In college basketball we'll always have the headline: What Could Have Been. With the sub-deck explaining how a player is leaving the collegiate game and potential glory for the unknown professional world.
I was watching a little bit of the Philadelphia 76ers the other night (a cry for help that you're ignoring!) and I couldn't help but wonder how a junior-year or senior-year Jerami Grant would have done playing for Syracuse. Have you seen him lately? Grant looks and is starting to play like a true NBA player. There's also Grant's former teammate at Syracuse, Tyler Ennis, another one who left central New York abruptly, who is about to make his 2015-16 debut for Milwaukee. Much like Grant, and plenty of others like Donte Greene and Chris McCullough, Ennis was out the door and on to the National Basketball Association before we really got to know him.
Now, before we start barrel-rolling into the "How Do We Fix College Basketball" black hole, let's change directions and galaxies. I don't want to rehash old eyes-glaze-over debates. But what I find interesting, something that isn't right or wrong necessarily, is how college hoops is kind of like a line from Dazed and Confused.
"They get older, I stay the same age."
A line, for these purposes, taken completely out of context. Matthew McConaughey's character was creepily talking about high school girls. That's nasty. Especially considering he, the character and the person, looked like he was closer to thirty-five than eighteen.
Nonetheless, a basketball program can resemble the staff of a restaurant: College kids here one day and gone the next. But we the observers grow older and still really stay same. Grant, Ennis, Greene, McCullough, all early refugees from Jim Boeheim and Syracuse. And yet, the next season, we'll get used to the new faces. We'll go all in with the new batch because there is always something cooking. Sometimes the latest collection isn't as talented as the one preceding it, sometimes the new guys will make you forget about the past. The point is, everything changes in one or two years in college basketball. The stories of the individual characters are never fully told, which is both a little heartbreaking and relieving at the same time.
Heartbreaking because we don't get to see the development of the kids on and off the court. Like McCullough, who was injured too early for him to make an impact. It just seemed rational that the frosh would return as a soph and truly showcase his talents, to become assimilated in all things Orange. With him back in the fold for this season, there is little doubt that Syracuse would be a much better team, now and come March. Unfortunately, we'll never know now.
Tough to digest. But as a college basketball fan, the one thing you're almost always spared of is watching a player meet the official end of his "career." You don't want them to leave, but at this level, you rarely get to that point where you get sick of them. (Injury is a variable that does not care about age, so I'm disregarding that aspect.)
Just look at Kobe Bryant. It's crazy that, to the extremely young basketball fans out there, some kids may only know him as the "old guy who used to be good, but is now pretty much always missing shots or hurt." Kobe freakin' Bryant! He's by far not my favorite player -- really he's the antithesis: Me first, me second, me third...-- but Bryant is certainly on the short list of all-timers. That talent, that attitude, that aura. When Kobe Bryant does finally
limp walk away, he'll be taking a major piece of basketball history with him. He's one of the last "Put My Money Where My Mouth Is" players who really doesn't give a damn about what you or anyone else thinks. It's something that, unless you're a Lakers fan, you won't miss until you realize it's gone for good.
Until he does go away, though, Lakers fans have to put up with this dribbling-shooting-and-missing car wreck. A little like Michael Jordan, who labored through two random seasons in Washington, Bryant is just prolonging his eventual demise. Of course, that's his prerogative. Bryant has won an awful lot, including five titles, and Los Angeles could never have pushed him into retirement or *gasp* trade him. He's NBA royalty who has earned (as much as any player can) the right to go out his way.
(That's not even doctored footage!)
But this is definitely sad to watch. Five rings and so many amazing moments and unforgettable games. All of it seems like a dream we're too foggy to completely remember. Glory days long over, laptops and phones are filled with countless articles explaining how Bryant should have retired a year or two ago. Experts dive into how bad Los Angeles as a franchise is run. It's a true narrative that the Clippers have usurped the Lakers, at least on the court.
Yet, it happens in some form or another just about everywhere at the next level. New York, California and points in between. A great pro player plays a for lot longer than the average really good player. Eventually, that will become awkward and painful for everyone. That's because the typical player is cut and dropped long before age becomes a factor. For someone like Bryant, or a Peyton Manning in football, he is talented enough to last in the game for far too long. He's almost done too much good for his own good. Bryant's skills haven't betrayed him, his body has. It's happened a million times over, it's hard to look at every time, and it's happening again in L.A.
It doesn't happen in college.
Father Time gets us all, but he'll take the thirty-something pro before he takes out the jumps-out-of-the-gym eighteen-year old. We don't see the broken-down-due-to-age versions of any of them. It only seems like Trevor Cooney and Mike Gbinije have been at Syracuse for twenty years. The fact is, they're probably more in their athletic primes right now than when they first set foot on campus. Shit, have you seen the way Gbinije is playing right now? He's that classic Old School player who has gotten tremendously better as the years have gone by. And come Senior Night for the two, love them or hate them, they'll be main contributors for the Orange. They, however, be decaying distractions, like Bryant is over there in Cali.
It's a major advantage college hoops has over the NBA. It's why McConaughey's perceived perverted line can be twisted around to fit next Friday when we watch Malachi Richardson, Tyler Lydon and Frank Howard. The NBA grabbed the other good ones. The cycle continues. They adjust; we adjust. And really, even if a player couldn't go pro until after his senior season, we would never have what's going down in L.A. Really, it's just easier to always wonder about unfulfilled potential than to see what comes afterward.