Monday, March 22, 2010

The Edge: March Madness Brings the Best Out of Athletes

There's a fun and competitive debate going on between SB Nation's Andrew Sharp and Hardwood Paroxysm's Matt Moore concerning how most NBA fans might not pay March Madness full respect, and even reasons why that time of college basketball might edge out the best NBA basketball. I thought I would give my own two cents... or three.

For a long time now, people have been debating which is the greatest fluke between the two leagues of the NCAA and the NBA: a horrific march to the Madness where the NCAA teams that eventually head to the tournament terminate boring, just-plain-bad teams, or the overwhelming egos of basketball; leading to ridiculous propositions like Paul Pierce blatantly and confidently remarking that he's the best player after his championship season or Mark Cuban losing his cool in front of Kenyon Martin's mom.

At the same time, there are discussions about what's more exciting at their respective vintage moments: an NCAA tournament where anything can happen at literally any time (HP's Moore: "Comebacks in the NBA inside a minute? Really f’ing hard. Why? Guys know how to get the ball inbounds, and can get it to guys who can hit free throws."), or two QUALITY teams (which is Moore's argument for the NBA) emaciated for an NBA ring, going back and forth the entire game, and in the end delivering a thrilling performance?

Those debates can NEVER, EVER be settled. They just can't. You develop an infatuation for one league and can't ever seem to honestly find flaws in it when you're defending your preferred league against another league or sport. Sure, there's lots of situations where you mature and your opinions begin to vary, and you might even switch over to the other league. But you mature. You change. With exception to technical tweaks, the game of professional basketball has maintained the same general look since it's inception. There was the white, slow era of the '40s, '50s, and part of the '60s, and there was the physical, bangin'/bruisin' era of the '70s and '80s. Even today, the league has become more athletic. But it's still a different species of basketball than the NCAA, and it always has.

Nonetheless, there are debates that, in my mind, that can be settled.

1) The NBA is flat-out a better brand of basketball, from a quality standpoint. It cannot be refuted or argued. It is professional basketball, and college basketball is a step below. That doesn't mean there aren't players in the NCAA that couldn't play (and be distinguished) in the NBA, but that's only the cream of the crop. That's an extremely small slice of players when in correspondence with the entire NCAA.

2) March Madness is a bigger event than the NBA playoffs. It doesn't mean that I personally enjoy it more, it means that from a general fan's perspective, I'm tuning into March Madness over an NBA playoff game (if the two schedules ever crossed paths). The NBA, on the other hand, comes from a much larger audience scale throughout the entire shebang, including preseason, regular season, playoffs, and offseason. But March Madness seems to surround people as a magical, Cinderella Story tournament, which is what people want to watch. Perhaps the only playoff series' that have caught the eye of the general fan over the past five years:

1.Golden State V. Dallas, 2007 playoffs
 2. The entire Boston Celtics campaign, 2008
3. Los Angeles Lakers V. Houston, 2009, and Los Angeles V. Orlando Finals
4. Boston V. Chicago, 2009
5. Cleveland V. Detroit, 2007
6. Miami Heat V. Dallas Mavericks, 2006

The NBA playoffs are great, and sure, that's only a five year span (and this is also considering that it would have to at least draw some attention from most of the non-basketball diehards), but if you count the number of mesmerizing March Madness games that captivated the nation over the last five years... you're going to end up using more than just your fingers.

So what keeps March Madness so exciting? Hell, what keeps March madness even alive? If the NBA is better basketball mechanically, and there isn't a clear edge (that we've mentioned yet), NCAA fans are basically telling themselves I'd rather watch a poorer standard of basketball. And that's fine... except that the ratings of the NCAA should come close to touching the NBA.

Most NBA and NCAA fans have heard that a lot general basketball fans can't deal with the arrogance of professional basketball. They'd rather watch more humble, more committed athletes. And that's cool that a lot of America chooses to believe it and have that as their logic as to why they have the NBA over the NCAA. But it's downright false in every aspect. There is no way for most of the superstars in the NBA to succeed without comforting themselves after beatings from the fans and opponents every single day for 10-15 years. They have to be overly-proud. It's basketball. Players develop that toughness on the way to their objective. That's not any player either. That's a great player. That's an NBA-ready player.

And putting arrogance aside, you cannot tell me that NBA athletes choose to relax when they hit the premier stage of basketball. The ones that we enjoy watching, the ones that thrive in this league put the same amount of work in if not more basketball-wise. It is their life. If you're playing in the Association, unless you're name is Rasheed Wallace, you're routinely in the gym for hours and shooting thousands of shots per day.

Watch Paul Pierce receive his ring after winning the 2008 championship, and you see he's WEEPING. He's overcome. How is that different from a college athlete being overcome? What separates LeBron's incredible and passionate 48-point massacre of the Detroit Pistons, which was derived from his sheer competitive edge and ravenous attitude towards winning, from Northern Iowa's recent defeat of Kansas? Both circumstances are, essentially, David versus Goliath. It was literally LeBron against a highly-regarded, heavily-favored Detroit Pistons team, and it was the number 9., unheard of Northern Iowa against the no.1 ranked Kansas. What puts distance between the constantly-discussed team chemistry of college athletes, how it shows on the court, and how it makes them better, and Leon Powe's inspiring 21-point performance during game 2 of the 2008 Finals? There isn't separation, there isn't distance, there isn't a difference.

Except that college athletes consistently show a spark when the competition narrows down to March Madness. Losing, or not leaving it all on the court, just simply isn't an option. You do not think twice about letting your team down. It is indubitable shame for all the NCAA athletes participating in the Madness to not play their best in that tournament. It just doesn't happen. March Madness brings the best out of athletes. Every. Single. Time. March Madness is magical.

And according to the nation, that's fact.

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