Author: Joe Posnanski

Brittney Griner, Destiny Williams

Pay college athletes? That’s a reality, not some fairy tale


There was an utterly fascinating quote in Dan Wetzel’s column Monday from Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. The quote revolves around the question of paying college athletes. It seems that Bowlsby was a college wrestler and so — and I respect this generally — he finds some of his strongest sympathies are with student-athletes of what we like to call minor-sports. His starts by saying that as a wrestler he worked as hard as any football player. In fact, he probably worked HARDER than any football player. I’m sure he did. Wrestlers do work very hard.

And then he said this:

“The fact is we have student-athletes in all sorts of sports that, if you apply any form of value to their labor, you cannot pay football players and not pay gymnasts just because the football player has the blessing of an adoring public.”

This really is an astonishing quote … and probably not for the reason Bowlsby intended. The challenges facing college sports in 2014 are extraordinarily complicated and very few people seem willing to look at those challenges with a clear eye and without some oversimplified solution or platitude. That said, this quote — and the bizarre naiveté behind it — show what might be the toughest problem of all: There are people who think the way college sports are run today is “fair.”

First thing to do is take the Bowlsby quote and insert real life examples.

“The fact is we have people in life, if you apply any form of value to their labor, you cannot pay ADAM SANDLER and not pay INNER CITY TEACHERS just because the ACTOR has the blessing of an adoring public.”

Or this:

“The fact is we have people in life, if you apply any form of value to their labor, you cannot pay CLAYTON KERSHAW and not pay EMERGENCY ROOM DOCTORS just because the PITCHER has the blessing of an adoring public.”

Or this:

“The fact is we have people in life, if you apply any form of value to their labor, you cannot pay THOSE KIDS FROM ONE DIRECTION and not pay FIREFIGHTERS just because the BAND has the blessing of an adoring public.”

My father worked in a factory and he worked a billion times harder than I do. I make more money than he did writing silly little stories about sports. Is that fair? No. It’s the opposite of fair, it’s an absurdity, but this is the way of the world. Nobody who has spent any real time in the world can possibly believe that people get paid based on how hard they work. I know someone who has dedicated his life to helping children in the Middle East learn about their so-called enemies so that one day they will stop being enemies. He doesn’t make nearly as much money as Bob Bowlsby.

Bowlsby knows this. And that’s why the quote is so astonishing. He KNOWS exactly what’s happening. In a business (like any big business) of cold calculations, deceitful manipulations, insane money grabbing and NCAA president Mark Emmert talking inanities, he’s talking about how hard college wrestlers work and how they deserve as much as football players.

See, behind it all there are people who really believe that the college system of today is “fair” in a way that life could never be fair. They are the dreamers. They really manage to believe in this college sports nirvana where all athletes are the same, where revenue sports joyfully support non-revenue sports, where the “adoring public” is merely jubilant spectators of the greater cause of college athletics.

And, in a way, these dreamers are even more threatening than the cutthroats. Hey, you can see the cutthroat fingerprints everywhere. The NCAA is stuffing 80,000 people into a Dallas Dome to “watch” college basketball. The NCAA throughout this tournament repeatedly refers to the the players as “student athletes” — in one press conference I counted that awkward phrase 11 times. The NCAA is powerless to stop schools from jumping conference to conference, smashing any sense of geography or history or continuity in a naked money-rush. They are powerless to stop conferences and schools from starting their own television networks as if they are academic Oprahs. They are powerless to stop football and basketball coaches from becoming (by far) the highest paid figures in public institutions. They are powerless to stop these things even if they wanted to stop them … which they pretty clearly don’t. And they sign a larger television deal and demand more power to control things.

Then, the dreamers have the gall to talk about what would be fair for the gymnasts and wrestlers as if this system is man’s noble effort to right society’s economic wrongs and be fair to all.

College sports are a big, broad, sweeping thing — no one statement or one plan can possibly cover everyone. What happens at Kentucky basketball has nothing to do with what’s happening with Central Missouri basketball and even less with what’s happening at Gardner Webb women’s lacrosse.

