A Quick College Chemistry Course

By J.A. Adande

On this, the night the NBA yields the stage to college basketball, let’s pause for a moment to examine one of the greatest differences between the two games: the importance of chemistry.

Good chemistry means so much more in college. That’s about 50 percent of the reason Duke is playing for the championship Monday night. Over the weekend Mike Krzyzewski told CBS, “I love my group. They’re as close as any team that I’ve ever coached. They enjoy being together.”

If I had heard him say that before the tournament started I would have picked the Blue Devils to reach the Final Four instead of predicting they’d get bounced by the Sweet 16. I recall Coach K having similar sentiments about his 2001 team led by Shane Battier and Jay Williams, the last time Duke won a championship. Good chemistry can be worth an extra couple of victories in the NCAA tournament.

Good chemistry gets you nowhere in the NBA. Maybe it makes the team more enjoyable for the fans to watch, but it just doesn’t translate into enough victories. Ask the Houston Rockets. They made a nice run, but at the pro level -- be it over the course of a season or a seven-game series -- talent prevails.

The upside of having a group of guys that gets along is limited in the pros. Horrendous chemistry can hurt an NBA team more than excellent chemistry can boost it. It’s only a problem if the players hate each other so much that they won’t pass to an open man. Otherwise the interaction can be as impersonal as handing a deposit slip to a bank teller, and the team will be fine as long as the players are good enough.

“Without a doubt,” Phil Jackson said. “When you’re professional you understand that personalities are going to be different. You have foreign players that come play on your team. There’s not the same bond that’s created by the college atmosphere, the fraternity kind of spirit that goes along with college sport. I’ve had and played on teams that had a very close-knit group, and won a championship with a team that was not close at all and had a professional relationship that was very good.”

That latter team Jackson was referring to was the second Knicks championship team in 1973, but I’m sure his second Laker team fit the bill as well. For that matter, his second championship season in Chicago began with Michael Jordan and Horace Grant getting into a verbal fight on the first day of training camp.

Part of the appeal of the NCAA tournament is you get the sense the players actually like each other. You watch them link arms on the bench before crucial free throws. If Butler wins tonight you’ll see a leaping, twisting chest bump between the coach and players. You won’t see that stuff in the NBA. You also won’t see three of the four semifinalists failing to score 60 points in 40 minutes of basketball, as you did Saturday. In the NBA, skills beat socializing.