Thursday, June 21, 2012

NBA benefits from college fandom

By: Kyle Davis

It has the feel of a big brother, little brother relationship.

Everyone wants to hang out with the big brother. Big brother takes who he wants, leaving the rest for the little brother. It’s a relationship of respect but an understanding that the big brother has the upper hand. Little brother just wants to be invited to the party.

It is this dynamic that exists between the worlds of college basketball and the NBA. The majority of basketball fans are divided, choosing an alliance and rarely deviating. Sure, die-hard sports fans who are passionate about college basketball will still watch the NBA playoffs and the big-time, regular season matchups, and vice versa. But rarely do you find a person who hangs out with the little brother one night and big brother the next. They have different personalities, and thus different friends. 

Why? One reason is because the games are so different, and I believe apparent enough that I won’t waste 200 words explaining how. There’s also some hostility between the two leagues due to the one-and-done rule. Whether it means having elite players stay in college longer or not at all, college fans feel like they’re getting a raw deal. Big brother is taking all the good stuff and little brother has what’s left.   

Now’s the time in the poorly produced metaphor where little brother proves worth keeping around.  The NBA needs the college game in a way that has become more clear to me during these NBA Finals. It’s not that players will be better prepared, playing against stiffer competition, or older or more mature. It’s because of the fans.   

The bond between devoted fans and their athletes is much stronger on the college level. Players give their school four (or three, two or one) years of memories in which fans are eternally grateful. New players come in and carry on the legacy of the school, but alumni are not forgotten or less loved by their alma mater. Maybe it is because fans feel more of a connection watching players develop and mature from skinny freshmen to All-Americans, or because they are naturally moving on to another level in their life instead of leaving you for the guy down the street with a Ferrari in the driveway. 

Regardless, this isn’t a one-way street. For the majority of players, especially from elite programs, it is a thrill to come back to campus in the offseason and reconnect with fans. For most, the college campus is where it all began, and because of this, the connection runs deep. 

I’ve been observing these Finals in the heart of Kansas Jayhawk country. I won’t tell you my stance for fear you will close the page, but I have witnessed, firsthand, an aspect of the Finals that often gets overlooked.

KU has former players on both teams (Mario Chalmers on the Heat; Nick Collison and Cole Aldrich on the Thunder) and I have seen and heard from KU fans who normally would be watching The Bachelorette, but are glued to the games because they want to see one of their own win a ring.

And that’s the important part for the NBA; no matter what team’s name is on the front of these guys' professional jerseys, to passionate KU fans, Collison, Chalmers and Aldrich will always be Jayhawks. The same could be said for UCLA fans wanting to see Russell Westbrook succeed and Florida fans hoping for the same with Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem. They may not have enrolled in classes in eight years, but they will always be a Bruin or Gator. 

NBA teams don’t draft players based on their school, nor should they. While the market is small compared to passionate NBA fans who will watch playoff basketball even if their team has been eliminated, the NBA should take advantage of a college fan’s loyalties to their school’s former players. Is it a coincidence that the Sprint Center in Kansas City hosts a preseason NBA game each year, and it just happens to include former KU players on the rosters of the teams invited? In 2010, the Thunder and Heat met in KC, and the KU ties have been well documented by now. Last year was Houston (Marcus Morris) against Miami, and this year will be the Heat once again facing Washington (who has the No. 3 pick in the draft with KU’s Thomas Robinson lingering near that spot).   

The beauty of the college fan’s devotion is not defined, nor limited to geography or success. Kentucky fans are still going to cheer for John Wall when Washington isn’t winning. The NBA shouldn’t look at the college game as a competitor. When the college game is strong -- meaning outstanding teams, all-star players and large numbers of fans -- the NBA benefits. The college basketball season is over and its fans are searching for a fix for their postseason basketball absence. What those fans want arguably most, other than watching entertaining basketball, is to see players with their college allegiance succeed.   

Little brother is always going to want to hang around and see what big brother is up to, and in a business that lives by the numbers, little brother’s friends are useful.

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