There are some games that lead a viewer to worry for Dick Vitale's sanity, and there are others that lead you to worry about his health. When Vitale is tasked, as part of his ESPN duties, to crank up the Oh Baby Machine for some root canal of a Virginia Tech/Florida State game, it's natural to start to worry for the dude's mind -- all those backrimmed jumpers and chunked foul shots, all while Vitale tries deliriously to keep his signature delight aloft by telling stories about having lunch with Leonard Hamilton or (if all else fails) telling stories about bygone Duke backcourts and their stellar character, what fine men they've become.
And then there are the actual exciting games, when Vitale doesn't have to fake it, and when the full college hoops experience -- the relentless, leavening likelihood of human failure by the flawed teenagers on the floor; the manic bouncing crowds; the in-the-red emotionalism and constant improbability that makes the college game great -- seems likely to blow Vitale's heart to bits, and shred his esophagus, and otherwise happily and utterly destroy him. It's how he would want to go, of course, but it's natural to worry. And then there are games like last week's pairing between top-ranked Indiana and fourth-ranked Michigan State, in East Lansing, which seemed a threat to Vitale's tenuous mental health and oft-repaired ticker.
Which is to say that it was both a terrific game, and a terrifically college basketball-y game. Both teams played hard and mostly well, which is the first part. The game hinged in large part on egregious mental errors by freaked-out freshman and one spectacularly ill-advised, ref-witnessed scrotum-slap by Michigan State's Derrick Nix on Indiana's Cody Zeller, which is the college basketball-y part.
But it was great, and enough to make any basketball fan feel -- invariably much more quietly, but earnestly -- like Dick Vitale always, exhaustingly sounds. Except for one bit, that is. At the end of a game they'd eventually lose, Michigan State came back to grab a slim lead, and Indiana coach Tom Crean called a timeout. The arena roared and surged and thrummed; the players bounced and fumed. The game was close and Vitale was loud. But what was he saying? "Look at the intensity of these coaches," Vitale crowed as ESPN went to its own timeout. "You think these guys don't want it?"
And Vitale was not wrong, as both Crean and Izzo were screaming and gesticulating and emoting like late-period Al Pacino. But amid all that noise and college-kid emotion and fraught promise and everything else, amid all that, the coaches? The hoarse, haggard middle-aged white dudes in the suits, theirs is the intensity that's supposed to speak or sing to us? Those are the ones we're supposed to be watching and marveling at, with all that exciting everything-else going on?
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Well, weirdly, yes. As a general rule, argumentum ad Dick Vitale is not a good look -- Vitale is not necessarily representative of any perspective beyond that of a happy and increasingly Muppet-esque uncle who spends a lot of time eating long lunches with college basketball coaches and (we can only assume) sending emoji-heavy texts to Mike Krzyzewski. But if Vitale's coach-humping represents a sort of outer boundary, it's not at all an outlier.
At Grantland, Brian Phillips made a persuasive case that college basketball's cult of the coach has something to do with projection -- that the further we get as fans from the talented, just-passing-through teenagers on the court, the more we're inclined to relate to their middle-aged bosses. "[The coach] still connected to the magic of sports, but with him it takes the form of inspired halftime speeches and brilliant late-game stratagems -- basically work e-mail lifted to a spiritual plane," Phillips writes. "[Coaches] obsess about what's not working, get mad at players who screw up, praise players who do well. When something good happens, he runs around and celebrates. When something bad happens, he flails his arms like an idiot. Sound like anyone you know?" This is maybe a little bit of a bummer, the postulation that as we get older we stop dreaming of flight and glory and start dreaming of implementing effective management strategies. It's certainly not entirely wrong.
But it doesn't seem like the whole story, either. There's the basic practical fact that college coaches are the only players in this drama who are the same from one year to the next, but that's not quite it, either. College basketball's political valence is broadly conservative, at least relative to the NBA. There's a reflexive if mostly facile appeal to traditionalism inherent in it, and the power differential between the players and the coach is vast and unmistakable; it is the opposite of the NBA's player-ocracy, in which the world's best and best-paid players only faintly consent to be ruled by short dudes in suits. For those inclined to see the NBA model as preferable and college basketball's power dynamic as retrograde and exploitive, this is unappealing. But for those inclined towards the old-fashioned dimensions of college basketball's balance of power -- despite all those discomfiting and increasingly apparent exploitations and elisions that underpin it -- college basketball is familiar, and comforting. The coach is in his heaven, and all is right in the game, or something.
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Of course, that's only part of it. College sports, more so than their professional counterparts, are an exercise in cheering for a matching set of uniforms and an idea of identity -- caring about Alabama football or Kentucky basketball does not require a diploma so much as it does a willingness to align with whatever virtues or values we might wish onto those uniforms. It does not, finally, even require caring all that much about the players in those uniforms, if only because those players by definition come and go; in college basketball the best make their way into and out of school before even amassing a year's worth of class credits. There are programs better known for this high-speed churn than others, but it's increasingly how business gets done across the board.
Even our sainted, emoji-besieged Coach K recruits players with no intention of ever hanging a Duke diploma in their dens. Part of Duke's appeal -- the idea that makes the team popular among fans who will never so much as visit the campus -- is the sense that it is different, and that there is such a thing as a principled and tradition-minded Duke Way, and that it stands heroically athwart the progress of crass, creeping Calipari-ism, yelling stop. A Kentucky fan (or a fan of Arizona or UCLA or Kansas or UTEP or Central Connecticut State or wherever) fan could and would and will give you the same explanation about their program's real or imaginary virtues. This isn't a bad or even an unusual thing in sports, but it's a thing.
But to the extent that we make it about identity, the college basketball conversation is mostly an exercise in the narcissism of small differences, and also to the stubborn strength of hopeful denial. If college basketball's residual amateurism is evident in the generally amateurish basketball on display, it's also increasingly clear that any of the college game's supposed for-the-love purity or homespun virtues are at this point mostly imagined. Even the most ardent college hoops sentimentalist can't help but know, at this point, what college basketball is -- great fun to watch, but also multiply sketchy and ethically compromised and warped by the comically arbitrary and self-important enforcement of its various credibility-compromised authorities.
In this sense, big-time college basketball is not so much an escape from the dreariness and bloat of our broader culture as a reflection of it, albeit one with more missed foul shots and comically oversized faces on sticks being brandished by the various student sections. You can blame the coaches for this -- they do the recruiting, and are the only figures in the drama getting paid above-the-table, and their rich mahogany desks are where the buck purportedly stops. Or there is the other route, which involves clinging to the coaches that much more intently, and wishing that much harder that their authority was real, or that they deserved it.
To anyone watching an actual college basketball game, it's absurd to focus on the intensity of the coaches -- they are almost invariably the least-interesting aspect of any game. But for those squinting past the game to see some projection of some fading and failed ideal -- those watching their own idea of college basketball -- it's got to be difficult to watch anything but the coaches. You think they don't want it?