickets were freebies.)

Some of my fondest non-academic memories from my four years at the University of Iowa are from attending basketball games.  There are no major league sports franchises in Iowa, so people all over the state live and die with the major college sports.  Iowa has a great modern arena that sits close to 20,000 and is almost always sold out for home basketball games.  During my time there I was fortunate to see a lot of players that had exceptional talent and loved the game.  Most went on to productive professional careers as well.

I went to 60 or so games in four years, and have a lot of great memories of just about all of them.  I couldn't tell you how many games Iowa won or lost in my presence, but I could tell you how much fun every game was.

Monday night in Chicago, the arena was sold out.  UIC is a smaller school so only about 7500 people are needed for a full house.  Tech is a bigger, stronger and more talented team than UIC, yet the game was close throughout.  No team ever led by more than eight points, and for a majority of the game the margin was no more than four.

We were sitting at the top of the arena, and one of the things I love about college hoops is that if you are sitting in the balcony, you are really sitting in the balcony.  You have to watch yourself if you stand up so you don't smack your head on a beam.  When the place gets rocking, flakes of the fireproofing fall from the ceiling.  When you have to bend forward to see the scoreboard clearly, if you are lucky to be facing it at all, you know you're at a college game.

As I said, this game was close.  You could tell just by looking at the players.  They had this look on their face that said that winning this game was the most important thing in their lives.  No one was thinking to themselves "it's OK if we don't pull this out, 'cause I'm making $150,000 per game, win or lose..."; there was only one incentive to play hard, and that was to win.

At the end, with Tech leading 60-59, UIC had the ball and got it downcourt as the clock was about to expire.  One of the players got a great look at the basket and got off a shot just before the final horn.  It floated towards the basket; if it dropped through, UIC had the biggest win in its history.

It was not to be.  Tech won by a single point and survived to stay at the top of the rankings for another day, at least.

Immediately after the game, players from both teams met on the court.  There was no trash talk from the Tech players, and no hanging heads from UIC.  There were embraces, smiles, and handshakes.  Coaches from both sides complimented each other on their team's effort.  It was a supreme display of sportsmanship from two squads that left everything they had on the court.

Watching this, it was very clear that both schools are represented by outstanding student-athletes and coaches.  The players know that the coaches are in charge.  They know that they are being held accountable for their behavior.  They know that there is no player's union to fall back on.

After the game, my nephew said that he wished that last shot had fallen, because he wanted to see the student section empty onto the floor and celebrate the victory with the players.

I would have like to have seen that too.  Imagine a scene like that, players and fans together in a crowd.

And no one throwing punches. 

(I get to pimp my Iowa Hawkeyes here: They are in Hawaii for the Maui Classic.  Monday they upset #12 Louisville, Tuesday #13 Texas.  They play Wednesday night against #11 North Carolina for the championship.  Go Hawks.)

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