The Sunday morning after UK’s Elite Eight loss to WVU, I was inundated with so many phone calls, tweets and emails from concerned friends and relatives that I nearly expected an onslaught of visitors bearing Southern Funeral Casseroles. I assured these kind folks that I’d taken about an hour (I may have
rounded down for dignity’s sake) to have a good cry and be disappointed that our awesome “Bounce Back” season had come to an end, but that I was now optimistic because “it’s time to start recruiting.”
The post-tournament recruiting blitz signifies an exciting new beginning for college basketball fans. Each year, the amazing talent on the AAU circuit and the prep-school court offers us the promise of jumping higher, shooting better, and defending more aggressively than ever before. When this talent was showcased in last week’s McDonald’s All-American game, we were assured that many of the unsigned players are still seriously considering playing for the Wildcats. Our speculation is reaching a fever pitch; when a dear friend told me that her husband had sat next to Brandon Knight on a recent flight, I could not
have been more star-struck if I had learned that he’d scored a seat beside Bono.
Even with all the promising prospects out there, however, the amount of recruiting that Coach Calipari may be undertaking this year seems a bit daunting. As many as six Wildcats could be entering the NBA draft, despite their remaining collegiate eligibility. Despite our every confidence that Coach Cal will recruit an amazing new roster of bluechip players, we are always just a little leery of becoming next season’s UNC Tar Heels, whose 2009 National Title took them all the way to this year’s NIT. A new roster of unproven talent, we fear, could have disastrous repercussions for the upcoming season. We want assurance that next season will be as exciting as this one (hopefully a little more so), so we beg our underclassmen to stick around: over 22,000 Kentucky fans have joined a Facebook page asking the players for “One More Year.”
As fans, we claim to love our players not only for the athletic prowess, but also for their personal triumphs, struggles and eccentricities. This season, we laughed at the jokes that Cousins cracked and cheered for the distinctive dance that Wall popularized. We’ve gotten to know Orton and Bledsoe both as valuable players and as good-natured young men. Now, as they consider the transition to professional basketball, many of us are disappointed, outraged and distraught that they may be leaving. Some fans choose to focus on the hope that these players will return, while others offer a more negative perspective,
going so far as to harass them via Facebook and Twitter.
If we truly love our team’s players like family, as so many of us professed during the season, do we want them to potentially squander their own professional opportunities in exchange for a chance at a National Championship? Any game — collegiate or professional — could bring a career-ending injury, like the ACL tear that West Virginia’s Da’Sean Butler suffered in last weekend’s Final Four game. If John Wall is, indeed, the number one NBA draft pick, as the conventional wisdom holds, he will begin to earn upwards of $3 million in annual salary before his twentieth birthday. That’s three million dollars before
endorsement contracts and performance bonuses. Asking a player to gamble on a future this lucrative is like asking your firstborn to forfeit his seat at Harvard Law in order to work on the family farm.
To legions of collegiate basketball fans, the sport is about passion and tradition. Our ultimate goal is to win championships and bragging rights. We want to hang banners and gloat. For our players, college basketball is not only about team loyalty and tradition, but also about ensuring their own futures. As fans, we’ve always accepted that our best players were ready to enter the NBA draft after a successful sophomore or junior season. It’s hard to be so gracious in the “one-anddone” era, however. We contribute one season to learning their style of play, accepting their mistakes, and watching them grow as players. We
feel we deserve a little more time to benefit from their improved game. Somehow, it seems that the three seasons that Jamal Mashburn provided us, or Rajon Rando’s two, are more palatable. However, basketball, as NBA commissioner David Stern often reminds us, is a business. The one-and-done rule
was conceived not to ensure that players prosper at the collegiate level, but to provide professional basketball teams with a rubric for assessing their prospects’ competitive abilities. If Kentucky’s freshmen choose to avail themselves of this setup, then they are merely protecting their own professional
If any of our celebrated underclassmen choose to return next year, we should extend an enthusiastic welcome. If they seek fame and fortune in the NBA, we should offer our gratitude for an amazing season and graciouslyextend our best wishes for their future success. Above all, we should remember that Coach Cal only started recruiting most of them last Spring.