The Lost Art of the Game: From a Player to a Critic’s Perspective

 

Now that University of Connecticut head women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma has given his perspective of the game, allow me to add my two cents…

In his recent song “False Prophets,” rapper J.Cole makes a statement “always worried about the critics who aint never freaking did it, I write what’s in my heart, don’t really care who messing with it. But in a sense, I can relate, the need to be great turns into an obsession that keeps a brother up late writing words, hoping people observe the dedication that stirs in you constantly, but intentions get blurred.” That’s the clean version.

Well, I always write what’s in my heart, whether readers agree or not. And in this case, I am a critic, but the difference is I have done it.

I’ve had the perspective of an athlete, a coach and now a fan and a writer. But, it’s tough to be a fan and a writer and not be critical. So, as I critique the game and the players who play it, I have to remind myself I was once a player being talked, written, tweeted and posted about, good and bad. It annoys me to sit in the stands at a basketball game and fans make comments when they don’t even know the game or down-talk a player when they couldn’t do any better themselves. Although I’m entitled to my perspective, I try to be as honest and respectful as possible.

As a hip hop and basketball lover, I believe they’re both correlated, because as one changes so does the other. For quite some time now, it seems we’ve descended from”Love & Basketball” to “Basketball Wives,” and from “Brown Sugar” to “Love & Hip Hop.” The game is not only made up of the players, coaches and/or managers, but also the owners, executives, marketers/promoters, journalists, fans and many other working parts; hence, the game isn’t producing a great product because the working parts are losing substance.

I share the same sentiments lyrically-inclined hip hop artists and fans express about the new generation of “mumble rap” – I hate to see the work that has been so uniquely crafted by passionate artists be watered down to putting together anything just to make a dollar. Music is art and art is made to inspire and motivate, and most of the hip hop artists who are constantly shoved in our ears aren’t very inspirational… Thank goodness for music streaming services where we can control what we listen to because the best things in life aren’t free.

When I listen to songs by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Eminem, Nas, Talib Kweli, Phonte, Andre 3000, J.Cole, Big Krit, Kendrick Lamar, Logic, Rapsody and a few others with something meaningful to say, positive emotions are sparked: I’m not afraid to take a stand, I know everything is going to be alright, I excel and then prevail, I can be someone little girls look up to and so many other lyrics by these artists that make me think deeply about life, my goals and how to keep my dreams alive.

On the other hand, even these artists have fallen into the repetitive cycle of sampling music from other current artists and artists of previous decades. But, a lot of music listeners today don’t know their music history so they think it’s something new that’s being created.

In the same way, basketball is losing it’s substance. At the high school level most of the players think they’re Steph Curry, pulling up from NBA range, shooting three-pointers every chance they get. But unlike Curry, these kids are making less than 40 percent of their shots. And coaches and fans encourage them to keep shooting even if they keep missing. Great shooters aren’t defined by how many shots they take, how deep they pull from or how many people are in their faces when they shoot the ball, but they are defined by their accuracy, efficiency and percentages.

Of course the jump shot is a part of the game, but settling for jumpers – instead of driving to the basket, establishing an inside-out game, putting pressure on the defense, drawing fouls and creating better opportunities for second chance points – is easy for the players to do and hard for real fans to watch. Defense has become “let the offensive player go around me so I can reach from behind and cherry pick for a layup,” coaches preparing players for time-and-score situations are few and far between and team camaraderie is nonexistent. Most high school players aren’t students of the game like they once were; this may be due to the advancement in technology and social media. Thus, young athletes are likely spending more time on their phones and social media than they are developing their skills. Consequently, basketball IQ and passion are exactly what’s missing from the game:

I didn’t exist during Parker Thundering Herd’s Cap Brown era of coaching, but I was able to witness the exciting Maurice Ford era when he coached Walter Sharpe, Brandon Haley, Cordell Pope, Rod Smitherman, Rod Buford, Duke Mosley, Ronald Rhone, Bookie Hudson, long before Eric Bledsoe put on a Parker uniform; when Demarre Carroll and Ronald Steele dominated at John Carroll; when Tauras Dortch, Terence Nixon and Brandon “Big Nasty” Moore put the Ram in Ramsay; Glenn Miles was the mighty Lion of West End; Stanley “Sticks” Robinson put on for the east side of Birmingham at Huffman; and so many other great players it would take days to list.

