Here's something you may or may not know: Media moderators and NCAA officials at tournament regionals insist on calling college basketball players "student athletes." Like, insist on it. For example, it's not: "Does anyone have any questions for the Ohio State players?" It's: "Does anyone have questions for the Ohio State student-athletes?" In NCAA-land, "players" is practically a dirty word.
This isn't a big deal, but it is somewhat ironic, given the way the modern college basketball player barely qualifies as a student-athlete. The best one-and-done guys are under no obligation to attend class. Many of those who stay past that first year would jump at the first chance to go to the NBA, degree be damned, and just as many fulfill their academic obligations in the most cursory way possible. At the highest levels of this sport, the endgame is not a degree. It's the NBA. Anything less is considered a disappointment. Everyone knows this. It's the way the system works.
For the record, I'm not complaining. NCAA student-athletes have the right to do whatever they want to do academically, and if that means majoring in tourism, taking bowling classes for four years, and doing the bare minimum to preserve their eligibility and keep Coach off their backs, well, more power to them.
Maybe it's romantic, but it is refreshing to encounter a player who breaks this mold, a player who not only takes his schoolwork seriously but actively makes collegiate decisions based on education. In other words: a student-athlete. For example, Cornell's Mark Coury, who's gone from starter at the biggest, richest basketball program in the land (Kentucky) to a bench-warmer on a team (Cornell) whose conference (the Ivy League) last found itself in the Sweet 16 in 1979. As Pete Thamel chronicled today, that's been Coury's journey. Why would a baller give Kentucky up for Cornell (besides the all-too-eager alumni, of course)? Business school, actually:
“They have a very good business school, one of the tops in the nation,” Coury said of Cornell. “That’s the reason that I wanted to come here. I wanted to choose Cornell because they had both, they had good academics and I saw that they had all these good sophomores.” [...] Coury’s recruitment to Cornell was not much of a recruitment. His father had contacted the admissions office to see if his son, a 4.0 student, could transfer there. Coury’s father, Jerry, had seen Cornell and Kentucky play at the same N.C.A.A. tournament site in Anaheim, Calif., in 2008. The combination of Cornell’s talent and his son’s academic proclivity piqued the family’s interest.
Cornell Coach Steve Donahue said the athletic liaison for admissions at Cornell, Scott Campbell, called him about Coury and told him he was 6-9 and had started at Kentucky. He asked Donahue if he was interested. “Um, yeah, I’m interested,” Donahue recalled with a laugh.
Coury described playing at Kentucky as "being on a pedestal, it's like a big pedestal on a hill," and said he had no regrets, except that he wished Cornell had a "$3 million practice facility right next to our house." Kentucky's practice facility is located across the street from the player dorms and is nicer than most of the actual gyms in the Ivy League.
But Coury is a student-athlete. When he graduates, he'll be doing so with a finance degree from Cornell, which should prove to be a valuable piece of paper when Coury decides to pursue a job moving different pieces of paper around for places that will probably pay him way too much money to do so.
(A quick aside: This is a great strategy for good-but-not-NBA-bound athletes, by the way. If you have the grades in high school, and the chances of playing your sport professionally are slim -- think of a sport like, say, wrestling -- why wouldn't you use that athletic talent to sneak into an elite Ivy League school you might otherwise not have been able to attend? Take notes, marginal but intelligent high school athletes. This is some great advice I'm giving out here.)
In any case, Coury will get a shot at his former team when the Big Red try to upset the Wildcats at the Carrier Dome Thursday. It will be a challenge to say the least; Cornell is as hot as any team in the tournament, but Kentucky's batch of NBA-bound talent appears to be peaking at its most devastating time. Even if (when?) the Big Red lose, though, it's hard not to think Mark Coury -- who was never going to the NBA anyway, and who actually deserves the insistent term "student-athlete" -- got the last laugh.