There’s a huge mission going on here and it’s way too easy and way too convenient to look only at what’s happening with the Top 60 college football and basketball schools. I want to believe in the overall mission of college sports too. I believe colleges should do its best to fund those sports that don’t make money, just like they should fund programs in the arts. There are countless stories about how much college sports at every level can impact the lives of people and teach them lessons that last for the rest of their lives. It really would be a shame if, with all the money flowing around academics, schools could not find ways to keep giving opportunities and hope to talented young athletes in every sport, whether it’s football or wrestling, basketball or swimming or softball.

But it’s heartbreaking to hear the commissioner of one of America’s biggest conferences offer such a fairy tale reason why you can’t pay football players and not pay wrestlers. Look, college sports as we know them will get blown up and put back together in the next few years because there’s a fundamental unfairness. With players talking about unionizing, with viable lawsuits threatening the NCAA’s hold, with increasing public outrage over athletes (or student athletes) getting hammered for trying to make a buck or two on their own talents — it’s going to change. That’s a certainty. The only question is how and the answers you mostly hear on both sides are way to pat, way too simple, they come with as many problems as solutions.

No, creating a college sports structure for our time will take a lot of grown-up thinking. And if the people in power now want to have some say, they need to start looking at things in a grown-up way.

Picking an NCAA tournament bracket in 68 seconds

Andrew Wiggins

The idea here is to let go of everything you know, every theory that kicks around in your mind, every bit of college basketball knowledge you picked up along the way. The Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett once offered a hitting lesson. He asked a group of us to say a number between one and 5. And while thinking of that number we were to raise one hand and hold up a DIFFERENT number with our fingers. In other words, shout the number 3, but hold up two fingers. Then shout 5 while holding up one finger.

Then do it again. And again. And again. Faster, Faster. No, you can’t repeat the same numbers; you have to keep changing. Faster. Faster. No you are not allowed to use a pattern. Faster. What inevitably happens – and usually very quickly – is that the number you shout and the number of fingers you hold up will match or you will fail to think of a number in time or you will have some other embarrassing mental breakdown.

Follow along: Printable NCAA tournament bracket

Brett’s point: The mind isn’t very good at thinking two contrasting things at once. And so, when hitting, Brett said, the times he was successful were when he could make his mind a complete blank and just react to the moment. If he found himself burdened by different thoughts (Curveball? Fastball? Where are we eating after the game? What’s the score? Can’t believe I missed that throw last inning. I think that guy owes me money!) he would inevitably crumple and fail.

So it goes with our annual “Pick the NCAA Basketball Tournament in 68 seconds.”

It used to be 64 seconds back when there were 64 teams, but there are now those four extra teams in the play-in round, and they give us four valuable seconds.

You may ask: Does this pick-basketball-games-without-thinking system really work?  Well, it depends what you mean by “work.” If by “work” you mean — “is this system successful in picking winners?” well, results are mixed. Last year, this system did pick Louisville as national champ, and one year the system was good enough to win an office pool. In other words: No, the system doesn’t work.

But if by “work” you mean – does this system give you a cheap column you can rehash every single year, then yes, this system has never failed me.

Bracket Challenge: Run the table to win $1 billion

First round (3 seconds): I’m picking Mount St. Mary’s, Xavier, Cal Poly and Iowa while making my annual protest that (1) This is NOT a first round no matter what the NCAA calls it, these are four play-in games; and (2) There should not be four play-in games.

The reason the “first round” naming bothers me is that it inspires the NCAA to call Thursday’s and Friday’ games SECOND ROUND games. And they are most definitely NOT second-round games. They are first-round games. Everybody knows this. The NCAA is most definitely NOT giving 60 teams byes into the second round. That is ridiculous and wrong and gives us yet another reason to despise the NCAA.

The reason I’m opposed to the play-in games at all is that they represent a further watering down of the sport. No 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed. Ever. There is no reason to add more teams; we already have reached critical mass.

Second round (31 seconds): I picked the games a little faster this year than I did last year in order to give me some extra time in later rounds.

