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Those Plucky Cornell Kids

POSTED:

You can have Kentucky. You can take Ashley Judd, Adolph Rupp, Sam Bowie, Pat Riley, Coach Cal, Refuse to Lose, the one-and-done freshmen bound for the NBA, and all the bags of cash needed to make the Wildcats run.

via Clinging to an Ivy climber – The Boston Globe.

Am I imagining things, or is Cornell-Kentucky becoming a minor subterranean Tea Party cause celebre? I don't even follow college basketball and I still can't avoid hearing every sportswriter in America salivating over the storyline in this game — the gritty, overmatched Cornell team with all the "intangibles" taking on the showboating NBA-bound street kids at Kentucky.

Normally broadcasters reserve their drooling over white-athlete stereotypes for descriptions of individual players like Wes Welker, Steve Nash, and… well, of Wes Welker. You do get some during NFL draft season, when you hear all the various Mel Kipers talking about fourth- and fifth-round talents who are worth a shot because they are "consistent," "able to take coaching," have "high football intelligence," are "good in the locker room," and "try hard and play through the whistle." (My favorite of these cliches is actually, "Mature; is a coach's son."). The commensurate glowing descriptions of black athletes, of course, are more like, "Flattens the fuck out of guys" or "Will dunk on your face and laugh about it."

Now they get to rattle off all of these in a team context. Sportswriters love underdog stories and they love white-vs.-black stories, so Cornell-Kentucky is a gold mine of sports cliches.

But I find this one a little annoying, because they're painting the Kentucky kids as taking-it-for-granted future millionaires, while the Cornell kids are plucky practice-loving types whose sheer love of the game got them to the Sweet 16. They are, after all, true amateurs, since the Ivies have no sports scholarships and presumably no under-the-table Lincoln Navigators, either.

But these Cornell guys pretty much all came from upper-middle-class backgrounds at least (one is the prototypical "coach's son"; Ryan Wittman's dad Randy was an NBA player and coach) and will have cozy lives waiting for them after they graduate. As player Louis Dale joked: "After this, it's just nothing but babies and memories."

Meanwhile the Kentucky kids are mostly inner-city types who needed some breaks just to get where they are. John Wall's father died when he was nine and his mother worked multiple jobs to get him his shot; DeMarcus Cousins had no father either and his mother had to move him out of Birmingham to get him away from a bad neighborhood. Obviously they both won the genetic lottery, too, but plenty of parents have blown it for kids with the same luck.

I get that within a few years both of them and Bledsoe and Patterson and the rest of them will probably be the overpaid, entitled douche bags most NBA stars turn into. I also get that D-1 college basketball is crooked as a barrel of snakes and that recruiting whizzes like John Calipari are morally probably on par with white-slavers and Colombian drug lords. But while they're still teenagers basketball is a life-or-death deal for kids like Wall and Cousins and their families. So I have a little trouble with all of these stories talking about how we should root for the Big Red because the Cornell kids just try harder and love the game more.

I know I'm not the only one who thinks this, because I heard someone talking about it on Mike Francesa yesterday (it's agony for a Boston native to be limited to the sports radio options I have in north Jersey), but does anyone else find all this Cornell-fawning irritating? I'd rip Dan Shaughnessy for his predictable hijacking of the plucky-Ivy meme, but the fact that his rooting interest in Cornell is grounded almost entirely in a desire to see Calipari's all-stars choke is mildly amusing.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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