Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Basketball Capital of the World

While politics is always interesting, my real love these days is following Duke basketball and enjoying their hard-fought win over Michigan State last night. Since we moved to the Triangle area in North Carolina in 1988, I've come to realize the primacy of basketball in our universe. Ben Cohen has a very nice column arguing that today North Carolina has a good argument for why it is the true center of basketball.
In recent decades, North Carolina, a relatively rural state in the American South, has made a convincing case to be described by the following title: Basketball Capital of the World.

North Carolina's first claim to basketball fame is Michael Jordan, the kid from Wilmington who went on to attend the University of North Carolina, win six NBA titles and become one of the planet's most famous and widely admired athletes. It includes Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has guided U.S. teams to gold medals at the 2008 Olympics and 2010 World Championships. It has spread more recently to John Wall of the Washington Wizards, last year's No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, who hails from Raleigh.

At the college level, North Carolina and Duke have won back-to-back NCAA titles—and together with North Carolina State and UNC Charlotte, have racked up a nonpareil 34 Final Four appearances in 50 years—nearly twice as many as schools from the next-highest state, California.

The future looks just as bright: Three of the state's college programs have incoming recruiting classes considered to be among the nation's 10 best. And while North Carolina ranks No. 10 in the U.S. in population, it has eight high-school players ranked by scouting services among the nation's top 100 for 2011—a number only matched by Illinois.

"We've had some great time periods, but this is about as good as any," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. "I'm trying to think of other times, and I'm not coming up with anything."
He goes on to discuss how North Carolina, over the past 50 years built up a culture of basketball that allows the top young players to compete and develop their talents.
The state's march to basketball dominance might have seemed unlikely at the end of World War II. Like most of the Southeast, the Tar Heel state was football country in the 1940s. Basketball, said Bucky Waters, a former North Carolina State player and Duke's coach from 1969 to 1973, "was sort of what you did when it wasn't football season."

All that changed in 1946 when Everett Case, a high-school coach from Indiana, moved to Raleigh to take over the coaching duties at North Carolina State. "His goal was to make North Carolina like Indiana in that there was a basket in every driveway," said Mr. Waters, who played for Mr. Case.

Mr. Case was as much an entrepreneur as a strategist. His greatest legacy was the Dixie Classic, an annual eight-team tournament in Raleigh. It was a way for North Carolina's Big Four to test their mettle against the finest teams in the country, and a North Carolina school won the tournament all 12 years it existed, from 1949 to 1960. From the time Mr. Case—and his coaching counterpart at North Carolina, Frank McGuire—took over, the state's interest in basketball built toward a fevered pitch. And with no pro-sports franchises in the state to distract attention, these basketball programs laid down deep roots.

The Dixie Classic was retired in 1961 after a point-shaving scandal, but the burgeoning rivalries between the Big Four schools were stoked by proximity and a series of names that a North Carolina boy knows from the time he can make a layup: Art Heyman, Billy Packer, Jim Valvano, Dean Smith, Mr. Krzyzewski, Christian Laettner and Mr. Jordan.
As a teacher, I've witnessed how each of my students has picked a favorite team and will launch into strong arguments for their chosen team even when that team is experiencing a down year. I've found that the easiest way to discuss political partisanship is to help them to see the similarities to team loyalties.

North Carolina is continuing to find ways keep the excitement about basketball at a strong clip even when the season is over.
Last summer, for the third straight year, Durham's North Carolina Central University hosted something called the Greater N.C. Pro-Am, nicknamed the Rucker of the South.

At this unusual event, which has become something of a statewide basketball reunion, the teams consist of high-school, college and NBA talent. One game, which matched the incoming freshman classes at N.C. State and North Carolina, drew more than 3,000 people in a standing-room-only gym. About 1,000 more were turned away. "It's hard to figure out where else in the world that could happen," Mr. Williams said.
While the eyes of basketball fans will be turned tonight to LeBron's return to Cleveland, I'll be happy to be viewing the game from the true center of the basketball universe.