Links: March Madness

by March 17, 2008

by Lang Whitaker

The Links is usually devoted to the NBA. (Well, the NBA, but also stuff like “Ninja Warrior” and interesting dwarfs from around the world.) But just for today, let’s talk about the University of Georgia Bulldogs.

When I was in school at the University of Georgia, our basketball coach was Tubby Smith. He’d previously been the coach at Tulsa, where he’d guided the school to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances. But before Tubby, the most important coach in UGA history was a guy named Hugh Durham, who recruited Dominique Wilkins to UGA in the early ’80s and led the 1983 team (starring Vern Fleming!) to the Final Four. He also had a radio call-in show that seemed to air in perpetuity on WSB-AM 750. I would listen to his show while I was riding around in the car with my Dad, and I got to know all about Vern Fleming, James Banks, Terry Fair, and I developed a mild interest in UGA basketball.

My parents were fans of Georgia Tech, I suppose because we lived about five miles from the campus. When I was in the second or third grade, I went to a Georgia Tech basketball game, the first live basketball game I’d ever seen. Tech was playing a crappy team, and the stands were maybe half-full. The arena at Georgia Tech is a bowl, sunken into the ground, topped with an domed roof. By modern college basketball standards, it’s tiny, holding no more than eight or nine thousand people. Walking into the arena, seeing the wooden floorboards glowing, hearing a brass band blaring away, it was like entering a new world. I’m pretty sure that was the moment that basketball hooked me. I also recall that we bought a couple of Cokes from a roving concession man, my first encounter with how wonderful watered down cokes (from the ice that melts as the guy roams around the bleachers with his tray of drinks) taste in that setting. In some settings, perfection is just a little bit imperfect.

I don’t remember much about that game, except that Georgia Tech had a shooting guard named Brooke Steppe who scored a lot of points. I suddenly found myself with a favorite basketball player. My Dad seized upon this, and he showed me how to read box scores in the newspapers so I could keep up with how Steppe was doing throughout the season.

Soon after, Georgia Tech became the team to watch. Mark Price, Bruce Dalrymple, Duane Ferrell, Tom Hammonds, Brian Oliver, Dennis Scott, Kenny Anderson — a collection of incredible players came through, and I had the good fortune to occasionally see them live, but more often catch them on TV and listen to the imitable Al Ciraldo call their games on the radio. Thing was, basketball was something of a third-class sport in the Dirty South, behind high school and college football, as well as baseball. But since Georgia Tech didn’t have a strong football program, their basketball team took precedence and gave me a way to learn about the game.

When it was time for me to go off to college, I quickly ruled out Georgia Tech, mainly because I can’t do math and Tech’s an engineering school. So I ended up at UGA, studying words and supporting our football team. But I had basketball season tickets, too, and I made it out to a few games now and then. Then Tubby Smith showed up and got everyone excited about basketball.

Just as quickly as Tubby arrived, he left for Kentucky, but nobody really blamed him. He could’ve won a National Championship at Georgia, but football still would’ve been the only sport people truly cared about; that’s just how it is in the South. When Tubby left, they replaced him with his longtime assistant Ron Jirsa (who? exactly), which immediately sapped any buzz left in the program. A few years later, Jirsa was gone and replaced by Jim Harrick, a buddy of UGA president Michael Adams, who probably would’ve been wiser to hire the other Michael Adams. Or the corpse of John Adams, for that matter.

When Harrick got run out of Athens, Dennis Felton was hired, and was charged with building a respectable program. Since then, there’s been very little positive news coming out of the UGA hoops program. (Hey, at least our football team is good!) Players have left, games have been lost, and Felton’s job was on the ropes as recently as one week ago. And even I, a basketball and UGA fan, mostly lost interest.

I used to love college hoops. That was how I cut my teeth, how I learned the game, where I found my first basketball heroes. But as I moved into the media, I started liking college basketball less and less and gravitating toward the NBA. Yes, there are still plenty of kids playing college ball for the love of the game, but there are also a ton of people involved in college hoops looking out mainly for themselves, from coaches to broadcasters to players. The same is true in the NBA, but at least in the NBA this stuff is out in the open. In college, everyone pretends that it’s all about the fun of intercollegiate sports (and don’t forget the education!), while in reality it’s all about ratings and the money being generated. Also, when Dick Vitale and Billy Packer are the two main broadcasting names associated with your sport, that’s not a good way to hold my attention.

But this weekend, at least for a few days, that stuff was secondary. The Georgia Bulldogs, a team full of players who will probably never log a minute of time in the NBA, most of whom are playing college basketball because they actually like playing basketball and want a free education, led by two fourth-year seniors, managed to do the unthinkable, playing three games in two days while playing through an actual tornado to win a trip to the NCAA Tournament. (And doing it on the court of Georgia Tech made it even sweeter.) The Dawgs were rewarded with a terrible seed, which likely means an early exit, but who knows? With the way these guys have been playing, anything is possible.

I’ll be watching on Thursday, cheering for them to keep it up. But after they get knocked out, my interest in the NCAA Tournament will probably fade. But for those of you obsessing over your money-making “amateur” basketball brackets, enjoy it. And about an hour after the game ends, after the cloying emotion of “One Shining Moment,” be sure to tune into ESPN, where their highly-paid analysts will give their 2008-09 preseason predictions in order to start generating next season’s interest.

Both emotional and fiscal, of course.

(BTW, the picture doesn’t really relate to the article, but it’s my favorite UGA-related photo of all time, from when UGA was playing at Auburn in 1996 and our mascot Uga tried to bite Auburn’s Robert Baker after he scored a touchdown. Amazing video here.)