Below the Rim


Nobody will admit to it, but for many hoops fans there’s only one reason to tune in the NCAA Final Four this weekend: to watch white guys play basketball. They’ll go March mad as those corn-fed upstarts from Wisconsin and those gritty overachievers from Florida set their picks, work the clock, and proudly wear their crew cuts.

And for CBS and the NCAA, that’s just the way they planned it, thank you very much. The NCAA tournament is the last bastion of the white aesthetic in big-time basketball, a below-the-rim game that stands in marked contrast to the hip-hop heroics of the NBA. Yes, new school ball still has its place in the Big Dance, but when Billy Donovan has his point guard run the back door, it’s enough to make you wonder what decade it is.

“This unlikely march to the Final Four is a product of coach Dick Bennett’s back-to-the-’40s system,” says USA Today, adding this fitting coda: “Those three letters—NBA—seldom come up in conversation at Wisconsin.” Why does whiteball survive—even thrive—in March? First and foremost, the rules of college basketball are designed to keep the game grounded in a back-in-the-day, Chuck Taylor style of play. Zone defenses make it tough if not impossible for a player to really bust a move. The 30-second shot clock encourages the second pass . . . and the third pass . . . and the fourth pass. The short three-point line makes a great spot-up shooter as productive as the highest-flying post player. The possession arrow makes a floor burn a badge of honor. And the one-and-one can turn any game into a foul shooting contest.

The format of the tournament—single-elimination games against an opponent you’ve probably never played before—brings the pot to a boil. Over a seven-game NBA-style playoff series, the better team—the team that combines superior athleticism and greater creativity with disciplined, mistake-free hoops—will almost always win. But in the sudden-death dance, if you can make your opponent play retroball, you’ve got a chance, no matter how lead-footed you may be. And every year, teams like Princeton, Utah, Stanford, and this year Wisconsin and Florida, basically annoy their opponents to death, pressing on defense, working the clock, and trying to harass their opponents into mistakes. Forty minutes of hell? Hell, yeah.

Of course, whiteball is a coach’s game. Stick to the system. Or else. When Donovan or Dick Bennett is holding the clipboard, players are rewarded not for creativity, but for obedience. It’s the American corporate model transported to the basketball court. These guys are middle managers running around in short pants and high tops, which is just as well, because that’s where Todd and Brett are going to end up when they call it a career.

The other reason that whiteball can prevail during March Madness is that the field is more diluted than a cheap margarita. The best young practitioners of hip-hop hoops—Kobe Bryant, Steve Francis, Jason Williams (his skin may be white, but his game certainly isn’t), Tracy McGrady, Larry Hughes, Corey Maggette, Jonathan Bender—won’t be in Indianapolis. All of them gave up their college eligibility and are now showcasing their hops in the NBA.

What is it that makes whiteball so appealing? The David and Goliath angle has a certain resonance, but the truth runs deeper than that. NCAA basketball is a product designed to appeal to Middle America—the would-be hoops fans who are alienated by Shaq and downright scared of Allan Iverson. The Badgers and the Gators play a game that middle-aged white folks can relate to, because it’s what they played in high school or their kids still play in the driveway or the YMCA. Dunk like Kobe? Can’t do that. But even Mr. Beer Belly can remember what it’s like to set a pick or sink a free throw (which may account for the increasing popularity of the even more accessible—and earthbound—women’s game). What the NCAA has on tap is Lite Ball—tastes great, less filling.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Until a coach starts believing his own shtick and turns his job into a jihad. And then your student athletes have to contend with Bobby Knight, a my-way-or-the-highway tyrant who makes Latrell Sprewell seem like Colin Powell. Even worse is when the media begins to believe the hype and starts equating opportunistic basketball with moral superiority. When the Badgers take the floor, listen for the code words: “scrapping,” “hardworking,” “teamwork,” “unselfish,” “hustle,” “intelligent” (all of which were culled from recent clips on Wisconsin). And when the Badgers get beaten, their vanquishers—players of color, no doubt—will do it with “superior athleticism” or just having “too many weapons.” Racial profiling is all the more insidious when Billy Packer is doing it.

So watch if you will—you’ve still got a shot in the office pool, right?—but understand that when the camera lingers on Wisconsin’s Jon Bryant burying his head in a towel, as he’s destined to do, it’s an image as loaded as anything you’ll see in a George W. Bush campaign ad. If you’d rather see white guys playing hoops with a happy ending, just rent Hoosiers instead.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 28, 2000

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