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I'm Just The Piano Player In The Bordello...By Nelson Lardner

Most folks I know love college basketball as a spectacle - especially throughout the next month - but is there any major team sport in this country in which the surface image is so, so distant from the sordid realities?

The coach can only run five guys onto the floor at a time. In no team endeavour is the skill level of a individual participant so crucial. And given that there are fewer truly top-drawer basketball difference-makers coming out of the high schools - as opposed to football players - the competition for the true crème de la crème is seldom pretty, and it intensifies as a player passes from level to level.

What you have to do to get by in college hoops was again brought under the interrogation lights in recent days, when Texas Tech head coach Bobby Knight delivered a cry of anguish with regards to the NBA dog wagging the NCAA tail.

A note on Coach Knight: You can't knock the guy's record, though Robert Montgomery is frequently insufferable when speaking in public atop his regular mount: the High Horse. He likes things His way, and when an innocent occasionally runs afoul of His standards, a brouhaha sometimes ensues. But when making a plea for decency within a current events context, it's frequently good to hear from The Man.

David Stern's league instituted a new rule last year, to the effect that a high school hoopster must wait at least one full year before entering the NBA. In Monday's Big 12 coaches' call for the benefit of the ink-stained wretches, Knight noted that this wrinkle was merely the "worst thing that's happened to college basketball since I've been coaching."

Many coaches love it, obstensibly because it gives everyone a read on a kid's abilities in Div. 1-A environments. But Coach Knight called bull on that, and fast. "You can have a kid come to school for a year and play basketball, and he doesn't even have to go to class. He certainly doesn't have to go to class the second semester . . . That, I think, has a tremendous effect on the integrity of college sports."

This season's poster boy for this dodge is Texas' Kevin Durant, the 18-year-old wunderkind who's kept a very young Longhorn outfit afloat. If you think Durant is going to return to Rick Barnes' outstretched arms for his sophomore season, I have a lovely bridge in Brooklyn I could be convinced to sell you.

I have little doubt that the Little General was specially provoked by the fact that Durant landed with a Big XII rival. Commenting, Barnes was the master of disingenuousness, virtually a job requirement for coaches at his exalted level: "All we ever said is if we recruit a player and that player said to us, 'I'm coming to school for one year and as soon as basketball season is over with, I'm dropping out of school', we would not recruit that player." Spare me. I'll wager plenty that this hypothetical was never brought up in living room conversations with the family.

The crux: since the NBA took this latest step in its broad conversion of Div. 1-A buckets into the unofficial (not to mention inexpensive) training ground for pro-hoopsters-in-waiting, the NCAA could (repeat . . . COULD) take the obvious countermeasure. And that is, class?

You, in the second row, in the Slippery Rock sweatshirt . . . restore freshman ineligibility, I think I heard you say? Right on, bucko.

You want to clear a room of a representative collection of major-college coaches? Begin a speech regarding (a) providing more than lip service to genuine demands for academic achievement from scholarship athletes, and (b) campaign for the reinstatement of the freshman-ineligible strictures. Being able to play talented frosh is the crack cocaine of modern coaches at the biggest programs . . . many an ugly result, especially in terms of maturity problems often in correlation with an overdeveloped sense of self . . . but good luck getting folks to think about living without it, especially after they've gotten so used to it.

Introduction of the three-point shot threw handicapping for a loop. Now, the increased usage of young players who have the physical tools, but have yet to fully develop their strategic chops, makes more games more random. Modern shot selection is atrocious, and given current mindsets, we aren't likely to see meaningful style reform any time soon.

Once upon a time, the NBA had a rule to the effect that a player whose college class hadn't graduated couldn't play in the league. Having already precociously vaulted into the ABA, Spencer Haywood made a legal issue of it, it went to the Supreme Court, and in March of 1971 Haywood gained the right to sign with the Seattle Supersonics, no matter how old he wasn't. For some obvious prodigies, such freedom can be a good thing, but once you dig below the top strata, most players would benefit from additional college seasoning rather than subjecting themselves to premature exposure - in every sense of the word - when thrown in with the big kids.

Not everyone's Michael Jordon. Kevin Durant's a legit NBA prospect, but a world-class killer-diller? Can't be so certain of that, though the early returns are undeniably positive. It's hard to argue against any family that needs a can't-come-soon-enough shot at serious money, i.e. virtually everybody. But for the sake of the maturation and timely development of the broad majority, would like very much to see the return of freshman ineligibility. But I'm not holding my breath, not in the real world of Quicker, More Mobile, and Richer.

Nelson Lardner

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