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The Big (Kabuki) Dance

A visit to New Orleans to watch college basketball fall — grandly, hilariously — apart.

Sometimes in the course of human events it’s best just to embrace the hilarity. The Final Four is becoming one of those events. It’s not just the fact that all the coaches now dress like golf pros and talk like salesmen. It’s not just the fact that, except for the pep bands, most of the people in the “student sections” look like they haven’t been students since about two grand juries ago. It’s not just the fact that this weekend is the climax of a month-long event that will net the various luxury-suite cowboys and buffet-table wranglers of the NCAA $800 million, and the naked profiteering goes all the way down to the fact that you are not allowed to bring a beverage into the arena unless it’s contained in an authorized NCAA cup that has POWERADE written on it in big (and very lucrative) letters.

(Also, there is no beer served at NCAA events — except, of course, in the luxury suites of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where you can get hammered just like it’s a Saints game or something. Never let it be said that the NCAA doesn’t know who it needs to keep happy … or sockless.)

And, in the midst of this extravagant festival of Mammon, the NCAA has banned the use of the word “player.”

This, to paraphrase Dave Barry, I am not making up.

At every interview session, there is an NCAA drone who keeps order. Before every interview session, said drone explains that the coach will talk first and then there will be questions for … wait for it … the student-athletes. The players are no longer players. They are student-athletes. (One informed estimate taken during the first weekend of the tournament counted 15 individual references to “student athletes” in a single interview session.) In his epochal takedown of the NCAA in the Atlantic earlier this season, historian Taylor Branch brilliantly parsed the history of the phrase. Branch found that it had nothing to do with education. It was a term of art that the NCAA cooked up to keep the members of its (largely) unpaid workforce from being reclassified as employees by the various public institutions on behalf of which they labor. Branch wrote:

But the origins of the “student-athlete” lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its “fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.”

This cheap, hidebound euphemism is now what the NCAA insists upon in place of the word “player.” I’m telling you, these people never have been funnier.

In other words, this whole event has become at best an incompetent mummery of what it is alleged to be. In that context, we now turn to John Calipari, the coach of the best college basketball team in the country, and the only man to have been rendered a non-person twice in the official NCAA history of the Final Four. (The NCAA has vacated both two of Calipari’s previous Final Four appearances, with Massachusetts and Memphis.) This time around, Calipari has been criticized for his pattern of using “one-and-done” players.

Another silly rule now forces players to spend a year in college before moving on to the NBA. (There really are only two options: “one-and-done” and “none-and-done.” Anything more stringent would fall to the first player whose bagman was sharp enough to find a good lawyer.) First with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, and this year (likely) with center Anthony Davis, Calipari has made a dinner out of this kind of temp work. He was asked about it yesterday, and we will quote his answer in full, because it is an almost limitless vista of absolute bullpucky, a Grand Canyon of horse-hockey, and, therefore, a perfect window into what the NCAA tournament has become in its corporate elephantiasis. Take it away, Coach Cal.

“I don’t apologize. It’s not my rule. I’ve already given a great solution that the NCAA and the schools take care of these kids’ disability insurance, which they must take a loan out and pay themselves, which is upwards of 10 or 12 thousand per year. Their families, if they’re eligible for that loan, should have a hardship loan, those kids that are eligible for that.

Then I said if the kids stay for two years or more they should get a year off their contract in the NBA so they get to the bigger contract quicker. If they graduate in three or four years, they have an increase in their pay 15 to 20 percent. There’s a solution.

I don’t like the rules. I want Anthony to come back … next year. It’s what I really want. There’s only two solutions to it: Either I can recruit players who are not as good as the players I’m recruiting, or I can try to convince guys that should leave to stay for me.

Now, what’s happened is North Carolina lost three underclassmen, Duke is losing ‘em. Now it’s different. But that’s okay. I mean, I’m going to do what’s right for our kids. At the end of the day, I don’t apologize for anything we do.

We had a 3.0 grade point average last year, 2.8 last term. We have the highest APR. How they judge our retention and our academics, the highest in the SEC. They go to class, do what they’re supposed to do. I mean, you know, Steve Jobs left, Bill Gates left. The integrity of their schools were at stake when they left. They should have stayed and not changed the world.

Translation: “I have big shiny brass ones. Let me show you how they clank.” I mean, honestly, DeMarcus Cousins is Bill Gates? When the good Lord handed out the audacity, Calipari got in line twice.

(Still later, Calipari made the point that “An educated man doesn’t get robbed or fooled.” He should probably take that up with, oh, I don’t know, the Wilpons?)

