BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In recent years, it has become uncouth, and maybe even a little offensive, to say that you like college basketball better than the NBA. Anyone who thinks that way has learned to be careful about how they phrase it, if they say it at all.
There's a good reason for this. For decades, the notion that college basketball -- which just so happens to have more white players and (slightly) fewer tattoos than the professional ranks -- represents a more "fundamental" or "pure" game has been as prevalent as it has been wrong. It's Hoosiers, really, the fantasy that a disciplined group of white players could defeat a more talented group of black players through smarts and teamwork. The sentiment behind that (entertaining, well-made) movie has been a latent founding myth of much of college basketball fandom over the past 27 years; it both reaffirmed and instituted a way of often-subconscious thinking. Here's how Spike Lee (with the late Ralph Wiley) put it in his book Best Seat in the House:
When Indiana won the national championship in 1987, right around the time Hoosiers was released, you knew with your own eyes the brothers were out there working, sweating, rebounding, hitting the game-winning j for Coach Knight's team. But not in Hollywood, the land of I Wish.
(Lee also points out the irony of the team-spirited Hickory High winning the championship on an isolation play that even Carmelo Anthony would have found indulgent.)
That mindset -- that college basketball is the "real" game -- has fueled many segments of college basketball fandom for decades. But now our always-on-the-lookout-for-such-things culture shines more light on it, pointing out the retrograde racial attitudes that were never that well-hidden. So if you understand that the fundamentals and skills and team play and everything else are infinitely better in the NBA, but you still prefer college basketball for your own reasons -- because it's more democratic, because its tournament is so fantastic, because the United States President obviously prefers it or simply because you grew up near a college town -- you may find yourself often keeping it to yourself. And more than most, you may find yourself wanting to strike back at anyone who likes the sport for the wrong reasons.
Which leads us to Aaron Craft.
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Aaron Craft is the wrench with which NBA fans can bludgeon college basketball fans. He is the face of college basketball in the worst way: He is how idiots defend the game and how skeptics deride it. He is the physical manifestation of what New York's Jonathan Chait wrote this week about how white fans watch basketball: "White people simply have certain preconceptions, and preconceptions make you see the things you expect to see and miss the things you don't." We notice Craft's strengths and overpraise them -- ESPN's Rick Reilly, for one, acts like every other basketball player since 1948 is Craft's moral inferior -- and completely miss all the non-white players doing the exact same thing.
This can make you hate Aaron Craft. His hustle and intensity -- admirable qualities that we should desire of every basketball player -- work against him. His act begins to feel as self-aggrandizing as the most ostentatious end zone dance. You find yourself cheering against him reflexively at first, and then passionately. Disliking Craft, and players like him, feels like a righteous correction.
Thing is, very little of this is Craft's fault. Craft is scrappy and gutty and feisty and all the other code words people use to describe white basketball players (particularly guards), but he is also really good. He has won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award twice, he has made multiple All-Big Ten teams, and he has helped lead the Buckeyes to the NCAA tournament four times. This, as Chait predicted, makes broadcasters go crazy over him. Bill Raftery, an otherwise sensible and entertaining man, described Craft as having "a toughness in that jersey that belies the angelic countenance." It was reminiscent of the old Onion story in which a fictional Derek Jeter watches one of his games on tape and issues an apology for all the praise Tim McCarver was giving him on air. "I had no idea," fake Jeter said. "He said it, not me." This makes us cheer against Craft more. We shouldn't hold Craft accountable for the slobbering done in his name, but we do.
Thing is, the game always does seem to come back to Craft. In Thursday's terrific NCAA second-round-opening game between Ohio State and local rival Dayton -- the first game to tip off Thursday, and certainly the best -- Craft was the focal point of everything. It was a game that had 15 lead changes, and three of them came in the final 16 seconds. Every single one of them involved Craft.
The first was the type of play for which we praise and overpraise Craft. Down one after Dayton's Dyshawn Pierre hit three free throws, Ohio State coach Thad Matta called a timeout. The play, as it turned out, was simple: Give it to Craft. Craft, with his usual dogged aggression, plowed to the basket and scored immediately with a nifty reverse layup (and, of course, went skating butt-first across the floor after it went in). It looked like yet another Craft TV Moment. I was in the stands and couldn't hear him, but I assume Raftery began reciting a Joyce poem in Craft's honor at this point. But the next time down the floor, with Dayton setting up for the win, Craft faltered at his strength: Defense. The Flyers' Vee Sanford dribbled right with Craft just a half-step late after him; he then rose for a jumper and an easy bank-in, with Craft barely even leaping up after him. On the biggest, and nearly last play of his career, the defensive whiz was beat. After the game, Craft was a lot more bothered by this than by what would happen next. "This is the fourth game-winner hit on me in my time here," Craft said (and Craft is definitely a guy who would count them). "It's amazing the way that defense has kind of been my thing, and it's amazing how it's going to end with a kid getting the game-winner on me."
You could tell Craft felt antsy that his collegiate career was about to end from his own failing, because he grabbed the inbounds pass after that and bolted down the court like he was escaping a fire. He might have burned one defender the way he'd just been burned, but he couldn't burn three. Regardless, his shot while triple-teamed almost went in. Lord knows what Raftery would have done if it had.
When a player goes as hard as Craft has for four years, it should be sad when his playing days end in such sudden, personal fashion. But this is Craft. Craft's eulogies are muted, especially compared to the primary reactions to his defeat. Along with goofy Photoshopped memes making fun of him and jokes about his flopping ability, there were hundreds upon hundreds of Dayton fans -- the Flyers faithful notoriously show up huge on the road -- taunting him as he left the court.
Not much of this is fair to Craft. As much as we want him to be, he is not, in fact, a bad guy. But this is our sports cultural correction; when he receives that much praise, for reasons both inside and outside of his control, he must be cut down extra hard when he fails. Craft had a solid statsheet-filling game -- 16 points, five rebounds, four assists. But what will be remembered is him lying on the ground, devastated. There was much sadness. But there was more glee. What he represents, to his detractors and his supporters, is bigger than who he actually is.
When a great player like Craft comes to the end of his college career, you often hear people say there will never be another like him. But there will be another Aaron Craft. There always is.
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