By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) My classmate should never have been there.
Nice enough guy, as far as I knew. We didn’t interact much, outside of my time spent covering the basketball team for the student TV station. Had a few friends in common.
He was a two-sport star from downstate Illinois, opting for hoops over football. He was one third of an underwhelming trio of recruits that arrived with little fanfare, and would end up utterly forgotten in the years long after the program soared.
It was easy to see in practice that he was struggling for a place. Even with his eye-popping athleticism and chiseled frame, and playing for a coach who preached defense above all, he always seemed behind. He was the last guard, and remained so until he eventually flunked out and left.
The academic troubles were immediate, and exacerbated by the easy access to distractions. Some of those common friends were the types you handled carefully – the prep-school guys with seemingly endless supplies of money. Not so visible were the bad choices that begat more.
He was ruled ineligible after five sophomore games and sat out the remainder of that year, the fraying connection with the team setting him on an inevitable course. He played sparingly in 18 games the next year and was gone. Few got to know him enough to miss him.
Players in the class ahead of ours already were making life difficult for the coach, a typically egomaniacal, perfectionist bully intent on selling the illusion of virtue. The big man was a talented goof with a feathery touch around the rim, polished post moves, and a tendency to drive drunk.
When he got busted, the story got buried, reported deep in the back pages of the local paper, when such positioning mattered long ago. He also got arrested for writing a bad check to pay for booze. At one point in need of cash, he sold a warm-up jacket that he received from a preseason tournament.
I know because I bought it. Adidas. Too small for him, still way too big for me.
The guard sat out almost his entire freshman year with academic problems of his own before his career stabilized, and it was a chore to keep him eligible. It came as little surprise, since a previous player recruited from the same south-suburban Chicago high school had similar problems, leaving school embittered.
* * *
My roommate should never have been there.
He finished dead last in his high-school graduating class. It was an elite private school in central Ohio, but still 65th out of 65.
No scholarship. His dad was the president and CEO of a fast-food company, and not a small one. The company’s founder happened to sit on the board of trustees, and I understood quickly how rules can be ignored when, say, applications are associated with providers of large checks. College was big business, and that lesson sunk in immediately without the usual, trite morality-play of sports.
He did just fine, eventually graduating without a problem.
Lived college hard, too, and swept along any of us with the energy to keep up for as long as we could, like a smiling master of ceremonies. Always surrounded by women and other intoxicants, he was a fortuitous force of nature in a freshman dorm for those of us able to disengage when it came time to work.
* * *
This was that time when the national media could not get enough of the fairy tale it was just starting to write about the basketball coach and his hardworking teams in their humble little arena. The crazy student fans and their nasty heckling of opponents juxtaposed with the stately gothic limestone of high academia just across the street, the chapel proudly atop a hill at the head of the cruciform campus.
When I arrived, basketball was already big. I’d be lying if I said the 1986 season and the commensurate publicity had nothing to do with my desire to attend.
But four Final Fours and Dick Vitale and Dick Vitale and Dick Vitale and a national championship later, it had become something else.
We saw first-hand the streamlining of the academic track to smooth the bumps for those ballers not so naturally inclined. Patterns emerged in the “choice” of majors as more and more recruits were in play each year, the support system now with more resources than ever. These were smart people responsible for such things, able to learn from previous experience. I know how smart the man in charge is, because he taught me Chaucer, Milton and Donne.
I saw some coincidences too, when coveted high-school stars came to visit. There always seemed to be a high-end party thrown far enough away so as not to attract too much attention, but still sufficiently accessible to advertise the proprietary wildlife to whichever future NBAer was in town. Two of note chose elsewhere, one heading just down the road and another staying at his home state school.
A player’s mother happened to land a nice job in the area shortly after her son made his commitment, at a company that happened to be owned by a booster. No obvious wrongdoing, of course. All around, smart people.
* * *
We are weary and dubious of college sports scandal. We know, we know.
We know money and drugs and sex and parties, violations and improprieties, of corners cut to make the grades, the irony of being forced to miss class while on something called scholarship, and the stark aftermath that’s possible when the machine of the major program continues to churn ahead.
Of the players referenced, three are retired NBA players, one of whom is a national television broadcaster likely headed to the Hall of Fame. One died at age 44. Of the whereabouts of one I am unaware.
The coach’s office is now at the top of a tower, still on the campus founded by Methodists and Quakers and endowed by money from tobacco plantations.
One might mistake it for the chapel.
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.
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