In addition, girl’s basketball was the cream of the crop throughout the state: Dewanna Bonner and Big Jackie were running things at Fairfield; players like Sidney Spencer,  Yvonne Anderson, Lakeela Lowe and Lyndsay Harris were the bread and butter for the Hoover Bucs; Angel and Jasmine Tate were wining ball games for Coach Bell at Wenonah; Ramsay High School was a powerhouse led by Sammeika Thrash-Thomas, Jamelia Kennedy and Katherine Graham; hailing from Davidson, Jasmine Bendolph was one of the best high school point guards I’ve witnessed. Whitney Boddie and Kiara Young were forces to be reckoned with at Florence and Lauderdale County; Courtney Ward and Alli Smalley got buckets at Jeff Davis and Arab, respectively; Jayla Harris and company were giving opponents problems at Bob Jones; and, one of the hardest working defensive players I’ve ever met in Brandi Turner, the purest, most efficient shooter to step on the court for the Patriots in Erica Baylor, one of the most gifted, all-around players in Meredith Mitchell and a beast for a post player in Courtney Jones spearheaded a dynasty at Midfield.

This is when basketball games were packed – sometimes standing room only – and media coverage wasn’t lopsided between football and basketball in Alabama… there was room for them both. Journalists and reporters were even competing to cover the AAU circuit, which was the dessert to the main entree of the high school season. Girls and boys didn’t just play ball, they hooped! The dunks were more tenacious, the moves were more polished and almost every game played – girls and boys – was sure to have at least one college-caliber player on the court. Players probably weren’t in a gym shooting on a gun for hours, but they were at their local recreation centers and parks going head to head with other top talent, practicing the moves that made the crowd go “ooouuu” and the crazy shots that got fans out of their seats; by the time game day arrived, it was second-nature for players to make these shots.

However, as I watched some of Alabama’s best teams compete for state championships at the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center, I experienced some nostalgia of when I was in elementary and middle school watching the local greats, and competing against top-tier talent in high school.

Homewood’s Hannah Barber and Hale County’s Marion Perry are polished point guards with high basketball IQs and it’s obvious they’re students of the game who work to make their teammates better. Charles Henederson’s Maori Davenport is a player we’ll be reading about in  college. Although her team lost in the championship game, she finished with an impressive triple double: 20 points, 25 rebounds and a new state record 19 blocks. Midfield’s Shy Cunningham – 3A Player of the Year finalist- is a player who’s barely scratched the surface of his potential and I believe he’ll really blossom at the next level. John Petty is a total-package player on both offense and defense. It was refreshing to see a player as talented as he is play unselfish, within his team and work just as hard on defense as he did on offense. The highly recruited Trendon Watford is another crafty player who’s likely going to be stellar at the next level. Although Watford’s Mountain Brook was the most exciting team to watch with its fast-pace style of play, Petty’s Mae Jemison was the most complete team due to its composure, chemistry, ball movement and multiple threats on offense. Homewood girls and Midfield and Faith Academy’s boys were also solid teams to watch.

It’s a double-edge sword at the college level: from a fan’s perspective, the one-and-done rule takes away from the quality of the college game because some of the best players leave for the NBA Draft… if only basketball players had to wait until after their junior year to go pro like football players, college ball would be a lot better; on the other hand – as ESPN analyst Bomani Jones suggested on SportCenter’s Coast to Coast – the one-and done-rule helps the college game because players who are talented enough to be drafted out of high school have to play at least one year of college basketball.

From an athlete’s perspective, I can’t knock a player for chasing his hoop dreams and a check. As for the women, I can’t recall a player trying to leave after one year. Rutger’s Epiphanny Prince and Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd departed college following their junior seasons to play professionally, and although they received backlash, they’re both doing well professionally. Loyd was named the 2015 WNBA Rookie of the Year and Prince has averaged 13.1 with two WNBA franchises over the course of a seven-year career. However, there’s definitely a double-standard when it comes to women chasing their life-long dreams like their male counterparts.

As for the NBA, the one-and-done rule has some players in the league long before they’re ready to contribute and be an asset. It takes some of the players about four years to develop their game, which is time they could’ve spent honing their craft in college. But, not many people would pass up the chance to develop their skills while being paid top dollar instead of penny-pinching on a college campus. Then, the NBA has sort of shied away from drafting four-year college players as if it’s a crime to have a desire to play for a university for four years and receive a degree. For quite some time, the NBA has leaned more towards one-and-doners and international players who end up spending most of their careers in the D-League.

Then, sports mediums like ESPN and FoxSports have gotten caught up in being a sports Soap Opera and putting out content that doesn’t add value to the sport; “they’re falling apart but we deny it, justifying that half-behind social media content they post… but we always like it.”

As time progresses, the game is supposed to change but whether it has changed for the better is up for debate. One thing that’s for sure is politics have misused the game; some of the greatest hip hop lyricists will never see a record deal, some of the greatest coaches will never see upward movement, some of the greatest players will never see the floor and some of the greatest writers will never have the platform to add significance to the lives of many.

I realize this entire piece can be considered subjective and only the ones who witnessed my era of the game will agree with me, because the generation that came before mine probably feels the same way about our game that I feel about this generation’s game. Either way, “there was a time when the game was my hero maybe, that’s the reason why it’s fall from greats is hard for me to take… somebody should’ve told me it would be like this.” – Homage to J.Cole

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