For its issue previewing the 1981-82 college basketball season, Sports Illustrated wanted to put North Carolina's starting five on the cover: James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty, Jimmy Black and ...
The fifth starter was missing. A freshman named Michael Jordan.
"Dean held firm," SI's then lead college basketball reporter, Alexander Wolff, recalled last week. UNC Coach Dean Smith had a rule about giving freshmen time to adjust to college and ease into college basketball. An exceptional player like Jordan was no exception. That Sports Illustrated's college basketball editor, Larry Keith, was a North Carolina graduate cut no ice.
UNC's four upperclassmen starters and Smith graced that Sports Illustrated cover.
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Click on this spring. The contrast is startling.
Late last month LSU announced its season ticket summer sales campaign for the upcoming 2015-16 men's basketball season. The campaign celebrates the arrival of the nation's No. 1 recruit, Ben Simmons, and his requested No. 25 jersey. Hence, LSU's "25" campaign.
Dean Smith's idea of shielding freshmen from the pressures associated with being a "savior" has gone the way of Rockefeller Republicans and the dodo bird. Coaches used to recoil from the suggestion of a new player riding to the rescue. No more.
"They're calling him a savior ... and that's fine," ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said of LSU's sales campaign. "He's the No. 1 player. All they're doing is smart business. They're capitalizing on an asset they've got. And I think that's smart."
Kentucky basketball is familiar with celebrated freshmen. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Terrence Jones, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles immediately flood the mind.
Although unnecessary in basketball, Kentucky isn't above using a freshman to excite its fan base.
UK made celebrated quarterback recruit Drew Barker, an early enrollee, the centerpiece of an advertisement placed in the 2014 Super Bowl telecast and designed to trumpet the school's woebegone football program.
No wonder LSU sought UK's advice before launching its Simmons-is-coming campaign.
LSU Athletics Director Joe Alleva, Coach Johnny Jones, the school's marketing department and, most importantly, Simmons and his family agreed to the ticket sales campaign. LSU saw Simmons as perhaps a one-time-only type of player who could create a buzz about its basketball program. LSU's average home attendance last season (8,897) ranked a pedestrian eighth among the Southeastern Conference's 14 schools. That followed rankings of eighth and ninth in Jones' first two seasons as coach.
LSU assistant coach David Patrick played in Australia with the player's father, Dave Simmons. Patrick is Ben Simmons' godfather.
By the way, LSU restricts media access to the freshmen in its top-shelf football program. Draw your own conclusions.
Kentucky basketball used to limit the exposure to its freshmen. After the "Team Turmoil" season of 2001-02 lowlighted by, ahem, freshman Rashaad Carruth staging a one-game refuse-to-shoot protest, then-coach Tubby Smith made first-year players off limits to the media in the following fall semester. Brooks Downing, then the program's publicist, suggested the freshmen be made available to reporters at the Christmas break. Instead, Smith chose to max out the media blackout until the start of the spring semester.
"They wanted to protect the freshmen and let them get their feet under them or get savvy to the ways of the Big Blue Nation," Downing said. "They wanted to protect the upperclassmen who were — quote-unquote — deserving of attention and praise, and had paid their dues."
To someone like Simmons, such talk must sound quaint. Or as Seth Davis of CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated noted, "Dean Smith probably coached before Ben Simmons was born."
Close to true. Simmons was born on July 20, 1996. Smith's last season as UNC coach was 1996-97.
The point is that "traditionalists," as UK Coach John Calipari calls fans of a certain age, must accept a new reality.
"For today's players and today's fans, I think this is the most natural thing in the world," Davis said of an LSU ticket sales campaign based on Simmons' arrival.
Davis likened Simmons, a native of Melbourne, Australia, to Magic Johnson.
"I don't think any modern, young college basketball fan would bat an eyelash that LSU would be promoting Ben Simmons," Davis said.
Critics question LSU's ticket sales campaign. They say it exploits what the NCAA likes to call a "student-athlete." The dirty business of making money encroaches on the pursuit of higher education.
But Seth Greenberg, another ESPN analyst and a former coach at Virginia Tech, applauds LSU's campaign.
"Marketing Ben Simmons helps both LSU and Ben Simmons!" he tweeted. "This will only help his future marketing by building his brand."
