Shock Therapy! College Hoops 2004
There are two kinds of surprise. There's the kind registered by people who are shocked -- shocked! -- to find sin and corruption in college hoops. Then there's the kind that brings delight, like when an oft-dissed coach hooks up with a carefree freshman to cloak the national title in a particular shade of orange. We prefer the latter, and we're guessing you do too. So we're devoting our 2004 preview to the nicer shocks that might come your way: an unprecedented double for UConn, a saint playing for a Saint, a series of characters torn from the pages of supermarket tabloids. We even have talking dogs. Well, okay, so Diana Taurasi and Emeka Okafor are Huskies. But, as you're about to find out, they have plenty to say.
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EMEKA OKAFOR: My teammates and I had this debate. I think so. I think there are guys she could get by with ease.
DIANA TAURASI: [embarrassed] Well ...
EO: Definitely, definitely, definitely. You've seen her play, right? [smiles]
THE MAG: What's bigger at UConn, men's or women's basketball?
EO: It's an even split. The girls get the love equally. I don't mean to be sexist, but I didn't really watch girls basketball 'til I came here. Now I'm like, oh yeah. When fans ask me for autographs, they say, "Do you know Diana Taurasi?"
DT: It really is something. Okay, so there are no pro teams in the state, and our football team is only starting to get a little attention. But still, what is it, the cold weather?
EO: That's what it is, I think. The cold.
DT: Cold winters where people are in their houses with nothing else to do. Those are our people. They think the players are their children.
THE MAG: Diana, you've said you prefer playing for a male coach. Why?
DT: Every coach I've had to this point has been a man, so I feel more comfortable playing for one. It's not that I wouldn't play for a woman. If I had to, I would.
THE MAG: Emeka, could you play for a woman?
EO: If she knew her job. I really don't see the difference between a woman and a guy coach. You've got to respect them if they know their stuff. We have a woman strength coach, Andrea Hudy. She's like the best trainer I've ever had.
THE MAG: Do you think you could play for Geno Auriemma?
EO: I think so. I like Geno. He's a real good guy. He knows his stuff. He gives me advice ...
DT: Advice on what?
EO: He gave me some advice on free throws.
DT: I think Geno and Jim Calhoun are a lot alike. They're real intense people. A lot of programs don't have that. A lot of programs have coaches who let the little things go. THE MAG: What about all those stories that Jim and Geno don't get along?
DT: People just like to speculate. From what I've seen, I think they understand that each program feeds off the other.
EO: These guys know what the picture is. What's the point of bumping heads? They have to work together. It's big-time leverage for both programs.
THE MAG: How often do athletes visit a school and say, "This is not the place for me"? Because it seems like it's kind of a crapshoot where you land.
DT: It is. You're looking for, what, two months? And taking one visit? You're coming to a place to decide where you're going to live for four years. A lot of kids don't know what decision to make.
EO: Especially if you've got the wrong people around you, or you're thinking, "Oh, I like this campus because it has all the girls."
DT: Or, "I don't want to go to that school because it's in the middle of nowhere."
DT: I don't care if you live in London or Sydney, Australia, once the season starts, there's no time to do anything else. So when kids say there's nothing to do here, I say, "Look, guys, basketball is what we do here." And we play to win.
THE MAG: What's the biggest misconception people have about you as athletes?
DT: I think a lot of people think we have it easy. That's the worst feeling.
EO: Exactly. Because they don't see the behind-the-scenes stuff.
DT: Like what sucks. Like being in the weight room at 6:30 in the morning.
EO: Or going to the gym late at night to get your jump shot right. They see the finished product, but they don't see the process.
DT: At the same time, you still have to go to classes, you still have study hall, you still have to make time for everything else, like a social life. But I'd rather have all this than not have it. Because on a day off, where do I go? Straight to the gym. [laughs]
THE MAG: Do you think college athletes should be paid?
EO: I think so. Not like 20 G's a year, but a little something, a little stipend to get by.
DT: I agree. I mean, if you take one side of it, why shouldn't we be getting paid? We're on TV every night. We're making a name for our school. But at the same time, we're getting a free education. A little stipend would be nice, though. I wouldn't mind.