But the subtext of what he said is of a piece with the subtext running through this entire event. The paradigm is shifting under their feet, and the people running the NCAA know it. It’s not just Branch. It’s Joe Nocera in the New York Times. It’s Frank Martin, the coach who just jumped from Kansas State to South Carolina, admitting on television that he slipped money to some of his former players. It’s John Calipari (!), who’s now presuming to redesign the entire infrastructure of college basketball, bringing what is now an underground economy to the surface. It’s even the NCAA seriously discussing stipends, and trying to pretend that stipends are not pay for play. (I swear, the NCAA uses a dictionary from beyond the stars.) It’s taken longer than it did for golf and tennis, and even longer than it took for the Olympics, but the amateur burlesque in American college sports is on its way to crashing and the only remaining question is how hard it will fall. The farce is becoming unsupportable.

Which makes the games themselves all the more important. This is still a pretty good product that the NCAA has to sell, and it will still be one no matter how the economics of the game are rearranged to make them both more equitable and more sane. The Saturday semifinals were taut, edgy affairs. Kansas took almost the entire game to catch and finally pass Ohio State, 64-62, tangling up Buckeye All-American Jared Sullinger with double- and triple-teams throughout the second half. (Midway through the first half, Ohio State was shooting 56 percent from the floor. It ended up shooting 33 percent for the game, and its three leading scorers, Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, and pestiferous point guard Aaron Craft shot a combined 12-for-44.) “I wasn’t expecting Kansas to double, to be totally honest with you,” Sullinger said after the game. “A couple of times, it caught me totally off guard.”

For its part, Louisville was admirably stubborn, but every time the Cardinals made the game close, Kentucky had somebody who would make a couple of plays in a row — senior guard Darius Miller made the most critical ones — and the Wildcats would push themselves far enough ahead. The 69-61 final was the very definition of a working margin.

(After the game, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said, “To tell you the truth, I haven’t always liked some of the Kentucky teams. I’m not going to lie to you. But I really like this team because of their attitude and the way they play. I’ll certainly be rooting for them hard to bring the trophy back to Kentucky because I’m really impressed with them not only as basketball players, the way they carry themselves, their attitude.” He then hiked up his inflammable pants and left the podium.)

But Kentucky also won because they simply have the best player in the country, and he’s getting better by the game.

To find another season in which someone like Kentucky center Anthony Davis was so much better than every other player in the country, you have to go all the way back to 1973 and Bill Walton. (The second-best player in the country that year probably was Marvin Barnes of Providence, a towering eccentric who ended up as far more legend than man.) Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, and Patrick Ewing were all contemporaries, and Ralph Sampson of Virginia never won anything. Davis is an explosive talent. His offensive game was rudimentary at best at the beginning of the season; Saturday night against Louisville, he showed off three different varieties of hook shot. But it is defensively where Davis changes the shape of the game around him.

He’s the best natural shot-blocker since Ewing, and he probably is more athletic than the latter was while he was playing at Georgetown. He has superb footwork and what Calipari calls a “quick twitch,” which means he gets up fast. His blocks are gentle redirections, not volleyball spikes. “You knock one into the seats, and the opponent gets another possession, and maybe they make a good play,” Davis explains. “I’d rather keep the ball in play and get us into transition for an easy bucket. You knock it into the seats and, yeah, the crowd gets pumped up, but the opponent gets that new possession.”

He creates a definable radius of chaos around him. Jump shots wander upward in curious arcs. Players suddenly decide that an eight-foot pull-up jump shot is always the best option. And he plays extraordinarily hard. In the first half on Saturday, he leaped over the press table after one loose ball and, not long after that, he got all the way downcourt after a Kentucky turnover and broke up a Louisville fast break. It was a piece of back-checking that Scotty Bowman would have loved.

“When we get the lead on guys,” Davis said, “we try to keep the lead. We try to bury them. We try to keep attacking because we know they’re bound to make runs, so we try to keep attacking and stick to our game plan.”

Davis has become something of a celebrity based not only on his game, but also based on his eyebrows, which are only barely separated at the top of his nose. The “unibrow” phenomenon has taken off. “It’s great for him because it’s given him a lot of publicity off of that,” said Kentucky guard Marquis Teague. “Only he can pull that off.” In fact, sales of fake eyeglasses with unibrows above them have exploded.

“That’s great. People did a good job making them,” said Davis, who, of course, cannot profit from any of this. The man doesn’t even have the economic rights to his own face. I’m surprised the NCAA doesn’t make him wear a bag with its logo. That’s my contribution to the changing paradigm: I think every play — er, student-athlete — should be able to turn a buck on his eyebrows.

Filed Under: Anthony Davis, People

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Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

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