Ballin’ out of control

By Mike Szwaja

I’ll admit it. I was there. As perplexing as my colleague Bobby La Gesse might find it, I was at the R.T. Ubben Basketball Practice Facility on Saturday. I wanted to catch my glimpse of Julian Wright, the prized recruit that every Illini basketball fan out there hopes to see in orange and blue next year. As those fans collectively put it, “The kid’s a baller.”

Okay, so he’s a baller. What does that mean? I guess it means he can do a more than 360-degree reverse dunk. I guess it means he can dribble between his legs, behind his back and anything else you can think to do while dribbling a basketball. I guess it means that when he hits a 16-foot turnaround jump shot he can smile and hold his follow-through all the way back down the court.

Okay, so he’s a baller. But is he a good “basketball” player? Honestly, I can’t say. I’ve never seen him play “basketball.” What I saw at Ubben on Saturday, that wasn’t basketball. It was what we now romantically dub “street ball” or “ballin’.”

I understand the team was out there having fun, not really playing serious basketball. I understand Wright was supposed to throw down eye-popping dunks so the fans would go nuts.

But I didn’t understand those who walked out of the scrimmage saying, “He’s going to be such a great player.”

Wright will probably become a great college basketball player, but you couldn’t possibly predict that after seeing him for the first time Saturday. People went nuts when he converted that 360-degree dunk. It was nice, but there was nobody playing defense.

As basketball fans, we’ve come to expect flashy, in-your-face, one-on-one ballin’ out of our basketball players. And we’ve lost sight of the little things that make great basketball players. In the same scrimmage, senior Nick Smith hit a tough mid-range jumper and nobody said a word. It was like nobody noticed; maybe they didn’t.

As far as I’m concerned, one man is responsible for our change in perception. Yes, Michael Jordan was the best basketball player ever, and he single-handedly put basketball in the spotlight in this country and abroad, but is it possible that he spoiled the sport at the same time?

Jordan is the poster boy of that flashy, in-your-face, one-on-one ballin’ I mentioned, but now everyone wants to be like Mike. Well, nobody can be Mike. Mike was too good at what he did, and he can’t be faulted.

We couldn’t have expected Jordan to stop utilizing that in-your-face game of his because it would doom the future of basketball. He was the one guy who could get away with it. Now, everyone thinks they can get away with it, and what makes it worse is that the fans encourage it. Just look at what’s happened to the basketball culture over the last decade.

When I was a kid, everyone played a video game system called Nintendo. I’m sure some of you remember it. One of my favorites was always the game “Double Dribble.” It was about as grass roots as it got – dribble, pass, shoot, play defense. It was a pretty realistic game in retrospect. If you didn’t pass the ball or play defense, you lost.

Now, one of the most popular basketball games out there is “NBA Ballers.” It’s a one-on-one game that allows the player to obtain cash to buy cars, clothes and tattoos. Players can bounce the ball off their opponents’ faces, jump off their opponents’ backs to get higher for a dunk and even use someone from an on-looking entourage for an alley-oop.

Remember the Harlem Globetrotters? Gone for all intents and purposes. Replaced by the AND-1 All Stars. We’ve all seen them on ESPN2. These guys don’t even play by the rules, and defense is about as common as an Earl Boykins slam-dunk. Yet, they fill stadiums and draw in millions of viewers.

Tracy McGrady mentioned retirement last season when he realized teams were shutting him down with well-executed zone defenses. Maybe he should have retired – he would make one heck of an AND-1 All Star.

Luckily, the basketball fan’s overwhelming adoration for street ballin’ hasn’t permeated its way outside of the country. We still have players from places like Argentina, Lithuania and Puerto Rico who understand what being a great “basketball” player is instead of being a “baller.”

All we heard during the Olympics was how poor Team USA shot the ball. Shooting! The most fundamental part of the game. Forget fundamentals, never mind sloppy playing, our players just want to slam it in somebody’s face and scream, “NOT IN MY HOUSE!”

The international players realize they aren’t Mike and cannot be like Mike, so they don’t play like Mike. Instead, they play like Peja, Carlos, Dirk and Manu. And it’s still remarkably fun to watch.

Mike Szwaja is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected]