Thursday, December 31, 2009
The evolution of an Oklahoma basketball fan
We're a little jealous of Royce Young. He gets to enjoy the experience of being a fan of his hometown team for the first time. Young is the founder and author of Daily Thunder, the TrueHoop Network's excellent blog in Oklahoma City. We're grateful that Royce will be in the big chair on Thursday hosting TrueHoop. Here's his first installment ... or confession:
I'll be completely honest: I used to dislike the NBA. It may be suicide for a a guy who writes about the NBA to say that, but I truly did.
I had a good reason: I live in Oklahoma and have my entire life.
No, that doesn't mean I didn't have a TV and couldn't watch any games like some might think (I also don't ride a horse to work and contrary to popular belief, we have some paved roads), but Oklahoma is a college state. Always has been. The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University rule the sports culture with an iron fist. You're either a fan of one or the other with no middle ground between.
Instead of watching guys like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Larry Bird up close and personal, our heroes were guys we only knew a few years like Hollis Price, Taj Gray, Blake Griffin, Desmond Mason, Big Country Reeves and John Lucas III.
And with no professional sports franchise within 300 miles, Oklahomans are a melting pot of transplanted or adopted fans of the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Cubs and virtually every other squad out there. When you have no team and no rooting interest, you really don't have a reason to watch every night. Big games and playoffs, yes. A mid-December game between two sub-.500 teams, no.
Then it all changed in 2005. We all know what happened. Hurricane Katrina brought the Hornets to Oklahoma City for two years, thus igniting a passion we didn't know we had. We loved the NBA. I don't know if we actually loved the NBA or just the idea of having professional sports, but we flipped out. And then of course the Sonics moved from Seattle to become the Thunder (no insults, please).
And here I am, recently having crossed an important threshold. Call it basketball nirvana, call it enlightenment, call it common sense, call it whatever -- I now realize a very important thing. The NBA is superior to college basketball. Heads are moving right now. Either you're nodding approvingly or shaking in disagreement.
But I feel like I've got a unique perspective. What I once largely ignored and looked at with a glancing eye, I now love. Five years ago, I was convinced college basketball was better. There was no way you could change my mind. College ball's intense. It's passionate. Players care. They play for the name on the front and not the back. They play for pride, school and the love of the game. These are the things college apologists convinces themselves of. On the other hand, the NBA's boring. A game of pampered super-athletes who don't care about teammates or defense and just want to dunk. It's about paychecks and fame. The officiating stinks. There is too much one-on-one. It's just boring. No pride, no intensity, no passion.
Boy, was I wrong.
It took watching and following a team as closely as you can, but I honestly don't think I could have been more misguided. Don't get me wrong, college basketball is wonderful. The three weeks in March are some of the absolute best all year. It's still a lovely game. But it's just not in the same realm as the NBA. I actually remember one of my ticks against the NBA was actually that the players were too good. Too good! Can you believe that? Now, I can't stand how slow the college game is and can't stand watching some junior small forward clank open 15-footer after open 15-footer.
Not to mention the things I never completely understood or appreciated at the pro level. I was so used to plain motion offense and zone defense that I never noticed the subtlety of a perfectly executed high screen and roll. It's a play a casual fan takes completely for granted. But the more you watch and pay attention, you notice the footwork, the communication, the connection it takes to complete such a play. I was fortunate enough to sit courtside at a Thunder game last season and I was absolutely flabbergasted at not only how hard these guy play, but how much they talk and just what physical specimens they are. The fact that a guy that big and that strong can run down a hardwood floor at full speed, catching a pass flying at his head and go up-and-under for a dazzling layup is just astounding.
One reason the NBA has such a leg up on talent is because, frankly, it robs college of it. It's hard to imagine what Kevin Durant would be doing as a senior at Texas right now. I can picture some truly epic battles between his Longhorns and Blake Griffin's Sooners, where Griffin would be a junior. Or a stacked Memphis squad with a Tyreke Evans-Derrick Rose backcourt. I'm drooling right now. Or Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday and Kevin Love giving UCLA an unreal inside-out combination. College basketball would be infinitely better if the NBA didn't take all that talent. But it did. And it still does. So while watching a raw freshman blossom in February can be nice, it's just not the same as seeing the absolute best in the world.
Maybe I'm lucky because my virgin voyage into really following the NBA, I've been blessed with watching a truly exciting young team. Their evolution alone as a young core is fascinating. But what's overlooked when you have a team to track nightly, is not only do you get to see your team, you get to watch other teams. You get to watch Tim Duncan's unparalleled fundamentals. You get to watch Chris Paul's cerebral management. You get to watch LeBron's other-worldly athleticism. You get to watch the Lakers' triangle, the Spurs' man-to-man principles, the Suns' run-and-gun. You get to appreciate basketball.
The good things college basketball has -- the crowds, the passion, the rivalries, the bands, the students -- don't weigh heavy enough to overrule the superior play of the NBA. It's like the difference between a nice low-budget indie film and a big dollar Hollywood blockbuster. One has its niche value, but it just can't match the sizzle of the other. March Madness is like the few really great indie films out there - sure, a couple great flicks come out of that genre, but the consistent, high entertainment comes from where the talent is. It's just reality.
Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy college basketball. I still love OU basketball. But as someone who has grown up watching almost exclusively college ball, my world has been opened with the NBA in my life. I couldn't believe it, but with the Sooners and Thunder going head-to-head one night, I chose the Thunder. And I didn't even hesitate. Oklahomans have never really been presented this choice and admittedly, we may just be in love with the new relationship, like how fired up you get about a brand new girlfriend. Always holding hands, kissing, calling each other and basically ticking every friend you have off. It's new to me and like a kid tasting ice cream for the first time, I can't get enough of it.
I still love college basketball mainly because I love basketball. But now the NBA is my passion, a game I had largely ignored since No. 23 hung it up. All it took was finding a team to call my own. College football can match the NFL close enough on the skill level to where its passion, rivalries and all that stuff trump the pro game. At least in my eyes. But then again, Oklahoma doesn't have a pro football team... yet.