First thing, I advanced all the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. The No. 1 seeds are easy to advance – as mentioned — but every three or four years, a No. 2 seed will lose. Last year, No. 2 Georgetown lost to Florida Gulf Coast, and those Eagles promptly went on a fun, dunky little run that made the first couple of rounds of the tournament more exciting and fulfilling than the last couple of rounds. I’m betting it doesn’t happen again.

We usually have a No. 3 seed that loses – last year, it was Harvard beating No. 3 New Mexico – and I’m picking Western Michigan to beat Syracuse because … I don’t know. I don’t have time to think about reasons. Syracuse seems to be in freefall and it just seems like Jim Boeheim is due for a shocking early round exit.  There you go.

There is usually at least one No. 4 seed that goes down – I’m picking Tulsa to upset UCLA because Tulsa is coached by Danny Manning, who had “and the Miracles” attached to his name when he led Kansas to the 1988 national championship. UCLA is, of course, coached by Steve Alford, who led Indiana to the 1987 national championship. So I’m actually predicting the game goes into quintuple overtime and is then decided by a one-on-one matchup between the two coaches, a game Manning wins decisively.

I suspect a lot of people will go with the New Mexico State over No. 4 San Diego State upset because that just sort of SOUNDS like it should happen. This silly reasoning is … actually excellent. This could happen. But San Diego State is really good from what I can tell, so I’m avoiding it.

The NCAA 5-12 match-up is the best in sports. Every year it provides us with awesome pseudo upsets – in reality the No. 12 seed is really not much worse and often better than the No. 5 seed. Anyway, I love the 5-12, and again, it irritates me that the NCAA is mucking it up with these play-in games. There is nothing good about these play-in games.

Last year the 12 seed won three of four matchups; the 12 seed tends to win one or two ever year. I’m picking just one 12-5 upset this year, Harvard over Cincinnati, though I have to admit that I might regret not taking North Dakota State over Oklahoma.

Regional previews: South | East | Midwest | West

On the 6-11 line, I spend an extra second or two pondering the mystery that is Roy Williams’ North Carolina team. I have never seen such a baffling team. There are times that team looks like a legitimate national championship contender. And there are times that it seems you could get four others from your local YMCA and beat the Tar Heels by 20. North Carolina absolutely, positively, unquestionably could lose to Providence in the first round. Or North Carolina could make a long run. I’ll move the Tar Heels into the next round and pick it up from there.

I am picking No. 11 Dayton to beat Ohio State in the “You didn’t recruit me” revenge game, and I’m also picking No. 11 Nebraska to upset Baylor because I really want to see that Nebraska-Creighton match-up in the next round. This was a mistake, by the way; you should never look ahead when making picks. But my time was running out and I panicked.

Nothing after the 6-11 line is really an upset. The lower seeds I picked are: No. 10 Stanford over New Mexico, No. 10 St. Joe’s over Connecticut, No. 10 BYU over Oregon, No. 9 George Washington over Memphis, No. 9 Oklahoma State over Gonzaga and No. 9 Kansas State over Kentucky.

MORE: Must-watch games from the round of 64

The last of these reminds me: When John Calipari won his national championship at Kentucky two years ago, there were a lot of people who believed he would build a one-and-done dynasty there by bringing in the best recruits year after year and leading them to title after title. Since then, Kentucky missed the tournament entirely and now is a No. 8 seed. Calipari did not seem happy at all with the seeding … and I can’t help that this is the sort of fragile team that already has No. 1 Wichita State in their plans. And that’s how they lose to a gritty Kansas State team.

* * *

Second round … oh, wait, I mean third round (18 seconds): To me, this is always the toughest round to pick. Sometimes a No. 1 seed loses (last year, Gonzaga lost to Wichita State) and on average you will usually have at least one No. 2 seed lose.

I’m guessing a lot of brackets will have Kentucky beating Wichita State, but since I didn’t even pick Kentucky to win the first round, that will not be my choice. Anyway, I think Wichita State is really, really good. I don’t want to offer any spoilers, but I really do think that Wichita State, small conference and all, might be the best team in America.

