College basketball has returned for a season that had better be better than the one that preceded it. You'd have to be some optimist to believe it will be.
The game is adrift on a sea of scandal. Perhaps never before has there been anything to approach the aggregate mountain of sleaze: the messy recruiting cases of John Williams and Tito Horford; the Tulane point-shaving and drug revelations; the Memphis State gambling grand jury; the Chris Washburn arrest and suspension revelations, and now, the Kentucky payoff admissions.
Item: In 1982, LSU assistant Ron Abernathy, on a trip to nearby Gulfport, Miss., to recruit Kenny Jimerson, the state's player of the year, reports the theft of a briefcase with $2,000 cash in it from the front seat of his unlocked van.
A youth is later arrested. Mississippi Circuit Judge James Thomas, hearing the case, sentences the defendant, but makes public his suspicions about the complainant. Thomas directs that a transcript of the trial be forwarded to the NCAA.
LSU holds its own investigation, and accepts Abernathy's explanation--he was out paying bills in Baton Rouge when he got an emergency phone call to make a recruiting trip.
"Quite obviously, LSU wasn't outraged," Thomas said Tuesday. "No one from LSU came over for the trial. No one seemed to be particularly concerned. It smelled."
A total of $1,100--all in $100 and $50 bills--was recovered and taken into evidence. A certified check for that amount was mailed to Abernathy, who wrote back, thanking the officials.
"He never did complain about the difference," Thomas said.
Item: In 1984, LSU Coach Dale Brown tells of asking the chancellor of the university, James Wharton, for permission to put $150,000 in a briefcase and offer it to John Williams of Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, just to drive home the meat-market aspect of it. Brown says he's been told that Williams has been offered that much by other schools.
Wharton turns him down, saying the offer might be misinterpreted, thus proving that everyone at LSU isn't completely out of his gourd.
Just the usual bayou madness? There's a lot of madness out there.
Item: in the wake of the Kentucky story, three young Philadelphia 76ers, Charles Barkley, Terry Catledge and Leon Wood, tell of offers they received during recruitment. Wood says he got a car at his first school, Arizona, and took it with him when he transferred to Cal State Fullerton.
"I didn't figure they'd be coming after it," Wood told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Bill Lyon. "And they didn't."
Only the price seems to be going up. The hiring of athletes by colleges and/or boosters is nothing new, apparently having begun shortly after Dr. Naismith came down the ladder from his peach basket.
Remember Moses Malone, an incoming University of Maryland freshman, posing for a picture on the hood of his new Chrysler, acquired on a "lease-purchase" deal?
Malone then signed an ABA contract, and departed without attending a day of school. Coach Lefty Driesell, determined to salvage something, still lists him in his yearbook among the players the Terrapins have sent to the pros.
And lest anyone forget Wilt Chamberlain, he recently came forward to remind everyone that he, too, had received illicit payments at Kansas.
Questions arise: Who really cares? They're all doing it, aren't they? So some kids get a few bucks or a sweetheart deal on a car, who's really getting hurt?
Everyone gets hurt. Everyone is tarred by the stigma. Everything good about the game is cheapened if it rests on a foundation of half-truths, cynicism and a final commitment to nothing but individual self-advancement.
Every coach in the nation claims to despise what's going on--at everyone else's school. It's all they ever talk about--off the record.
The problem, however, is the system. It was built for abuse and is only realizing its potential.
Winning teams generate huge prestige and revenue for the schools, especially in the form of increased alumni donations, and excitement for boosters.
Even one blue-chipper can "turn the program around."
Every school wants him.
He's just a high school kid with relatively cheap tastes, so he doesn't cost much.
Guess what comes next.
The system is now almost womb to tomb.
What we've got is a new sophistication everywhere:
--Recruitment by agents. World B. (nee Lloyd) Free was picked up by his first agent, Joe Jeffries-El, when Free was a teen-ager playing in Brooklyn's Brownsville schoolyards.
--Recruitment by junior high schools.
--Recruitment by high schools.
--Recruitment by summer camps, which offer "scholarships" and do-little jobs and guaranteed exposure to big-time college coaches.
--Fame, in the form of inclusion on the national lists that are swapped back and forth by some newspaper high-school writers and assorted bird-dogs, who rank players they may never have seen, with such memorable descriptions as, "Pure blue-chipper. . . . Moses will lead some school to the promised land. . . . Sampson is mighty."