Alley Cats

Some overweening, not-quite-winning UA players are going out on the prowl.

A couple weeks back, I wrote a column praising the members of the Arizona Wildcat basketball team for a courageous effort in putting aside all their pettiness, overcoming huge obstacles and making it to the NCAA championship game. Well, to put it mildly, my feelings have changed. So, consider this the column equivalent of an amended tax return.

When the Wildcats lost in that title game, it stung me as a fan. But I took solace in the fact that only Loren Woods was a senior and that the Cats should, if anything, be even better next year. Sure, Richard Jefferson had had a great tournament, but on the whole, his season had been a B-plus, at best. Gilbert Arenas had shown flashes of brilliance, but next year would be his breakout season. Jason Gardner still hasn't shaken the "Inconsistent" label, and Michael Wright could use his senior year to work on the perimeter game that would determine whether or not he would live long and prosper as an NBA player.

Far more important than their individual shortcomings and potentials was the fact that they had come this close to winning the national championship. There was no freakin' way that they'd leave without winning the title next year. Winning a national crown will stay with a person for life. That extra million dollars or so that he might get from leaving school early has a lifespan measured in months, depending on a complex formula involving hookers, hangers-on and speeding tickets. Put simply, no athlete worth a damn is going to shrink from the challenge and opportunity to be a true champion.

Silly me. Turns out they're not athletes and/or they're not worth a damn; they're bidness-men. It's all about the Benjamins. It's all about gettin' paid. It's all about to make me sick.

Despite its booming population, Tucson is still, in many ways, a small town. There are no secrets here. Everybody knows that these guys drive around in SUVs and nice cars. They're not hurting for food or shelter or (ahem) companionship. Largely because of the success of those who came through the UA before them, these guys are treated like living gods. And all they have to do in return is play the game they love in front of thousands of adoring fans, and get a free education. The real surprise is that they don't fight to stay in school even longer.

Over the next few weeks, we'll hear self-serving statements from these guys and they'll all remind us of Crash Davis coaching Nuke LaLoosh on his clichés.

· It's time for me to go to the next level. The next level of what? The NBA is a shitty league full of coasters, pot-smokers and losers. Even rabid basketball junkies such as myself don't start paying attention until playoff time. And even then with only a fraction of the passion with which I once did. The play is raggedy, teamwork is nonexistent, and defense is only an ugly rumor. The college game is king and they should make the most of it while they have the opportunity.

· I really enjoyed my time here in Tucson. So long, suckers!

· I need a new challenge. What about the challenge of getting a degree? The challenge of giving back to the community that has shown you so much love and support? The challenge of winning a championship and the honor of forevermore being known as a champion?

Besides, there is no challenge in the NBA. Nobody cares about winning. Nobody cares about playing the game the way it's supposed to be played. The only challenge these guys will face is fighting for a roster spot against some Eastern European with unlimited range and the habit of saying, "I three-bomb in your face, Yo."

· I've done all I can do here. What have you done? You didn't win a Pac-10 championship. You didn't win a national championship. In fact, by pulling it all together and making that run in the NCAAs, about all you did was save yourself from wearing the Massive Choker tag.

· It's not about the money. It's about the money.

I'll stop short of wishing them ill. I save that for Saddam Hussein and Timothy McVeigh. This is just basketball. It's like when former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy was asked whether the upcoming playoff game was a must-win situation. Levy said, "No, World War II was a must-win situation."

No, I'll just take them out of the Good Guy category in my mind and dump them in with all the rest of the Greedy Suckers not worthy of my concern. Lute Olson might be able to say, "We wish these young men well." But Lute's like a saint; I'm just a guy. If I were their coach, I'd be deep in their behinds, letting them know that while every person has the right to make really stupid choices with his own life, I don't have to sit around, nodding and smiling at the ignorance.

And while I won't wish them ill, neither will I shed a tear when they fail. Statistically speaking, it's almost a certainty that one or two will wash out and end up in a profession where they'll have to use the phrase "super-size." There are only 29 spots in the first round of the NBA draft. Some will go to high-schoolers (another abomination!), some to foreign players. That may leave only 20 spots, and the odds against all five Arizona players being among those 20 are astronomical.

I'm sure Lute will be able to find five kids who want to play ball and the fans will show their affection, although perhaps a bit more warily. I thought this team had chemistry, but all they had was biology. I thought they had heart; it turned out to be an ATM card.

And now we can only think of what might have been, knowing that at least one of these guys will be left muttering that most painful of all phrases, "Maybe I shoulda' ..."