Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this column misstated the amount of money sent to the father of a Kentucky recruit.

On Memphis Basketball and Plaxico Burress

By John Feinstein
Monday, August 24, 2009

It is almost eerie sometimes how major news stories break on the same day. Years ago, Rickey Henderson became Major League Baseball's all-time stolen base leader -- and modestly declared himself, "The greatest of all time." That night, Nolan Ryan pitched the seventh no-hitter of his career and most people around the country decided Henderson's feat was the second greatest of that day.

On June 25, Farrah Fawcett died after a long, sad battle with cancer. A few hours later, Michael Jackson died after a long, sad battle with life. Fawcett gets mentioned now as part of jokes told about Michael Jackson.

And then there was last Thursday. On the same day that the NCAA melodramatically stripped the Memphis men's basketball team of 38 victories during the 2007-08 season and its status as the runner-up in the NCAA tournament, former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress took a plea bargain after bringing a loaded gun into a New York nightclub last November and shooting himself in the leg.

The NFL is a much bigger deal around the country than college basketball so the Burress case received a lot more attention. There was, however, a similarity to the two stories that seems to occur whenever those in athletics get themselves in trouble.

A lot of people thought it was all terribly unfair. Woe is Plaxico Burress. Woe is Memphis. Oh please.

Let's start with Memphis. The school is being stripped of its Final Four banner and its record-setting 38 wins because a player on the team -- believed by everyone on planet Earth to be then-freshman Derrick Rose, the team's star point guard -- did not take the SAT himself and thus was ineligible to play all season.

There is, without question, an Inspector Clouseau quality to the NCAA. It cleared Rose to play after inspecting his academic records. Apparently, it kept sending notices that he was being investigated to his home in Chicago when he was playing basketball at Memphis. (Let's not push the envelope and say while he was attending classes at Memphis.) There's also a legitimate question about what Memphis knew and when it knew it. The case can be made -- and is being made -- that if then-Coach John Calipari was told the kid was eligible then he and the school did nothing wrong by playing him.

That said, there are a number of questions left unanswered by the Memphis apologists. If Rose is innocent, if in fact he did take the SAT, why has he not said one word about this since the story broke last spring. Why in the world isn't he suing the NCAA -- which almost always loses lawsuits because it screws something up -- for defamation of character? Why hasn't he brought forward witnesses to say they saw him walk into the classroom to take the test on the day in question?

Then there are the Memphis/Calipari questions: If Rose didn't take the test, who did? Who arranged for a test-taker? Was an 18-year-old high school kid savvy enough to beat the system all by himself? Anyone want to volunteer how Rose did academically as a Memphis freshman? Not that his transcript is relevant to the case, but it would be interesting to know.

Calipari is one hell of a basketball coach. He took over one of the worst programs in the country at Massachusetts and had it in the Final Four in eight years and perennially nationally ranked. He brought Memphis back to prominence and then dominance in the blink of an eye. But there have always been whispers wherever he's coached, and they don't just come from coaches with an agenda to get a guy who is successful. Those who knew Calipari's Memphis program said there were times a second charter could have been brought in for the players' posses.

That doesn't make you guilty of anything, but it makes you suspicious. And when a coach goes to two Final Fours and they are both vacated you can't just call it bad luck and move on. Except that Calipari has called it bad luck and has moved on, which no doubt galls those pulling down the banners at Memphis.

But that's the way of the NCAA world. Almost always by the time it gets through with an investigation, the coach is long gone and the players involved -- like Rose in this case -- are making millions. Marcus Camby, the player at the center of the U-Mass. case in 1996, is still in the NBA.

Under the rules, the NCAA could have held Calipari accountable for what happened or at the very least investigated further to find out who was involved in the SAT fraud, but with Calipari now coaching one of its most glamorous programs, that wasn't likely to happen. It is always worth remembering Jerry Tarkanian's famous description of NCAA justice. Upon learning that $1,000 had fallen out of an envelope headed to a Kentucky recruit's father, Tark said: "The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it is going to put Cleveland State on probation."

In this case, the NCAA is so mad at Kentucky for hiring the tainted Calipari it is making Memphis take down its banners and give back its NCAA money. It will not, however, be giving refunds to the 45,000 fans who were in the Alamodome when Memphis apparently did not play in the championship game against Kansas. All those folks paid a lot of money to see a game that never happened.

The Burress case is far more simple. There is no he said-he said or any doubt about what happened. Burress ventured out on the night of Nov. 28 last year to a New York club carrying a gun that had an expired Florida license and would not have been legal in New York even if it had not expired.

The gun, stuck in Burress's sweat pants, went off and -- fortunately for everyone, especially Burress -- he was the only one injured. If convicted by a jury he would have had to go, by law, to jail for 3 1/2 years. His high-powered, big bucks lawyer bargained it down to two years (out in 20 months with good behavior) and then the whining began.

Some said it was not a crime of malice. It wasn't. There are plenty of crimes of stupidity, including taking drugs and driving drunk. Stupidity, especially the blatant kind, gets you sent to jail. Others complained that Donte' Stallworth, the wide receiver who killed a man while driving drunk, got off with 24 days in jail because he reportedly paid the family $5 million as part of a civil action. He was also suspended for a year by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Stallworth's sentence may very well have been too light but that has nothing to do with the Burress case.

Others pointed out that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was grandstanding when he held a news conference and vowed that Burress would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Bloomberg was grandstanding. He's a politician. Ever watch a congressional hearing? That's what they do.

The bottom line question was whether Burress deserved serious punishment under the laws that are in place. The answer is yes. Athletes owning and carrying guns is an absolute epidemic. Maybe -- just maybe -- some athletes will give it a second thought the next time they pick up their piece to head out for a night on the town. Part of the reason for punishment in this country is as a deterrent -- it is the argument death penalty proponents use all the time. If this is a deterrent for others who believe laws don't apply to them, that's a good thing.

In the end, things could have been worse for everyone. Burress could have been foolish enough to go to court and ended up with 3 1/2 years because most legal experts believe he would have been convicted in a trial that would have lasted no more than two days.

Memphis could have received penalties that hurt it going forward -- loss of scholarships, TV appearances, even postseason opportunities -- although the NCAA has basically decided the last two penalties simply don't apply anymore, especially to glamour teams.

And Calipari? Heck, he's had a much better summer than the coach at Louisville, Kentucky's arch rival. It's as if the entire Memphis incident never happened.

Which, according to the NCAA, it didn't.

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