EO: I wouldn't mind either. I think down the road, that's what will happen. It might not be for all sports. Maybe it's for whatever sport brings in the most money.
DT: Once you start talking about paying people, it's always, "How much?"
EO: Just a little. Just $200, $300 a month. We work hard. We deserve a little money to go out and enjoy ourselves on the weekend.
THE MAG: Okay, you guys are in charge of the NCAA. What other changes do you make?
EO: I'm not really fond of the rule that coaches can't work with us in the off-season. The coach is out there to help you get better. During the summer, a coach can't give me advice, can't watch me do post moves. Come on. I understand the NCAA is trying to protect us. But you can't hold on so tightly that you start to smother us. We've got to breathe.
DT: And little by little, they're starting to shrink the recruiting process. All that does is create more transfers, more people who make decisions they're not sure they want to make.
EO: It's crazy.
DT: There are a lot of really dumb rules. But they have them because if they didn't, people would take advantage. I mean, if there's a way to get around it, people will do it. If you don't win, you're losing money, you're losing TV time, you're losing NCAA appearances -- that's a lot of money for the school. What I want to know is, what does the NCAA do with that $40 million-a-year TV contract? What do they do with that money?
EO: Don't they make like $3 billion? [Actually, it's $6 billion over 11 years, or $545 million a season, for CBS to carry the men's Tourney, plus another $200 million over 11 years for ESPN to show the women's Tourney.]
THE MAG: College basketball has had its share of PR problems recently. Like the Eustachy situation at Iowa State ...
DT: Yeah, what is up with Larry Eustachy?
EO: I don't know. Sometimes people make mistakes. You're in the public eye, you pay a bigger price. A regular Joe Schmo could cut up like that and go to work the next day, and nothing would happen. But ...
DT: Yeah, but he's in a different light.
EO: I felt bad for him. Then again, you shouldn't put yourself in that position.
THE MAG: So do you think he should have been fired?
EO: I understand why he was. It's your school's image. Your head coach is at a fraternity party.
DT: After he just lost a game.
EO: After he just lost a game.
DT: It sends the wrong message. If you've just lost a game, and you see Coach drinking beer at a frat party, there's a problem.
EO: When people see those stories, they tend to take that as the way everything is.
DT: Then you hear about people taking tests and stuff -- it's one individual out of thousands of athletes.
THE MAG: Is it worse than we think?
DT: People automatically think everything's rotten. We have to prove it's not. I don't care how much people want to say it's tainted. I'd say 99% of the sport is clean. People don't want to see that.
EO: People concentrate on that 1%. That's what makes news. People don't want to hear about all of the kids who go to class.
DT: They want to hear, "Oh, so he took $5,000 or whatever from a Michigan booster." Deal with it. Chris Webber's thing was 13 years ago. You know what? Too bad. There should be a statute of limitations on stuff like that. You bring that stuff up, you're punishing the kids who are there now.
EO: You're messing with people's futures. That's stupid. I don't understand that.
DT: I think if something like that happens in a school, kids should be able to transfer. Why should I get hurt for something someone else did?
EO: It's like John commits a crime and then they convict ...
EO: Yeah, he's going to jail for some other cat. What's going on here?
THE MAG: Do you ever think there are people out there, even in the media, who want you guys to fail?
DT: People would rather be negative than positive. It's just human nature. Barry Bonds has a bad rep. He's cocky, he won't talk to the media. But the dude comes in, does the job every day, balls out, goes home to his wife and kids, has a good life. What's wrong with that?
EO: People feed on that, like he has it too easy.
DT: People feel they own the athlete.
EO: This one kid walked up to me. He goes, "Sign my shirt," then turns around. So I signed it, and he just walked away. He didn't even say, "Thank you." I was like, dang.
THE MAG: So is it worth it?
EO: Hell, yeah.
DT: Hell, yeah. There is just no better high than being on a basketball court. There's no feeling like a college game.
EO: You're on the court in Madison Square Garden, the lights are on you, your picture is up there, and you just look at it and ...
DT: There's just no other rush. We love the game. Whatever comes with it, we take it.
This article appears in the Nov. 24 issue of ESPN The Magazine.