Calipari's traditionalists must get used to college players having brands.
"It's like playing off-Broadway," Greenberg said in a telephone interview last week. "How many people get a chance to play off-Broadway for several months, and all of a sudden become multi-millionaires?"
Kentucky as a second-rate basketball stage might take some getting used to, but there you have it.
Bilas put it bluntly.
"The NCAA wants to claim this is not a business," he said. "It's a huge business. And these players have tremendous value. They are for sale."
The shame is that players do not share in the profit, at least above the table, Bilas said. Bilas is a vigorous critic of the NCAA concept of amateurism and the idea of a raccoon-coat wearing student-athlete.
"I don't like the idea of these — quote-unquote — student-athletes, they need to be protected ... ," Bilas said. "No reasonable person can make the case that these players aren't being sold to the highest bidder. They are being sold, and the schools are selling them.
"There are a lot of pejorative terms you can use about it. But I choose to use the term business."
It's a bit dated, now, but in an April blog posting, sportswriter Jake Curtis of the San Francisco Chronicle wondered about a double standard when it comes to so-called one-and-done players.
"When John Calipari won the 2012 national title at Kentucky with a starting lineup that included three freshmen who had been McDonald's All-Americans and turned pro after one college season, he was criticized for doing it with one-and-done freshmen," Curtis wrote. "Ruining the game and the college experience, they said. Not really a head coach, merely a recruiter, they said. Exploiting the situation and the players, they said.
"Three years later, Mike Krzyzewski wins the national title at Duke with four freshmen who were McDonald's All-Americans, accounting for 60 of his team's 68 points in a 68-63 victory over Wisconsin, and he is lauded for the feat. He has adapted to the times, they're saying."
Believe it or not
ESPN analyst Chad Ford acknowledged a sometimes significant credibility gap between what NBA teams say about their draft intentions and what they actually intend to do.
"It's a crapshoot," he said. "Every year at this time I get great picks and bogus picks. Sometimes from the same team."
A private workout in Los Angeles last week thickened the fog. As The Herald-Leader's Ben Roberts reported, Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein were among three players who worked out. Agents who set up the workout added to the mystery by not inviting NBA personnel. Only two analysts from DraftExpress.com and Ford were allowed to watch.
That heightened the suspense. Ford said 20 NBA teams called him wanting "a play by play" of who did what.
This did not surprise another ESPN analyst, Jay Bilas, who noted how "people want to know what happened at the party I wasn't invited to."
With agents being a valuable source of information, there's a question about whether someone who watched the workout felt free to criticize. For instance, Cauley-Stein supposedly made three-pointers with Steph Curry-ish accuracy.
Said Bilas: "I'd like to see that before I'd believe it."
Believe it or not II
Reporter Zack Cox of New England Sports News noted last week how unreliable team comments about NBA Draft prospects can be. It's guesswork at best, deliberate feints at worst.
Austin Ainge, the Celtics' director of player personnel, acknowledged the strategy of saying something just to say something. For instance, comments about how well a prospect worked out can mean nothing.
"When you guys (reporters) ask me questions about the guys (prospects), I say, like, one positive sentence about everybody," Ainge said after a recent set of pre-draft workouts. "Really, what else can I do? If I say anything negative, their agents will be mad at me. And if I get too glowing, then you guys will, you know ..."
Reporters will jump to conclusions.
So, Cox wondered, where do teams look for a truthful assessment of how a prospect worked out for another club?
"We ask the players," said Ainge, meaning other prospects. "Obviously, the teams won't tell us, so we ask, 'Hey, where'd you work out last? Who was there? How'd they look?'
"So we ask them. They're allowed to tell the truth."
Of course, the players are not obligated to tell the truth.
"Sometimes, yeah, you've got to take that into consideration, right?" Ainge said. "They're not going to say the guy they're competing against is great."
To the irrepressible Dick Vitale. He turns 76 on Tuesday. ... To former UK assistant coach Barry "Slice" Rohrssen. He turned 55 on Saturday. ... To LaVon Williams. He turns 57 on Wednesday. ... To Larry Stamper. He turned 65 on Saturday. ... To referee John Hampton. He turned 47 on Tuesday.