Back when I was in college, hanging out with friends, I started telling some story or another. My roommate stopped me barely a sentence in, and announced something like: "Henry tells some 'hang-in-there' stories: He starts talking and you have no idea where it's all going, but you have to just kind of hang in there until the end, when it might make some sense."
And this is a hang-in-there story, for sure. And even though the headline is about a Turkish basketball player bound for Kentucky, I'd like to open by quoting (of course) from a Michael Lewis Vanity Fair article about the economic crisis in Greece. Greece's economy is in shambles, and Lewis traveled there to try to find out why. He ends up meeting with a tax collector who is regaling him with stories and documents outlining every kind of tax cheat imaginable. He starts detailing them one by one, for Lewis to report on.
That’s when I stopped him. I realized that if I let him go on we’d be there all night. The extent of the cheating -- the amount of energy that went into it -- was breathtaking. In Athens, I several times had a feeling new to me as a journalist: a complete lack of interest in what was obviously shocking material. I’d sit down with someone who knew the inner workings of the Greek government: a big-time banker, a tax collector, a deputy finance minister, a former M.P. I’d take out my notepad and start writing down the stories that spilled out of them. Scandal after scandal poured forth. Twenty minutes into it I’d lose interest. There were simply too many: they could fill libraries, never mind a magazine article.
The Greek state was not just corrupt but also corrupting. Once you saw how it worked you could understand a phenomenon which otherwise made no sense at all: the difficulty Greek people have saying a kind word about one another. Individual Greeks are delightful: funny, warm, smart, and good company. I left two dozen interviews saying to myself, “What great people!” They do not share the sentiment about one another: the hardest thing to do in Greece is to get one Greek to compliment another behind his back. No success of any kind is regarded without suspicion. Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing. Lacking faith in one another, they fall back on themselves and their families.
The structure of the Greek economy is collectivist, but the country, in spirit, is the opposite of a collective. Its real structure is every man for himself.
I am lucky enough to have relationships with lots of people who know a lot about the inner workings of basketball, and you know what? It's a lot like this, especially at the college level. An epidemic of lying, cheating and stealing, with everyone mistrusting everyone else. If you try to dig in to bust the bad guys you find, basically, that it's everyone.
Just like Michael Lewis stopped finding it noteworthy that this or that person cheated on their taxes, I have stopped caring about this or that player taking money from some agent/school/sneaker company/financial adviser. Honestly, I'd be much more interested in hearing about a top NBA prospect who didn't. That's what's rare and interesting.
So nowadays when I hear some such story, I don't take notes. Nor do I wonder for one second how this could have happened, or what is wrong with the players.
The answer to all those questions, answered by the free market a thousand times over, is that elite young basketball players are valuable, and things that are valuable can attract cash, no matter what rules are in place. Period.
Imagine if I gave you a truckload of gold, and mentioned there were tough-to-enforce rules -- set by people who'd like to profit from your gold -- against selling it. Meanwhile, people will come to your door, every day, offering you mad amounts of cash for that gold.
Would it be news if you sold some?
Families with elite young hoops players have been given that gold.
Nothing about that process impugns players much to me either. Is O.J. Mayo the criminal in that U.S.C. story? Hardly. It's the people who are paying -- the sophisticated operators -- who are working under an ethical cloud, in my eyes. It's the people who are profiting from all this.
Hats off to Peter Thamel of The New York Times for doing a lot of great reporting in shedding light on young Turkish center Enes Kanter. Kanter is a Kentucky recruit from the elite Turkish club team Fenerbahce.
Kanter has an adviser whose role is unclear -- some kind of agent/fixer with a history of hanging around other elite players. Kanter has a former coach saying he was paid. He may or may not be a professional -- he plays in front of paying crowds, but has had no contract.
In all of that, he's like most -- perhaps all -- of the players who will be drafted in a typical modern-day NBA draft lottery, no matter where they're from.
When some reporter does the hard work of getting a story like this on the record, the thing I wonder is not how did the world come to this, but rather: Who motivated this? Why are the insiders piping up about this one case, even as it remains business-as-usual for a zillion other players operating under the same rules?
Kanter is supposed to play next year for the University of Kentucky, while he ages to the point of becoming NBA eligible. Maybe this media uproar will keep Kanter from becoming a Wildcat, which would shift around who's reaping the benefits of his work. Why was Kanter ratted out to a reporter? Why did Thamel get more than the regular "no comments" as he called around? Some theories sprung purely from my imagination: Maybe somebody wants Kanter to play somewhere else where they can profit from his presence. (If he can't go to Kentucky, where will he play instead? His old club in Turkey is one guess.) Maybe somebody wants to make John Calipari look bad. Maybe somebody wants to put a dent in the University of Kentucky's recruiting class. Maybe it's even more complicated than all of that.
But what I'm absolutely certain of is that this is not what a lot of casual sports fans will take it to be: An isolated case of financial irregularities, exposed by a crisis of conscience of those involved. I don't know anybody in professional basketball who thinks NCAA rules are sacred, or even helpful.
Breaking them is business as usual, and has no effect on one's ability to be welcomed to the NBA. Who would have it differently? Does anybody think any of this prohibits Kanter from playing at an elite level a year from now? (Would that his career could be as "doomed" as O.J. Mayo's.) Whether Kanter was paid or not, and whether he passes NCAA muster or not, he's exactly what the NCAA's best stars are: a de facto professional, whose valuable work can make lots of people money except, oddly, him. He's right on track to join the NBA in 2011, and no matter where he plays between now and then, in terms of his bizarro employment status and income, he'll likely fit right in with the best young players from around the world. The players all know that, the teams all know that and the agents all know that. It's too bad this underground, backstabbing NCAA world, and the myth of the amateur student-athlete, keep the system from being reshaped to accommodate the reality that valuable players generally do get paid, one way or another.