|Polished NFL outshines NBA|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
Easy to see why the NFL is hotter than the NBA.
Both are battle-tested expressions of the American psyche, each has its own draw and allure, both cause a kind of sweet revulsion that make things boil inside you one way or another. All things being equal, I'm drawn to both, a moth to the flame, undisturbed by search warrants, what-me-worry lying to authority figures, post office poster boards fulls of alleged sexual misconduct or other fraternity keg party activity. Neither constituency -- the NFL nor the NBA -- is much different than the general male population in this area, except they have much more in the way of license, funds and opportunity to express themselves this way. Movie stars do it too. Personally, my eyeballs could care less about the sick-puppy factor when I'm watching a game. For the most part, you win with thugs and gladiators. I accept that.
However my eyes do ask they be skilled thugs and gladiators.
When my eyeballs begin to roll up in my head and I begin to slap my forehead, not when the police blotter is read, but while I'm watching the "talent" perform -- there's a problem.
A big problem.
So what is the problem with the NBA?
In the NFL, outside of the need for impromptu orthopedic surgery, there is no problem with quality of play. There are no more easy games, no walkovers. The margin for error is very fine. Mistake in pass coverage, you get beat. One lazy jab step as a receiver, you can't even get off the line to get into your route, much less catch the ball. One too many bull-rushes, and the O-line can stuff you. One failure to get your hands on the DE and check his swim move, and your QB is crushed like an aluminum can. The skill level in the NFL has gone through the roof. They fill the field with it.
Outside of the obvious answer -- pure talent -- why is that?
Because the NFL player is more highly prepared and trained, that's why. The typical NFL player is more highly trained than a typical Navy SEAL. He's ready to execute, celebrate, then ask of us:
Are you not entertained?!
Fun! Exhilarating! I have to say that I am! (My eyeballs talking.)
When a player makes the NFL, he's already fairly polished. He has battled talents on his level for five years in certain well-populated staging areas. He is accustomed to crowds. Nearly all NFL rookies are actually fifth-year pros. Nearly all D-I college football players who get drafted use a redshirt year and are fifth-year-seniors, 23-year-old men, by the time they get drafted, survivors, and there's very little of the boy about them -- at least, not until they get to training camp and find how much technique they have to learn.
But the material -- the trained raw material -- is there.
Some don't even make it through then, and have to take a year or three and play in the NFL's developmental league, NFL Europe.
Not so in the NBA. So it's all in how the players are developed.
A mere 10 years after the USA and NBA Dream Team schooled the world in Barcelona, we saw the gang-bang the world applied to the United States in Indy, and I mean three continents' worth of whup-ass -- South America, Western Europe, and Eastern Europe-Asia -- applied to the USA Basketball team made up of NBA veterans, several of whom, it seemed, curiously, could not really play. They could run and jump, but they could not play. There's a difference. So the world took turns dogging the U.S. team out. It was no fluke. It was three thorough spankings from Argentina (?), Yugoslavia (?) and Spain (??), not because it was the NBA's say, third-best team, so much as it was because of the way the players are developed.
In baseball, football and basketball, the top talent, possible professional talent, has been identified no later than age 16, and is usually cherry picked by 18. The difference in baseball is, the 18-year-old, no matter how large his raw athletic skills, goes right to the minor leagues, to learn how to play, to learn the skills of the game. Why, no one would draft a high school player and send him to the major leagues. You wouldn't want to embarrass him, the team, yourself or the game by putting a 6-2, 200-pound .650-hitting, bag-stealing, cannon-armed, high school outfielder into a big-league game. See keyword: HIGH SCHOOL. Besides, the paying customers wouldn't stand for it.
As we noted, the NFL is fortunate enough to have their unofficial minor leagues wired into such a fine and wonderful institution as college football. People cheer and are tradition-bound to what are in effect the NFL's minor-league games. And In fact, pro football spun out of the great bittersweet love America has for college football (and any other such fountain of youth).
So the 18-year-old star gets trained for five years at, say, Michigan, where he works his way up slowly to the Shock of the NFL.
The NBA started drafting high schoolers, here and there, then as college-agers started coming out earlier, and earlier, and earlier, soon there was no four-to-five-year progression. The turnover rate is two years now. Maybe one. This has been the worst thing for the quality of play in the league. A guy is always going to be better when John Wooden gets through with him. There are no more Woodens, but people are out there trying. Even Bob Huggins at least puts a guy to work and makes him put a hump in his back. Actually going to college? Another conversation, another time.
