Saturday, December 24, 2011

On Player Introductions

The featured NBA personality of the past month has been Chris Paul, who was traded to the Lakers, then returned to the Hornets, then finally traded to the Clippers. Paired with Blake Griffin, Paul promises to mount an MVP-caliber season if he and Griffin keep their repaired knees healthy. One thing you can count on when the Clippers introduce Paul at their home opener will be his billing by the public address announcer: We will learn not that Paul was born and raised in the Winston-Salem, North Carolina area, nor that he played four pro seasons in New Orleans (and two in Oklahoma City), but that he attended Wake Forest University for two years. Throughout the league, university attendance, no matter the duration or the proximity to the player's hometown (in Paul's case, he attended college close to home, but many ballers do not), is made part of a player's brand. Of course, not every NBA player attended university -- at least those who entered the league before the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement. But team marketing staffs have thought of a simple solution for this problem: wherever LeBron James, for example, has played pro ball, he is billed at "6 foot 8, from St. Vincent - St. Mary's..." owing to his early entry to the NBA direct from high school. (Forward to 0:52 mark of video:)

Why, though, is a player's educational affiliation his most salient identifier? I tend not to introduce myself at parties by describing where I studied ten years ago; I might refer to my hometown, or what neighborhood I live in now. Minutiae like my high school or college are hardly relevant to my life today. Employers hardly care about my university affiliation, either: an adequate one is useful to get one's foot in the door, but for promotions and movement to different companies, it is recommendations and recent accomplishments that make the difference.

With my examples of Paul and James above, at least their schooling was only a few miles from their hometown, but top college basketball programs usually draw recruits from all around the country, or from other nations. Kevin Love, for example, spent his whole life in Oregon before passing through southern California for one college season after he finished high school in 2007. And following the '08 draft, he has lived in Minneapolis for over 3 years. Yet the Timberwolves announcer always reminds us that Love is from UCLA. Kevin Durant is a son of Maryland, yet his introduction pairs him with the University of Texas, where he spent approximately 7 months of his life, in the fall and winter of 2006-2007. Similarly, lifelong Torontonian Tristan Thompson, now of the Cavs, spent two prep years in New Jersey, one further high school season in Nevada, and a few collegiate months in Austin, Texas, before he entered the NBA draft last spring. Before each home game, Cavs fans will be reminded of the news that this Canadian is "from" Texas.

NBA fans with a moderately long memory will remember announcer Ray Clay's iconic introductory locution for Michael Jordan (backed by an addictive synthesizer hook from the Alan Parsons Project) before every game in Chicago: "From NORTH... Carolina... at guard, 6'6"... Michael... JORDAN!" At least in Jordan's case, the "North Carolina" appellation identified both his college and his homeland. But calling Tristan Thompson, of Brampton Ontario, a Texan is a bit of a stretch.

It is true that college is a singular moment in the lives of many young people: away from home for the first time, thrown together with young people with different backgrounds, staking their future on their ability to sit for exams and nail the answers, college students form very intense bonds with their new friends and with the institution. Years later, former students look first to their college ties for social connection and professional support; even Rudy Gay, who spent just one year at the U. of Connecticut, or Kyrie Irving, who played 10 games for Duke, look to their alma mater for a place to scrimmage in summertime.

Moreover, until twenty years ago, it was unusual for top young players to spend any fewer than two (and usually three) seasons in college ball; future MVPs Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan all spent four years on campus. Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O'Neal spent three. When Chris Webber left college after his sophomore season in 1993, he began to stress the three-season norm for college ballers that had mirrored the NFL's explicit no-sophomores rule, and afterwards entry by high school seniors (beginning with Kevin Garnett in '95) or college freshmen became more typical. Perhaps there was once a feeling in NBA circles that college truly was the most formative place for a young lad to learn the game, but things change.

Today, of course, high school and college student-athletes spend most of their non-official time attending summer academies sponsored by apparel companies, AAU tournaments, and tours through China. It is risible to argue that a few months in Lexington, Kentucky was the most defining period of John Wall's pre-pro life, after he grew up in rural North Carolina in a challenged family. Yet...

My co-blogger H.O.S.S. suggests that teams ask players how they would like to be introduced. Barring that, the smartest approach I have seen is the Chicago Bulls' introduction of Derrick Rose, who spent his whole life before college (including a celebrated high school basketall career) in the city of Chicago. Rose passed through John Calipari's point guard factory at the University of Memphis for one season before joining the NBA in 2008 -- returning to his hometown in Cook County. The Bulls do not pretend that his college half-year was the most salient time in his life, instead pleasing the home crowd by simply calling him "From Chicago" (forward to 4:52 mark of video):

(Of late, Rose has spent more of his free offseason time in Los Angeles than in Chicago, but why let facts get in the way of a good story?)

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