Fortunately for our sanity and the enduring hope that the world offers better things to come, even the most irritating fashions and fads – selfie-sticks, anyone? – eventually fade away.
So it is that basketball shorts no longer resemble culottes, hiding athletes’ lower bodies in oddly Victorian modesty. Without fanfare, after more than two decades, hems are creeping upward, kneecaps reappearing as though the clouds have parted. That assumes another fashion trend, wearing white compression pants, does not obscure the view. The rise in shorts is incidentally in keeping with Roy Williams’ taste; the North Carolina coach mandates trimmer shorts because players attempting between-the-legs dribbles have been known to lose the ball within voluminous folds of cloth.
In another fashion switch that pleases some of us, the preponderance of male athletes no longer embrace the uniformity of smooth-shaven skulls in increasingly unknowing imitation of some 53-year-old named Michael Jordan. Instead, just in the past few years hair has made a bountiful comeback in riotous, if patterned, bursts of individuality.
Not every fashion arises so organically. Within the TV industry, ruler of the sports landscape, it’s fashionable to withhold advance notice of college football kickoffs until they’re nearly upon us, lest some optimal ratings opportunity be forsaken. This inconveniences the paying customers who actually plan to attend games as well as the schools and merchants who serve their comings and goings. Now similarly heedless scheduling has infected college basketball; Miami’s visit to Duke this past Saturday was one of several ACC contests listed prior to the season as “TBD” or “TBA,” which probably stand for The Best Deal or The Best Arrangement, respectively. For ESPN, that is.
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Some fashions are more short-lived than others. TV, especially ESPN, has a way of whipping the sports commentariat into a frenzy when it suits the network’s purposes, then losing interest and moving on. So it was that, upon Syracuse’s arrival in the ACC four seasons ago, Jim Boeheim’s Orange played two close games against Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils, with each squad winning on its home court. Hall of Fame coaches, talented players, winning traditions: Suddenly the series was declared a rivalry for the ages, touted as a new sustaining ACC passion for the 21st century. Much ponderous prose on-air and in print was devoted to discussing the nature of rivalries, whether the new pairing might eclipse Duke-UNC, and other such nonsense.
Yet after two years of panting promotion, the home-and-home series between the two schools ended. This is the second straight season in which the teams meet just once, this year at the Carrier Dome on Feb. 22. Virtually no one seems to have noticed.
Sometimes what’s in vogue is neither spawned by grassroots interest nor manufactured for commercial purposes. Well, not directly anyway. Certainly that’s the case with the effects of the one-and-done rule, an NBA restriction in place since 2006 that prevents players from jumping directly from high school to the pros. Instead they must wait until after their 19th birthday and be a year removed from their high school class graduation.
Some thought this limitation might make it fashionable for noted prospects to go overseas for a year to play for pay until the time was right. Things haven’t turned out that way. Instead we’ve seen a plethora of gifted youngsters decide to attend college for a year – more accurately an eligibility-securing semester in some cases – before seeking to fulfill their professional aspirations.
While a handful of high-profile programs attract lots of one-and-done players – Duke, Kansas and Kentucky foremost among them – there’s always a Ben Simmons who migrates to LSU or a Dennis Smith Jr. to N.C. State. These players arrive on campus heralded not only for their talents but for their short competitive shelf lives. It becomes fashionable to dub them All-Americans, lottery picks or the potential No. 1 draft prospect before they play a college contest. This acclamation has an infectious quality – ACC fans will recall Tar Heel Harrison Barnes discussing his brand, and promoting the “Black Falcon” nickname he was given by ESPN, as a freshman in 2011.
The commentariat freely discusses players’ imminent pro futures even as fans hope against hope the obvious lack of a complete game will deter early departure, ignoring that the NBA drafts more on potential than achievement. It was only three years ago, after all, that Duke supporters balked at the notion Jabari Parker might be the NBA’s top pick despite the fact he was prone to matador defense, and stumbled badly as the Blue Devils fell to 14-seed Mercer in the NCAAs at Raleigh. Parker was drafted second by Milwaukee.
Early-departure drivel follows prominent prospects throughout their initial collegiate season. Staying in school through graduation may be regarded as a tacit mark of failure. Talk about being a prisoner to fashion!
Having a potential top pick on the roster can be a selling point in recruiting. Not surprisingly, then, back in September, N.C. State’s Mark Gottfried declared that Smith “legitimately, realistically is the kind of player with a great year that could be the No. 1 pick in the draft.” Media members continue to parrot and amplify this claim with thoughtless fealty.
Whether the talented Smith goes first in the 2017 draft, he figures to enjoy a remunerative and possibly illustrious NBA career. Just now, though, as he seeks Gottfried’s “great year,” as he struggles to balance the hunt for his own shot with leading his teammates, Smith may not even be the Wolfpack’s best point guard. Like any freshman, he has much to learn, as illustrated last week when his pair of mental mistakes in the final seconds nearly cost the Wolfpack a victory against Pittsburgh. “Your decision-making is just as important as your skillset,” TV color analyst Dino Gaudio opined gently at the time.
Whatever the transitory shortcomings of Smith’s game, the Fayetteville product, like Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, currently his leading competitor for ACC Rookie of the Year honors, already has defied a sports trend in one important respect. He appears determined to put his team’s interests before his own while he’s enrolled in school, an attitude that older coaches describe as decreasingly common.
“I think the majority of the kids today look at the sport, the potential rewards of the sport, and what can be garnered from those rewards for them individually. In other words, what do I get out if it?” says Dave Odom, a 22-year college basketball head coach who retired following the 2008 season. He is perhaps best known nationally for shepherding Tim Duncan to a degree at Wake Forest two decades ago. “I think it’s more a me-now attitude than it was we-together years ago. You see it in every element of society, but none greater than sport, or athletics.”
Odom cites as a “perfect example” of this drift toward placing individual interests ahead of team the new practice of college football stars skipping second-tier bowl games, ostensibly to prepare for the NFL draft. The one-and-done rule, extended last week for at least six years in a labor agreement between the NBA and National Basketball Players Association, only reinforces that attitudinal divide. But so too does the intensifying debate over whether student-athletes are fairly and appropriately compensated for their efforts, and the growing awareness they are not.