He was a high-school center. Period. He had no adjustment period. As Sally Jenkins subtly, thoroughly, mercifully and poignantly wrote in The Washington Post, this kid didn't even know how to live day-to-day, much less handle an NBA center on the low block.
All he knew how to do was run and jump.
And the pros even knew how to take that away from him.
The difference between a trained, well-motivated, professional, polished center, like the underappreciated Alonzo Mourning, and an untrained center like, say, Jermaine O'Neal, is like night and day. And the worst thing is, Jermaine doesn't even know that he is just learning how to play. Drafted out of high school, he was lost in Portland for a couple of years. They don't really train you in the big leagues of any sport. They point you, and ask you to do certain things, and you are supposed to be able to execute them when asked. O'Neal looked like he could when he came into the league, first year. He's tall, he can run and jump, he had some rudimentary skills, reliable 15-foot jump shot, baby jump hook with either hand (so proud of that, like it was Kareem's Sky Hook or something), stuff a rookie should have. Kenyon Martin and the Nets made him look like the rook he was in the playoffs.
Who was the other USA basketball big man? Ben Wallace.
Ben Wallace, may favor bless him, is Clifford Ray all over again. That's who he is. Can't shoot, will go for a pump-fake every time, but can and will rebound, horse his tail off, dominant there, can block shots, will stick in and try to get every rebound and try to block every shot, just on pure work ethic alone, is effective in the league, and like the good journeyman he is, can help you win if you've got another center for O and good players around him.
Ben Wallace was defensive player of the year with this résumé.
Wallace helped get his team, Detroit, to the playoffs. Once there, his offensive shortcomings limited him. The man has no shot to speak of, no real offensive move; if there's clear space between him and the basket, he can dunk it and say "Aaargh!" So, between Jermaine O'Neal and Ben Wallace, offensive-skill wise, there's a sum total of one reliable 15-foot jump shot, and a dunk. So when the Argentinean big men and Yugoslavian big men score off them with simple up-and-under moves, simple drop steps, simple pop-outs, curls and rock-backs for simple (to them) 20-foot jumpers ... like the Kwames, Currys, Diops and Chandlers and all these overreaching, glorified high schoolers, J doesn't know what hit him. An Argentinean center blocks Jermaine O'Neal's shot, and all he does is step on his chest in return? Well, it's all he can do.
I've heard people, whether laughing or crying about it, saying the NBA's bleaching out the league, taking it back from the brothers, by drafting European players who already have some professional polish, such as Jiri Welsch, or Vlad Rad, or -- well, too many to count.
The NBA teams are taking the foreign players because they are better developed, better-trained players. They are not high schoolers thrust into the NBA big leagues, the top level of ball in the world, at 18 to sink or swim. The NBA's developmental chain has been broken at the high school level. The undergraduate talent raid had already occurred. So now D-I minor-league colleges in basketball reload with frosh or J.C. transfers every year, while in football, teams are stockpiled with two platoons of starting fourth- and fifth-year players every year, a good-player glut, with the freshmen usually -- not sometimes, usually -- getting a "redshirt," which basically means they don't even get to dress out, but also retain that year of eligibility. Football has apprentices.
Unless the NBA's willing to let the talent steep in the college minor leagues, until it's 22 or 23 years of age (unless it's the case of a true prodigy here or there) it's only going to get worse.
See, high schoolers learn mostly from SportsCenter highlights. If they are possible pro material, they are absolutely dominant in high school and just can run by and jump over the other kids. So all they want to do is run and jump and dunk. It's simpler, requires no plan, no application of real skill. Sometimes, opposition that isn't a half-foot shorter but can look you in the eye won't allow for such an indiscriminate dunkfest. What do you do with them, young pilgrims? What do you do besides step on a prone foreigner's chest who just wiped your soft half hook-dunk? That's a sign of how much game you got? Where is the skill base you can fall back on?
The NBA will say there's nothing they can do about this, that the Constitution will not allow for restraint of trade (which it won't, but that's really off the point; you could work it out so a guy's rights could be picked and he'd still need to go to Georgetown or UCLA or Boston College to play for three or four years -- in fact, it might go better for the player in ways beyond and enhancing of his game; some school might rub off on him). The NBA will say if a young man petitions to be drafted into the league, and there are willing suitors (because the best college-age talent was already siphoned off from the college game, which is basically freshman and sophomore ball now), what can they do? Its hands are tied.
Well, a blindfold will be tied too, around my eyes, if I have to watch Jermaine O'Neal, Kwame Brown or even a Ben Wallace represent as the very best hoop the cradle of the game can offer.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."