Taking His Talents Elsewhere

Of all the teams predicted to go farthest in Madness Madness bracket pools filled out last week, I suspect North Carolina and Kentucky got the most love. These perpetual safe bets seemed even more so with a talent and size advantage relative to other programs. According to nbadraft.net, fourteen Wildcats and Tar Heels will be selected in the next two Drafts. Near the top of this year’s mock board is North Carolina sophomore Harrison Barnes, the one-time savior of Iowa State University.

No Iowan has had a more renowned high school career than Barnes, an Ames native whose college decision became the subject of much scrutiny in the fall of 2009. He considered offers from the usual bigwigs—UNC, Duke, UCLA—as well as Iowa State which was just down the street from his home. Many Iowans salivated at the prospect of Barnes helping the Cyclones return to their first Final Four since 1944, then felt jilted when the 6-8 forward committed to North Carolina in November 2009. Barnes traded an immediate legacy as one of the best players in Iowa State history for just another spot in a long line of Tar Heel legends.

A couple states south of Iowa, a similar scene has played out in Arkansas.

Here, senior Archie Goodwin recently led the Sylvan Hills High School Bears to their first state basketball title. Like Barnes, he capped his prep career in resounding fashion, and has become the first Arkansan selected to play in the McDonald’s All-American High School game, the Jordan Brand Classic and the Nike Hoop Summit. Like Barnes, he has become a star in a state of around 3 million people—and left many of those people unhappy.

Last September, Goodwin had boiled his college choices down to a few schools, with Arkansas and Kentucky near the top. Razorback fans loved the idea of the 6-4 shooting guard helping Arkansas once again topple the SEC’s elite teams. Goodwin, however, chose to join Kentucky, the very definition of elite SEC team. It wasn’t a popular decision in his hometown of Little Rock. Some Hog fans labeled Goodwin a traitor for proclaiming a love for his home state while deciding to take his talents elsewhere. Barnes likely felt similar backlash in Ames.

This isn’t a unique situation. The rosters of Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky all have great prep players who shunned programs in their relatively small states to give Goliath a hand. It’s a fan’s right to be irked by such decisions, but I hope temporary frustration doesn’t boil over into long-term anger at some of these players. For basketball fans, love of the game should supersede loyalty to a specific program. Seeing a player the caliber of Barnes or Goodwin in high school is a gift for fans. The college choice doesn’t diminish that.

This realization hit home in the second half of Sylvan Hills High’s title game against Little Rock Mills. Sylvan Hills had clawed ahead in a brutal, physical contest full of fouls. Mills’ undersized players endured busted lips and severe leg cramps; making it ugly was the best chance they had. For a while, the game resembled more trench warfare than sport. Then, in two moments, Goodwin made it fun all over again.

The first time came with a dribble drive down the middle of the court’s side. Two defenders converged on Goodwin near the free-throw line; he shook them with a stutter step dribble, reverse pivoted through them and sprung into the air, contorting his body to scoop the ball off the backboard for a 49-30 lead. Over the next 10 minutes, Mills closed it to 42-53 but any hopes of a further comeback were detonated when Goodwin corralled a long rebound, jetted down that same side and saw a sliver. He took off from about 10 feet out and by the time his head reached backboard’s bottom, you knew it was gonna be ugly. The Mills player flying by/under in a vain attempt at swattage confirmed Level 10 nastiness. The one-handed tomahawk ignited a roar from the crowd lasting at least 15 seconds, and this on-air remark from Buzz 103.7’s Pat Bradley: “I think he took off when there was about three minutes left on the clock, and he landed with about 2:45 left.”

In these instances, whatever words are stitched on the front and back of jerseys lose significance. Athletic brilliance happened, it was enjoyed and that is enough. In a flash, we are reminded what “play” means, that it started long before James Naismith nailed peach baskets to a 10-feet gym railing and that it will last long after we’re gone. That’s something to cheer, no matter your team.

The author, who’s written for ESPN.com and SLAM, covers basketball in the Mid South. Follow @evindemirel. This piece originally published in Sync magazine.