More: How to run the perfect NCAA tourney pool

The one game that troubles me is Oklahoma State against No. 1 Arizona. That upset sounds really good to me. But if I pick it, then I lose Arizona, and Arizona is REALLY good. I could get burned. Trouble is, when you have 18 seconds to pick 16 games, you don’t really get to think too much about the consequences. I instinctively write down Oklahoma State and will live with it. All the other No. 1s get through.

My No. 2 line upset – St. Joe’s over Villanova in the second installment of the “you didn’t recruit me” revenge game.

Other lower seed picks: No. 14 Western Michigan over Dayton (the Broncos ride on!); No. 6 North Carolina over Iowa State (I just know these Tar Heels are going to blow my entire bracket); No. 5 Oklahoma over San Diego State (setting up the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game that may blow up the Sooner State).

* * *

Sweet 16 (5 seconds): No time to look back on what is clearly a terrible bracket I have to just keep going.

Oklahoma State over Oklahoma and Wisconsin over Creighton in the West.

Wichita State over Louisville and Duke over Michigan in the Midwest.

More: The eight best crunch-time players in the tourney

VCU over Florida (Shaka Smart upset!) and Kansas over Western Michigan in the South. Bill Self quietly getting his team healthy and dangerous.

Michigan State over Virginia (upset!) and North Carolina over St. Joe’s in the East.

I thoroughly loathe my bracket.

* * *

Elite 8 (4 seconds): The Duke-Wichita State game is one worth pondering. But there’s no time for that, so I’m taking the Shockers to knock off Duke and go to their second consecutive Final Four.

My other Final Four choices: Wisconsin (after holding Oklahoma State to, like, 13 points), Kansas (barely preventing Shaka Smart from his second Final Four at VCU) and Michigan State (pounding a North Carolina team that I had no business sending all the way to the Elite Eight in the first place).

* * *

Final Four (3 seconds): I have given myself an extra second to ponder this. It is not impossible that I have set up my entire bracket just to get the Kansas-Wichita State final that I really want to see. For one thing, this would be the greatest thing to happen to Kansas in forever, and I love the state of Kansas. Two, this would make my in-laws —who have lived in Kansas all their lives and who love both teams — extremely happy and conflicted. This also would greatly please my friend Bill James, who loves Kansas basketball about as much as he loves piercing through baseball idiocy.

So, what the heck, the momentum is too strong. Kansas against Wichita State in the final.

* * *

Championship game (1 second): Every NBA mock draft I have seen has Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embid going in the first three picks. Many have them as the Top 2. In NBA Draft history, the top two picks have been from the same team only 1 time.

2012: Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

More: The eight teams that can win it all

Of course, that Kentucky team rolled to the national title. My sense is that this Kansas team is the most talented in the country. When healthy – and Embid has not been healthy – it might be the most talented team Bill Self has ever coached. They have been wildly inconsistent, often frustrating and confusing and sometimes dreadful. The Jayhawks have also for stretches been about as good as any team I’ve seen. The Jayhawks might be the team that makes or breaks your ballot – pick them to keep winning and they could lose in the first round, pick them to lose early and they might win it all.

That’s what I’m going with. I’m picking Kansas to beat Wichita State in the national championship game. And while this will never happen, I do have three seconds to spare on the clock.

NCAA forgot about a legend with its 75th anniversary team

Courtesy NC State Athletics Communications

ATLANTA — So the NCAA quietly released their “All-Time March Madness Players” on Friday. I don’t think they meant to release it quietly, but that’s the NCAA for you. When it comes to embarrassing a player for collecting an unwarranted fries and Coke, they can make a whole lot of noise. When it comes to announcing something cool like an all-time NCAA Tournament team, they can’t get anyone to pay attention.

