The U.S. college basketball season reaches its finale this weekend in the Final Four tournament.
It’ll showcase some future NBA stars in a city that’s home to one of the greatest teams in the game, the San Antonio Spurs.
But if the fans are passionate, the organizers of the Final Four are struggling to find the love—partly due to the way the players are handled.
CGTN’s Owen Fairclough reports.
Clayton Custer prepares for the most important game of his life: raining down three-point swoosh shots from one of the most difficult positions on the court at San Antonio’s Alamodome.
A win for Loyola University Chicago against Michigan would put them in the final for U.S. college basketball’s national championship for the first time since 1963.
The Ramblers, as they’re known, are outsiders and their unlikely path has upended a knockout tournament that Americans spend a fortune betting on every March.
“March Madness is something that kids dream of their whole life,” Clayton, Loyola’s 6 foot 1 inch point guard, told CGTN.
“This is a dream come true for all of us. I think even if you’re at a high major this is a dream come true. I mean, this is the Mecca of basketball.”
But if there’s romance in this Cinderella story, there’s arguably less love for organizers, the NCAA, which manages U.S. college sport.
The NCAA’s revenues last year were more than a billion dollars.
But it won’t pay its athletes who are generating millions from all this attention because they’re amateurs.
On top of this, an FBI investigation uncovered a vast network of bribes paid to steer players to certain colleges.
The payment debate is clearly an issue for the players, Clayton adding: “When you see a lot of people making a lot of money, in the NCAA it’s something we all talk about and think about. If we didn’t play the games, then no one would be making that money.”
Some are now questioning whether young stars set on an NBA career even need college.
LeBron James and Kobe Bryant both went straight into professional game from high school.
The NBA then imposed a minimum age limit of 19– or one year out of high school – partly to ensure players were properly developed physically and mentally.
Critics call it the one and done rule — colleges taking on players for a year, benefiting from what you might call free labor and then letting them leave for the NBA with no degree.
And, if they fail to make the cut as a professional, they’ve lost their education and the chance to make a living in the most profitable sports league in the world.
Basketball development expert Chris Dial has worked extensively in Europe and thinks sports clubs there that take on players as young apprentices – like Barcelona with Lionel Messi – could be a model for U.S. basketball.
Mr. Dial told CGTN, “Some of these guys would definitely benefit from some type of a program if college wasn’t it, that would help them mature in the right way, help them manage themselves in this new found situation.”
The NBA is now considering abandoning the so-called one-and-done rule.
The problem is, it doesn’t have an alternative that will serve the people who matter most: these young players putting their hoop dreams on the line.