The "Closing, 10 Days Left" and "Everything 50% Off" signs drew me into a Borders bookstore last week. And while there were a few books I was interested in, I was quickly reminded what liquidation means. Anything that was a hot-selling item had been transferred elsewhere, or purchased by smart buyers at 20 or 30% off. Realizing the store was pretty empty, I eventually found myself staring at some "comic strip" books.
The first thing I noticed is that they were still selling Garfield treasuries. How is this even possible? I remember checking these out from the library when I was a kid. They were once the funniest books in existence, but they have not aged well. Somehow the lasagna jokes do not make much sense after the age of 10. I imagine someone somewhere has all 300 of these in his basement and that though scares me.
Eventually I came across Pearls Sells Out, a Pearls Before Swine Treasury and decided that 50% off was the right price. It was surprisingly amusing. My favorite insight was on page 226:
Rat - “I have developed a theory called ‘airplaneseatreclineology’. Two people, each in cramped conditions on a plane. Person ‘A’ can lessen his discomfort by reclining his seat, but there’s a catch. His increased comfort can only come at the expense of person ‘B’ who is further cramped by the reclined seat in front of him.”
Goat – “So why would person ‘A’ do it?”
Rat - “Because the airline says he can. And people will do what they can, regardless of the effect on others.”
I really like this insight because I think it sort of explains our feelings towards early entrants. At some level, we all empathize with the 19 or 20 year-old player who wants to go to the NBA and make some money. If you have not felt the paralyzing fear of looking for a job, then maybe you do not understand. But for most people, there is no magical path to the dream employer. Even if you go to college, graduate in four years, and do everything you are "supposed to do", the right career is still hard to find. And the uncertainty can be extremely painful. Realistically, no one can blame a player for wanting a guaranteed NBA contract, when sticking around another year has an unknown outcome.
Fans will always say that “Player X” is not ready for the NBA yet. But that is irrelevant. Only a handful of players are ever "ready for the NBA". But NBA teams thrive on the uncertainty and potential. Often the worst thing a player can do is stick around in college and confirm they are not going to become a star. Only a handful of college seniors are selected in the first round of the NBA draft each year.
But even if we know that leaving early is probably in the best interest of many players, as fans we still want them to stick around. We still want one more season from our stars. And even if asking them to stick around is like reclining our seat back and crushing the them, we still want it anyway.
It doesn’t necessarily make us bad people to put our own desires ahead of the player’s interests. All fans do it. But the longer you watch college basketball, the more you realize that it is the wrong thing. If you are truly a fan of the college athletes, you should always wish them the best. Even if personally, you want a player to stick around, entering the draft is a once in a lifetime opportunity for most players. And if the chance to be selected in the first round is real, no one should hold that against them.
Coaches Stuck In The Middle
All college coaches hate the uncertainty themselves. But to be great, they have to separate their own goals. You often hear the best coaches say, "it isn’t about my wins, it is about the players accomplishing their goals." And in 2011, all college coaches all have to run "players first" programs to some degree.
New Miami coach Jim Larranaga may be one of the older coaches to take a BCS job, but you still hear the right tone in his voice. When his George Mason team beat Villanova in the tournament this year, he said it was not about him. It was about his players. He’s been to the Final Four. He’s made good money. But the joy of seeing his players accomplish something special is what keeps him going. And that is why, even at 61 years of age, he can still speak with such enthusiasm as he takes the Miami job.
And while no one said it directly, I thought some of the articles about departing Maryland coach Gary Williams subtly suggested he did not have that same passion anymore. He wanted to build a good team, and he wanted to win. But he did not want to hit the recruiting trail and make promises to kids anymore. And when you can no longer share a 17 year olds dream of playing in the NBA, you really cannot coach at the highest level. The moment you see a player like Jordan Williams put his name in the draft, and you think of yourself and not the kid, then it is time to move on.
All coaches want to win. There are a few like Mike Krzyzewski are good enough that they can focus on recruiting four-year players. But for most coaches to recruit at the highest level, and to win at the highest level, they must embrace early entry. Some people criticize this, and say putting player development first makes for bad basketball. The poster-child is Texas head coach Rick Barnes who has been accused of trying to put players in the NBA instead of winning NCAA championships. But in most cases, the goals are not at odds. Making the Final Four helps most players draft prospects.
Maybe John Calipari took it too far by saying the greatest night in Kentucky history was when five players were selected in the first round of the NBA draft. But when he can put his players goals ahead of his own goals – when he can keep his seat leaned forward and provide a little extra space – that seat is never empty for long.