In any case, I’m going to list the 15 players below in alphabetical order. I believe there’s an obvious omission. See if you can spot the player I’m thinking about:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor at UCLA)

Larry Bird, Indiana State

Bill Bradley, Princeton

Patrick Ewing, Georgetown

Grant Hill, Duke

Magic Johnson, Michigan State

Michael Jordan, North Carolina

Christian Laettner, Duke

Jerry Lucas, Ohio State

Danny Manning, Kansas

Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston

Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati

Bill Russell, San Francisco

Bill Walton, UCLA

Jerry West, West Virginia

Now, remember, this is only supposed to be for players during the NCAA Tournament. Do you see the missing player? Heck you probably see a bunch of missing players … but there’s one I think rises above.

Before I get into that, let’s talk for a moment about Michael Jordan. I believe that he’s the greatest basketball player in the history of the game — I see good arguments for Wilt and Magic and Abdul-Jabbar and Russell and I think LeBron James, if he maintains this level for a while longer, will have a powerful argument too. I still think Jordan’s the best.

With that said … what in the heck is he doing on THIS list? Yes, Jordan at North Carolina made the jump shot that ended up as the difference against Georgetown in the 1982 championship game (though you will remember that Georgetown had the ball with a chance to win and Fred Brown threw the pass away). But Jordan was a freshman then and was probably the third best player on that team behind James Worthy and Sam Perkins. He averaged 13 points a game during that tournament. Not exactly legendary stuff.

The next year, North Carolina was shocked by Georgia in the regional final — Jordan did score 26 in the loss on 11-of-23 shooting, but he also fouled out of the game.

The next year, North Carolina was REALLY shocked by Indiana in the regional semifinal — that was the game when Dan Dakich famously got in Jordan’s grill, spooked him somehow, and Jordan scored just 13 on six-of-14 shooting.

I”m sorry, am I missing it? How in the heck does this get Michael Jordan on the all-time tournament team?

It gets him on the team because he’s Michael Jordan … and people get lazy about their history. Jordan was a superb college basketball player — he won the Wooden Award his junior year. But he wasn’t a legendary one. Remember, he WAS the third pick in that NBA Draft. The legendary stuff came later, as a pro in Chicago. When the ACC named Jordan the best conference’s best player over the last 50 years, real ACC aficionados shook their head in dismay. It was a ridiculous choice. And now, when the NCAA makes a list of the best tournament players and includes Jordan, well, it’s the same thing all over again.

The worst part is, the player who is forgotten is the player Michael Jordan himself idolized.

* * *

When it comes to being remembered and celebrated, David Thompson pretty much had everything stacked against him. He was in the last class of players to be ineligible as freshmen — so he lost a year when he might have already been the best player in the country. He also lost one postseason when his N.C. State team was declared ineligible  … this because of some remarkably petty rules violations involving the Thompson recruitment.*

*Thompson was so heavily recruited, he actually put TWO schools on probation — N.C. State and Duke. There were always rumors that he received a boatload of money and cars and everything else — maybe he did. But the ACTUAL violations at N.C. State were so minor, you almost can’t believe they stuck — the violations included housing during a basketball camp (Thompson, apparently, slept on the floor) and playing in pickup games with an assistant coach. The ACTUAL Duke violation was a sport coat given to him for graduation.

Perhaps more than anything, Thompson played his three college years when the NCAA made the dunk illegal. There is no telling how many classic David Thompson dunks were lost to time. Thompson had a 44-inch vertical jump. They would say about him that he could grab a quarter off the top of the backboard and replace it with two dimes and a nickel. He was probably the greatest dunker on earth — in the ABA he was one half of a legendary dunk contest against Julius Erving. Dr. J eventually won with his now-famous jump-from-the-foul-line dunk, but many people who watched them both all night would say that Thompson’s dunks were superior and had he not missed one of them, he would have won the contest.

In any case, he had only one dunk in college. We’ll get back to that one.

Thompson was more than a dunker, though. He was an unstoppable scoring machine. He was a defensive force of nature. His sophomore year, his N.C. State team went 27-0, and Thompson averaged 25 points, eight rebounds and he made 57% of his shots. They might have been the best team in America. They did not get to go to the NCAA Tournament to prove it — and UCLA won its seventh consecutive national championship.

