I was a Division 1 athlete in football and baseball from 1986–1990. After my eligibility was finished and I earned my undergraduate degree, I immediately entered law school.
During law school, I roomed with another former D1 athlete at the same school who had been a basketball player and was also going to grad school. The guy was my best friend at the time, and has been one of my lifelong close friends. We had both played on conference championship teams during our playing days, but we had this nagging feeling (misplaced in hindsight) that we hadn’t quite lived up to our potential in those four short years. It ate at us.
We were recent college graduates in our early 20's, and it was the early 90's; angst was in fashion, and we fed off of it, but not to an unhealthy degree. We listened to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden — this new sound that had come out of the Pacific Northwest and assaulted our senses and psyches — and they seemed to speak to us in more ways than one. We seemed more able to identity with their sentiments than the people all around us.
In our free time around the apartment, we would lament and pontificate over these issues. If you prided yourself on excellence, any shortcoming whatsoever was almost a failure. And we were both just beginning to come to grips with the realization that the thing that had defined our lives up until just recently was over; from the age of about 5 we had both defined ourselves as athletes. It had given both of us the lion’s share of our self-worth. This was a very difficult thing to admit, but we worked through it together.
Should we have gone to a different school? What if we had played for different coaches? Why did we make the decisions we made when we were 18, 19, 20? Why didn’t people give us a better counsel? We would soon come to conclude that being in the right place at the right time was 95% of the battle. Which seemed very random to us.
But whatever the answers — and we didn’t get many — the brutal truth was, in an instant, it was over. We were looking for that new identity, but we hadn’t found it yet, and while we were idling getting those secondary degrees — we went out every Thursday through Saturday, went to the gym nearly every day, and played a lot of golf — we entertained ourselves with other flights of fancy. Grad school for him and law school for me were not the all-consuming endeavors they seemed to be to most of our classmates. We were able to get by on much less than 100% effort. The question was do you want to be the honor graduate, or do you want to have some fun?
But an idea began to form. For example, we had grown up in the 70’s and 80's during a time when Hollywood movies were filled with people playing characters much younger. For instance, 24 year-old John Travolta played 17 year-old Danny Zuko in “Grease.” Ralph Macchio was 22 when he played a 16 year-old Daniel LaRusso in “The Karate Kid.” Judd Nelson was 25, and Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy were both 22 when they played high school teenagers in “The Breakfast Club.” If these people could convincingly play people much younger than them, why couldn’t we do it in real life? Was it possible?
As a result, the plan we pondered was this: What if we could drop off the radar and out of sight, create newer and younger identities for ourselves, move to some city or town out west, and reenter some obscure junior college?
“Jucos,” we surmised, didn’t have the same stringent and exacting standards and monitoring that major four-year universities did. We could probably get our hands on someone else’s high school transcript and, along with some kind of fake ID proclaiming us to be the person on the transcript, gain entry into any number of junior colleges. That would probably be enough to pull off the entire caper. (For all you judgmental, prosecutorial types out there, these were never serious discussions.) Of course, we were still too young to realize that much of these things might’ve been downright illegal, let alone dishonest. This never entered our minds.
Once properly enrolled, we would just play our way into getting recruited (again) by the big time schools, and would undoubtedly earn a scholarship (for another 2–3 years) at a new school. And we would perform MUCH better the second time around. Why? Because we would have all that knowledge we had learned in our previous life — that initial four years of eligibility — and we would use that information to our advantage.
What “knowledge” am I talking about? Take baseball at the D1 level, for instance. The only real difference between great pitchers at the high school and college level is control and location. College pitchers don’t necessarily throw much harder than high school pitchers; they just have much better control and can locate their pitches much better. They never throw a pitch out over the middle of the plate. (On purpose anyway.) I didn’t know this when I got to the D1 level, and those guys picked me apart. I figured I would just get by on pure athletic ability like I had done my entire life all the way through high school. But I was wrong. I swung at bad pitches; I struck out a lot. It wasn’t until my last two years that I figured this out and changed my approach.
The second time around, I’d be ready at the outset. I’d be more selective at the plate. I’d wait for my pitch. I’d get more hits. I’d hit more home runs and get more extra-base hits. Hell, I might even get drafted the second time around.
Or take the politics of some coaches in D1 basketball, which my roommate knew nothing about until it was too late. With basketball in that era, a guy had to go to the right program to get playing time. I’m not going to mention any coaching names here, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what I am saying when one looks back at college basketball in the late 80s and early 90s. There were a lot of coaches who played the race card, and they played it not only with the media, they played it with their own players. At the risk of offending my reader, there was a term used by the “initiated” back then called “the token white player.” (Or players.) in the mind 8f the white college basketball player like my friend, this took on an even greater conspiratorial tone when the head coach was black. “Did Coach recruit me just because I’m white?” “Is Coach playing me just because I’m white?” “Is Coach NOT playing me just because I’m white?” In the end, there was never any way to really know the answer to any of these questions.
The issue of race was never more pervasive than on D1 basketball teams. Football? Race didn’t matter there; coaches had 85 people on full scholarship from which to choose the 22 starters. Coaches played the best athlete at each position, for the most part.
Basketball? The number of scholarships dropped precipitously to 13; 13 players on full scholarship from which the coach picked the 5 starters. The reader can see that in basketball the coach has much less depth on the roster and much fewer bodies to put on the floor.
Plus, “optics” were a huge part of this phenomenon. In any given football game, you are looking at a group of 22 people on the field — 11 on offense and 11 on defense — and they are almost completely covered up with uniform, pads, and helmet. A quick glance tells you nothing about the racial makeup of the 11 guys on offense or defense, and when you’re watching a football game, it really doesn’t matter to you, does it?
Now switch over to basketball. The race of the five guys on the floor is obvious and readily apparent when you glance at the TV screen because they are not covered up by pads and helmet. If you see five black players on the floor you think nothing of it, do you?
What would happen if you saw three white guys on one team? What if all five were white? The fact that you have to think about this for even a few seconds answers your initial question about why any of this racial stuff is relevant to basketball.
We will save these deeper questions for another day. Suffice it to say, there’s a huge undercurrent of politics lurking just beneath the surface regarding Division 1 basketball; at least there was back in the late 80's and early 90's. And my best friend was completely oblivious to it. He thought it was a meritocracy, but it wasn’t. Armed with this knowledge he discovered too late in his first four years, he would use it to his advantage the second time around.
The bottom line was, we concluded that our proposed course of action was generally plausible and could actually be carried out, but if anyone had a hope of actually pulling it off, his best chance — based on all the foregoing reasons — was to attempt it as a football player. With 85 players on scholarship and over 100 players including walk-ons, a guy could “blend” in pretty easily. Not so much in baseball or basketball.
Thus, as we went about our daily routine of getting up and going to classes, spending the bare minimum amount of time on studying and homework, and living the typical life of an early 20-something, former D1 athlete in a small university town (I won’t complain), grad student, little did we know that there was one guy who was actually plotting and carrying out our exact plan for real at the same time we were formulating it.
His name was Ron Weaver. Or Ron McKelvey. Or whatever his real name is. You get the picture. And he would eventually become a figure the vaunted University of Texas Longhorns and their fans would prefer to forget.
To be continued.