COLUMN: The ‘dream game’ is no more

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By Bob Watkins

College basketball. The black, er, green board is erased. New slate, new script, new players, new dream game, new everything, right?
Never mind block-charge complaints or a maddening flurry of fouls in the last two minutes, our game has been hijacked.
What highlights do you remember from season that just ended? Anything come to mind?
Yes, we’ve seen the cut-the-net cash-in going on in Louisville. Cardinal crazies still celebrating and in no mood to share the trumpet with anyone wearing blue (the last two NCAA titles belong to the Bluegrass State).
By extension and geography Big Blue Nation is in this portrait anyway. U of L basks inthe  glow of the present, while BBN fumes in silence and mumbles “can’t wait for number eight.” Oops. John Calipari already bought that one.
Louisville is already projected as a candidate to repeat next season, but prognosticators have Kentucky preseason ranked number one.
Our game, the one Kentuckians once compared to ballet and the dream game of our childhood, has been hijacked, stolen, and twisted into bad Hollywood.
The culprits? Last to first:
Network guy-in-the-truck decides what you see and hear. He/they have convinced ball coaches (and their bosses), “I am George Clooney; I am Alec Baldwin.”
Or, “Trust me, I am important enough to make Dennis Rodman look like a piker. Gimme a day to watch some film, and I can make Kim Jong-un say uncle.”
Halftime interviews: Network Eye Candy reporter and ball coach do a dance. She asks a Sesame Street question, he swallows his aggravation (see Jim Boeheim) and gives a Cookie Monster answer. The ball coach is in a hurry to “get back there and find a cure for chicken flu in China.”
Next, perception made into reality. Network guy-in-the-truck has decided a ball coach who takes his rant beyond his box is entertainment. Brad Stevens with his arms crossed is boring. Likewise, Mike Krzyzewski sitting next to Wojo.
But, Tom Crean pacing like a monk who’s lost his crucifix in the orchard grass, now that’s entertainment. Or, Rick Pitino’s “My gawd! Where is a cop when ya need one? I wuz just robbed!” routine.
And, there’s Calipari body language. “Hey fella, I’m the entertainer here. No 100-bucks-a-game guy in stripes is gonna tell a million dollar coach like me to stay off the floor. Stay in the coach box.”
Next, mind-numbing time-outs. The network is guaranteed four a half. Does anybody watch a TV commercial today? Ever?
Overlaying these subplots, guy-in-the-truck pipes in the talking heads.
By the time we hear One Shining Moment on a Monday night in April, are you sick of hearing what Chuck and Greg and Greg think about anything?
•The NCAA.
Doomed to obsolescence. First signs? The conference affiliate shuffle is the death rattle for the beleaguered, bloated and outdated bureaucratic NCAA long since fixated on profits, and overwhelmed by those who still find ways around its outdated and fat rules book (see Calipari history).
College football and basketball becoming powers unto themselves, are gravitating toward super league with a payroll for the athletes department.
•Athletic apparel companies.
Shoe company involvement on campus may be the genesis of the downward spiral of college football and basketball as we know it. It began when ball coaches began accepting bribes, uh, “free shoes for my players” while college presidents shrugged and saw no harm coming of it.
Next, the Prophet of Doom. Sonny Vacarro, a wolf dressed in sheep clothes, became a crusader and maybe the first to say aloud, “shouldn’t the players get a piece of the action?”
It made him rich and (in)famous.
•Fanatical Element.
Rougher, tougher, beat their brains out.
Embodied most recently by ex-Rutgers coach Mike Rice, his gutless boss Tim Pernetti, and bully-assistant Jimmy Martelli, the win-at-any-cost element is on the rise and is not an anomaly.
Ball coaches have to win and anything goes. How many games did we see last season where players grabbed an opponent’s jersey, pushed off, fouled harder than necessary? I stopped counting. Did you?
•Finally, college presidents.
Gave away keys to the kingdom long ago.
- Calipari at Kentucky pioneered the new way to championships. Buy them. Sign up an all-star team of mercenaries, never speak the words student-athlete lest everyone within ear-shot burst out laughing. And win games.
- Rick Pitino was paid $5.7 million this year. Louisville’s national championship got him a $425,000 bonus, which, writes Curtis Eichelberger of Bloomberg.com, is about 70 percent of University president James Ramsey’s salary, $600,000.
“To put this in perspective,” Eichelberger says, “it can be argued that Pitino is worth every penny. The basketball program brings in more than any other college basketball program. Its $40.9 million in revenue for the 2010-11 school year was $12.0 million more than the next biggest-money maker, Duke.”
Yes, lots of thumbs stuck into this pie. College basketball, the dream game in Kentucky is no more.
And so it goes.