I don’t know exactly what year it happened, but somewhere along the way, team sports turned into “ME Sports,” and the trend toward toxic individuality has manifested itself in everything from grooming and dress code, to style of play and counterproductive regulations. Actually, this subject has been on my mind for a long time, but it all came back into focus for me while I was watching the ACC Channel’s stellar 10-part documentary on the history of the league tournament. That series dredged up a lot of feelings I had about the importance of tradition in college athletics. I’ll start with my concerns over who is playing the game and for how long.

In speaking with producers of the recent ACC documentary, legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski talked about how the new “one and done” era was hurting college basketball. Coach K noted that it takes two to three years to recruit a good player who used to stay in school all four years. Today, though, a coach spends the same amount of time recruiting, but the player leaves college after one year to seek fame and fortune. Team building has given way to “ME building,” which diminishes the importance of the overall mission, makes a sham out of the scholarship system, and denigrates the importance of a college degree.

The “ME first” approach to college basketball has also had an impact on the style of play. In the not-so-olden days, star players weren’t allowed to hog the ball or throw up a shot before the rest of his teammates were in position to rebound. Today many of the “One and Done’s” can routinely be seen flying down the court or running out the shot clock without giving so much as a thought to passing the ball. For those guys, every game seems to be more of an audition for the NBA than it is an opportunity to advance the school’s athletics program. And don’t get me started on the 3-point shot. Beloved sports columnist Bob Ryan believes that the 3-point rule has ruined the sport of basketball, and I agree. It was a gimmick originally invented by Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein to enhance the entertainment value of his staged contests, but today it mainly serves as an accomplice to “ME First” players, and an artificial device for putting a game out of reach.

Another contributor to the “ME First” movement in college basketball has to do with hair and grooming, but lest I be accused of having a “Get off My Lawn” senior moment, consider first the winningest program in college history, and how it got that way. The UCLA Bruins won 11 NCAA championships under head coach John Wooden, and those wins were buoyed by great players, great discipline, and an overriding belief that the team was more important than any one individual, even individuals like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton. To illustrate my point, what follows are comments by Wooden and Walton about what happened on the day Bill returned from summer break, and reported to practice sporting long red locks, in violation of the Coach’s rule that hair could be no longer than two inches in length. Wooden recalled the moment:

“Bill told me he had been the national player of the year, that we had just won a national championship, and had been undefeated, and that I didn’t have the right to tell him he couldn’t have long hair. And I said, ‘You’re right Bill. I don’t have that right, but I do have the right to determine who is going to play, and we’re going to miss you this year.”

Walton completed the story:

“So I got on my bicycle and rode as fast as I could to the barber shop in Westwood, jumped in the barber chair, and said ‘just cut it all off.’ Then I rode back to Pauley Pavilion in time for practice.”   

Today’s “ME First” players wear their hair any way they wish. They sport as many tattoos as they wish. They wear rings in weird places, and often times wear different color shoes from other teammates.

It’s all about personal expression, and very little about personal commitment. But hey, what do you expect when most of the coaches show up for games dressed in sweats instead of a coat and tie.

I’m not suggesting that we go back to a time when the set shot was more prevalent than the jump shot, or when a certain coach from Chapel Hill was allowed to go into an endless 4-corners stall. I am, however, suggesting that colleges stop letting scholarship athletes make a mockery out of education. I’m also suggesting that college coaches start acting like coaches, and that means refusing to sign any athlete who won’t commit to staying for four years. And college hoopsters themselves should be required to look, act, and play as a team, and not as five individuals.

It has been said that there is no “i” in “team.” I just wish that was true of college basketball.

Jim Longworth is the host of Triad Today, airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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