Saturday, March 3, 2012

Brian Rafalski

It's been nearly twenty years since Christian Laettner's game-winning buzzer beater in the semi-finals of the NCAA Tournament against Kentucky shocked the nation. No doubt that shot will be shown countless times in the next month to the point of extreme annoyance. But it wasn't just that shot that made the Duke-Kentucky game so incredible; the 64 minutes and 57.9 seconds leading up to helped make it one of the greatest games in college basketball. In the end, though, what 98% of people remember is Christian Laettner's shot sending the Duke Blue Devils to the Final Four. Not Kentucky fans, though. Those fans remember it for something, or, to be more precise, a few someones, entirely different.

Richie Farmer. Deron Feldhaus. John Pelphrey. Sean Woods. The four seniors on that Kentucky team had been through a lot. After their freshmen season, their head coach, Eddie Sutton, was forced to resign following an NCAA investigation of several violations, including alleged cheating of a former player on his college admission exams and cash payments to the father of another player. The investigation was carried out throughout their freshmen season (1988-1989) which, due to several key losses, was Kentucky's first losing season since 1927. A ban was placed on the school that prevented them from playing any televised games during the next season or from any post-season play during the next two. Most of the Kentucky team of 1989 left when Sutton did. Those four didn't. The four soon-to-be-sophomores stayed with Kentucky and entered uncharted territory - no coach, no team, and, it appeared, no future. In the only NCAA Tournament they were able to shine in, they led the Wildcats in a remarkable run to one of the greatest games of all time. Following the game, the university retired their jerseys while they were still in school. They were the Unforgettables. 

Flash forward to 2012. Kentucky has six freshmen, three sophomores, two juniors, and two seniors. Last year they had seven freshmen - four left to play professional basketball. At the bare minimum this year, one freshmen (Anthony Davis) is expected to leave this year as well. But it's ok - Head Coach John Calipari already has two five star, top 20 recruits ready to replace him. 

Kentucky has entirely transformed itself in the last twenty years. They've always been a national powerhouse, but under John Calipari they are doing something that's never been done before in college basketball - they've become a "One-and-Done" factory. Five-star recruits come in for their mandatory one year of college basketball, play for Calipari, leave for the NBA, and are replaced. Lather, rinse, repeat. And who can blame Calipari? His team has lost one game this season, they're ranked #1 in the country, they'll get the #1 overall seed on the NCAA Tournament, and most analysts predict they'll win the NCAA Tournament (not that that really matters - last year, a grand total of two analysts predicted that eventual champs UCONN even would reach the Final Four). Calipari is taking good advantage of a broken system. 

In 2006, the NBA increased the age limit of the draft from 18 to 19 and required U.S. players to be one year removed from high school before playing in the NBA. This means that stars like Derrick Rose, Kyrie Erving, and John Wall are forced to miss a year of basketball or, more likely, take their talents to a school for one year before moving onto the NBA. This rule benefits no one and harms everyone. There are numerous arguments that could be made against the rule:

1) It makes the term "student-athlete" a complete joke. One-and-done players come into college knowing they'll be leaving at the end of the year. That requires them to make good grades until the end of basketball season. They don't need to challenge themselves. They don't have to take their education seriously. A valuable privilege that should be graciously accepted and taken advantage of becomes an obligation, a chore, a mere stepping stone on the way to the NBA.

2) It puts the athlete in an unfortunate situation. Student athletes will tell you that, while the prospect of going to the NBA for the love the game is appealing, the idea of getting paid makes it even better. For some that's a bonus; for some it's a necessity. A lot of student athletes don't come from upper class families; going to the NBA is a way to provide their families with the kind of financial support that that they've never had before. At the same time, an extra year of playing basketball is an extra year of risking injury and preventing that NBA dream from ever coming true. Take Kyrie Irving: he was a one-and-done for Duke in 2011. While playing at Duke, he broke his toe. Fortunately for him, the toe healed and he was still drafted #1 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers but he is an excellent example of why the age limit is dangerous for players: if Kyrie Irving had broken more than his toe, his entire career would have been on the line or maybe even over before it started so he basketball at college for his mandatory year off before going pro? 

3) It puts coaches in an unfortunate situation. As if recruiting wasn't difficult enough, the age rule adds an extra factor to the equation. Coaches now have to figure how long they'll have a player for and how they can recruit around that position and that player. 

4) Why is the rule even there? Some of the best players in NBA history - Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard - came straight from high school.

5) It harms the university and this is where we come back to Kentucky. The Unforgettables of 1992 were something special. They stayed with Kentucky because they loved Kentucky. They could have transferred; they likely would have been successful wherever they went. And, to be honest, they weren't high priority recruits for Kentucky; they were kind of the runts of the litter. But they loved that school and they couldn't imagine playing anywhere else. They stuck with Kentucky not because it was great (and it wasn't great, at that moment) but because they wanted to make it great again. The one-and-done rule makes the university a stepping stone, an obstacle to overcome before the real work begins. There's no undying loyalty to the school, to the fans, to the history of the program. It's disrespectful and diminishes the work that past players and coaches have done. 

1989. Four Kentucky freshmen remain with their team despite the uncertainty of the program's future because they love the Wildcats. 1992. They're honored as the Unforgettables, the heart and soul that brought the Wildcats back to national relevance.

April 2011. The Kentucky Wildcats lose in the Final Four to UCONN. June 2011. Four Kentucky freshmen are drafted in the first round. November 2011. Six new freshmen enter Kentucky. Begin again.

2012. A lot can change in twenty years. And a lot can be changed going forward. Here's what I think should be done. It goes without saying that the age rule should be abolished. Players should be able to chose whether to go pro straight out of high school or to go to college. If they chose to go to college, though, make it a three year commitment, minimum. This ensures that players who actually want to be student athletes have that opportunity and those who don't are forced to go to school; only the athletes who care would come and isn't that the kind of students colleges want? Coaches wouldn't have to plan every recruiting class around guess work of how long a player will stay. Players might put more thought into the school they're going to because they'd be there longer. The players that want/need to go to the NBA can do so without being penalized with an extra year of waiting and warding off injury. And the NBA gets great players a year sooner than they normally would. Everyone wins. 

Brian Rafalski is an American hockey defensive player with jersey #28. He played college hockey for the University of Wisconsin but was not immediately sought after by the NHL. Instead, he traveled overseas and played in Sweden and Finland, and became the first non-Finnish player to be voted best player by his peers. In 1999, he was declared by Sporting News to be the best hockey player not playing in the NHL. That same year, he was signed by the New Jersey Devils as a free agent. He played with the Devils until 2007 when he was signed by the Detroit Red Wings. In 2011, he retired due to knee and back injuries. During his 11 NHL seasons, he qualified for the post season every year. He played in five Stanley Cups and won three. 

Thank you for your time.
The Sports Nerd