The next year, N.C. State played UCLA in the regular season — and got destroyed by 18. Thompson was overwhelmed by the moment. But this time, they were allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament. And Thompson had a tournament for the ages.

In the regional semifinal against Bad News Marvin Barnes and Providence, Thompson scored 40 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, played all 40 minutes and led N.C. State to a 92-78 victory.

Two days later, the Wolfpack played Pittsburgh. When Louisville’s Kevin Ware had that horrible injury against Duke over the weekend, many people remembered the terrible Joe Theisman injury because they were both so horrible to watch. But a much more apt comparison was David Thompson against Pittsburgh. He had taken a shot and felt like he was fouled. When there was no call, he grew angry and chased down a Pittsburgh player to block his shot.

He took off — he would often say he never jumped higher. Thompson’s leg connected with the shoulder of a teammate Phil Spence, and he crashed to the floor. There was blood everywhere. He was knocked unconscious. As the Kansas City Star’s Blair Kerkhoff — who was there as a young N.C. State fan that day — would say: “Everybody thought he was dead.” He was taken off the court on a stretcher. He needed 15 stitches.

One week later, in the national semifinal game, David Thompson was back to play against UCLA. He scored 28 points. He grabbed 10 rebounds. But perhaps what people remember more than anything was that that twice — TWICE — he blocked Bill Walton’s shots. And N.C. State beat UCLA in double overtime — the first time UCLA had lost a tournament game in eight years.

Thompson completed the miracle by scoring 21 in the final as N.C. State beat Marquette for the national title.

It is beyond my understanding how that remarkable series of games could not land David Thompson on the All-Time Tournament team. He dominated the game. He came back from an impossibly gruesome injury. He ended a dynasty. He won a championship. Nobody in the history of the NCAA Tournament has ever done anything like it.

But … David Thompson wrecked his life after he left N.C. State. He averaged 30 points a game his senior year and won the Naismith Award. In his last game, he found himself open on a breakaway and he threw down a ferocious dunk. It meant a technical foul, but Thompson didn’t care. It was the right way to end the career. He didn’t know then that, in many ways, he really was ending a career.

Thompson was the first pick in the NBA Draft and the ABA Draft. And, he really was a dominant pro basketball player his first four seasons — he averaged 25.8 points a game, wowed many with his fabulous dunks and amazing blocked shots, and might have been the best player in the league in the 1977-1978 season. He signed a massive contract (well, massive for the time). But he had a serious drug problem that was getting worse every year. He could not handle his fame. He rather famously fell down the steps one night at Studio 54, badly hurting his knee. He tried to come back. He was not able to make it back. His life descended even further into a drug-addled hell.

In time, David Thompson found some balance in his life. He found faith. He reached out to help kids so that they would not make the same mistakes he made. I went to a couple of his sessions with kids. He would start by saying:

“How many of you have heard of me?”

Only a handful of kids would raise their hands, and those — I thought — out of kindness.

“OK. Now, how many of you have heard of Michael Jordan.”

Every hand in the place would shoot up.

“Well,” he would say (with a little sadness in his voice, I thought) “I was Michael Jordan’s hero.”

In so many ways, David Thompson’s basketball career was a story of what might have been. But, that doesn’t nullify what he did. He has a real argument as the greatest college basketball player ever. And, if they are going to make lists like these, they shouldn’t put the best names. They should put the right players. David Thompson should remembered.

Look at the list again: Jerry West was once a Final Four MVP even though his team lost. Oscar Robertson was an amazing player who put up amazing numbers but could never quite lead his team into the national championship game. Michael Jordan hit an NCAA Tournament game-winning shot. Larry Bird played in one NCAA Tournament and was amazing, but in the championship game he shot 7 for 21 and his team lost. These players and other are on the NCAA list not because of their NCAA tournament heroics but because, years later, in the NBA, they became legends.

David Thompson squandered his years later. But by then he was already a legend. And it shouldn’t be forgotten.