ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Last weekend, after he helped his team advance to the championship round of the Big Eight Conference tournament, a University of Oklahoma basketball player was asked a question involving the word "motivation." It was a stock query during the postgame press conference, meant, at deadline time, to induce a stock reply.
The player's response was anything but stock, though.
"What?" he asked at first.
"Repeat your question, please," the moderator helpfully offered.
The question was repeated, in a slow and loud voice, but the player remained dumbfounded. A few seconds later a teammate, who also happened to be seated on the dais, whispered into his ear. Still nothing, except a stony stare, and an eerie silence.
By now, it was distressingly clear: The player (or, to borrow a hollow term from the NCAA's propaganda department, the student-athlete) did not know the meaning of the infinitive "to motivate."
The Oklahoma coach, Billy Tubbs, playfully shook his head and tried to milk the moment for yuks, the way Jim Valvano likes to do. "He's not the brightest guy around," Tubbs chided. "Earlier in the season, he thought our nonconference games counted in the standings."
Nobody laughed, except Tubbs, who can afford to. He's got himself a great deal: A kid who will shoot jump shots and rebound and play defense, who will run when he's told to run and sit when he's told to sit. And if it just so happens that he can't communicate beyond a fifth-grade level, so what? Words don't win basketball games.
You've heard, I'm sure, the occasional outcries to straighten out and sober up college sports before. Alas, it's regressed; the whole bloody mess is getting worse with each Sunday sub-regional.
A few weeks ago, for instance, it was disclosed that Chris Washburn, the highly touted, profoundly troubled young man who last autumn enrolled in North Carolina State, scored a 470 on his Scholastic Aptitude Test. Total. You could sit down, nap, spill a Coke, belch, and draw little stick figures on your dotted answer sheet and still come up with a score better than 470.
If it sounds like something of an indictment of N.C. State that the school wooed a student with such limited potential as a scholar, well, it shouldn't. More than a hundred other "institutions of higher learning" were Washburn wooers as well. A 470 will open up a whole lot of campus doors only when you're given to ducking through them.
It's hardly a secret that many of the young men who fly through the air with the greatest of ease on a basketball court pay no homage to the first half of their student-athlete title. Few graduate; even those that do are sometimes woefully ill-equipped for such tasks as reading and speaking.
Yet only in the past year or two has this wanton illiteracy become truly conspicuous. The players aren't slower than they were a decade ago. It's just that, with the spate of mini-cams and exaggerated media coverage in general, it has become more difficult for them to camouflage their ignorance.
There's nowhere for the poor souls to hide. All NCAA tournament venues now include a makeshift room for postgame press conferences; the coaches and principal players of both teams routinely set up shop behind a web of microphones and wires.
The result, as was the case with the stupefied Oklahoma player in Kansas City, often is painful to endure. "Be" is almost always substituted for "am," "don't" for "doesn't," "went" for "gone." And every third word is interspersed with the ubiquitous "like, you know."
This is not casual urban street lingo we're talking about here; this is the way most of the young men playing their hearts out for Dear Old State U formally speak. That most jobs in the professional world require a modicum of literacy seems lost on both the athletes and, sadly, their coaches, who think it's cute. What the hell, they can always get their hands dirty.
There's a temptation here to label the epidemic, as some others have, a tragedy. It's not. Tragedy is a child in a wheelchair, or grieving parents standing sentinel over a flag-draped coffin. A healthy, otherwise aware person, enrolled in a university and yet unable to verbally communicate, is merely an abuse of the system. Of the person.
Sorry, but I can't buy the notion that these kids are rock-skulled dumb. No way. I see them, on the basketball floor, create symmetry out of chaos, and melody out of dissonance. I see them all too often make just the right pass, in retrospect the only pass, the pass nobody in the stands envisioned.
Some basketball players don't belong in college, granted, but many others have an intellectual potential that can be tapped, and should be tapped, but goes unnoticed amid a flurry of 20-foot jumpers.
These are not bums. These, for the most part, are wonderful young men, with huge hearts and a sense of sportsmanship that their coaches would be wise to emulate. They play hard and rough, and when one of them takes a spill on the floor there invariably is an opponent to help him up with an open hand and a pat on the back.
And yet they're being gypped in the biggest game of their lives. Shame. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.