My freshman year at college I lived in a dorm, next to a guy on the basketball team. His last name was Carrington. He was funny. He kept bragging to everyone about how good he was, how the Celtics were going to give him a tryout, but when we went to the games, he didn’t even start. He came off the bench.
That was OK. We cheered for him anyhow. Mine was a small college, and our gym was tiny enough that Carrington could hear us yelling if we waited for the right moment. During the game, one of our gang would get hot dogs or Milk Duds from the concession table, where the money was still collected in cigar boxes.
And after the game, we’d clomp down through the bleachers, holding our coats, and go stand by the locker room door until Carrington came out and we could tease him about his playing time.
I had a great sense of school pride during those games, a real feeling of my team and my gym and my guys and my place. The squad wasn’t great, but most years, we won more than we lost. Besides, it was our gym. When we went to the games, we saw familiar student faces. We said hi, waved. We made note of the pretty girls, whom we knew by name, even if we were too shy to talk to them.
Back then, the basketball games were part of college life, not something that dwarfed it. You asked your friends that afternoon, “Hey, you want to go to the game tonight?” And a few hours later, you showed your student pass at the door and you went in.
A mad, mad, mad world
Today, I will watch another college basketball game. It will be part of the NCAA tournament, March Madness, 65 teams in a multibillion-dollar annual industry.
The game will not be played on the home team’s campus, but in an arena more than 1,000 miles away. It will be beamed across the world via TV signal. The players will be inaccessible to the public from the moment they wake up in their security-guarded hotel rooms to the moment the private bus whisks them to the airport for a flight home.
I will record the game, dutifully, because that is my job. But forgive me if I don’t share the same wild excitement that some screaming TV broadcaster tries to inject.
When I look at college basketball, I see what it has become. But more and more, I see what it has lost.
I don’t see small gyms where you can yell and be heard by a friend on the team. I see sold-out stadiums, where blue-suited security men guard the court with walkie-talkies, chasing away anyone who isn’t from CBS.
I don’t see mostly students, hanging out and enjoying a college experience. I see people who have spent thousands of dollars in transportation, scalped tickets and officially sanctioned NCAA merchandise.
I don’t see players stepping out of the locker room into the friendly circle of a few close friends. I see future millionaires being whisked via golf cart to a news conference, where they lean into microphones and recite dull, glassy-eyed sentences.
I don’t see fun. I see pressure.
Shoes, coaches and tattoos
I see coaches with slick hair and designer suits, bucking for endorsement deals. I see men like Bobby Knight and Rick Pitino peddling themselves, coaxing millions out of universities that refuse to pay the players a dime, proving that the game is, indeed, more enriching for coaches than for kids.
I see Nike and Reebok, setting up camp in every tournament location, selling millions of shoes, warm-ups and hats, acting as if they’re somehow helping the game, when, in fact, they have manipulated it.
I see freshmen with tattoos, banging their chests, pointing fingers at themselves for glory, talking about “what’s best for me and my family,” which translates into: “Don’t expect to see me next year. I’m going pro.”
I see betting pools, Internet sites, statistical services, insider talk shows. I see Dick Vitale soundalike contests.
I see big, bigger, biggest.
I miss Carrington. I miss the Milk Duds. I miss knowing all the freshmen, sophomores and juniors on my team actually will be back next year.
It’s March. And yes, it’s madness.
Are we so sure that’s a good thing?
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.