The thorniest story in college athletics slid awkwardly into the national spotlight Tuesday evening. Refusing to obey NCAA protocol with the eligibility of freshman center James Wiseman in question, Memphis played its star for a second straight game without clearance, lifting its middle finger in a manner that few programs ever have. It made for a cumbersome atmosphere as Memphis and Oregon, both top-15 teams, competed in a nonconference showdown intended to make you feel all euphoric about the return of college basketball.
The actual game, billed as the main event of the Phil Knight Invitational, was solid for an early-season affair, and it ended with an 82-74 victory for an older Oregon team playing much closer to home. The Tigers, now a recruiting phenomenon under Coach Penny Hardaway, started five freshmen and flashed their potential. Despite early foul trouble, the 7-foot-1 Wiseman played well at the end to salvage his performance, finishing with 14 points and 12 rebounds on a quiet night. Still, even with a who’s who of NBA talent evaluators in the arena, there was not much of a basketball vibe at Moda Center. It felt more like a recess. On Monday, Wiseman and the NCAA are back in court, where a judge must decide whether to lift or extend the temporary injunction that has allowed him to play the past two games.
“I’m not going to make any excuses,” Hardaway said Tuesday night when asked whether the drama had weighed on Wiseman and his team. “I mean, I think it’s been obviously a tough week for the 18-year-old, but we were ready to play. We understand what was going on.”
In May, after he hauled in the nation’s top recruiting class, Hardaway conjured some of his old all-star bravado and declared his team ready for all competition by saying famously, “This is Memphis. We don’t bluff. We want all the smoke.”
Is it smoky enough yet, Penny?
The situation is messy and complex, but here’s the short version: The NCAA cleared Wiseman — the potential No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft — to play, then changed its mind. When he was a high school coach, Hardaway is alleged to have paid $11,500 to the Wiseman family — unbeknown to the player — to assist with a move from Nashville to Memphis. It’s further complicated because, in 2008, Hardaway made a $1 million donation to Memphis, his alma mater. From that point, the NCAA considered him a booster.
It seems the NCAA wants to connect too many dots with Hardaway, who went from superstar alum to generous supporter to unexpected prep coach to unlikely college coach in a decade. It wasn’t some orchestrated plan to take over the program and get Wiseman, who was 7 back in 2008. However, Hardaway appears guilty of being a high school coach who wanted to stack his team, but he will argue that he has a long history, even before coaching, of using portions of his NBA millions to help hundreds of people for various reasons.
The least painful solution, for all parties, would be something of a compromise. There’s no case quite like this, but if there’s a paper trail of Hardaway paying for that $11,500 moving expense, it’s an impermissible benefit. Typically, the NCAA would require Wiseman to repay that money and serve, say, a six-game suspension before his eligibility is restored. But Memphis is upset because, until now, it had cooperated with the NCAA and it is accusing the organization of arbitrarily coming after the program without any new proof of wrongdoing.
It’s a squabble that could ruin an interesting season of parity before it really begins. By getting an injunction, Memphis already has violated a clear NCAA bylaw and could end up making itself ineligible for tournament play if it doesn’t win this case. On the other hand, Memphis seemingly has everyone in its diverse and fascinating city behind it, from hardscrabble citizens to wealthy supporters to just about every politician tied to the area.
In addition, the NCAA is considered so unpopular and ineffectual right now that it can’t win with the public, even if it has a point. The reaction on social media, from superstars such as LeBron James to anonymous posters, is overwhelmingly supportive of the Tigers standing up to a hypocritical organization in desperate need of reinvention. Before the game, two NBA scouts told me, in separate conversations, that they were rooting for Wiseman to give the NCAA headaches.
The NCAA — which has power only because the universities choose to let it have power — is struggling to remain relevant during what could be a time of revolution in college athletics. We’re not there yet, but the fight is building, and Memphis’s defiance only takes us closer to this moment of conflict. NCAA President Mark Emmert is right to worry about an existential threat to his institution. But survival shouldn’t involve merely protecting the lucrative status quo. The real threat is the NCAA’s reluctance to evolve. That’s where it has lost respect. That’s where it often seems like a bunch of mall cops in over their heads.
So en route to hell, how about a shocker, NCAA? Settle with Memphis. See the big picture. Give a little. Punish without destroying; Wiseman and the Tigers would surely accept a moderate suspension over the unknown. Move on. And move quickly so that court hearings don’t define this season.
Sometimes the most authoritative act is to provide swift and reasonable resolution.
Two weeks ago, in its noncommittal and ambiguous statement pledging to look further into compensating players for their name, image and likeness, the NCAA kept echoing the word “modernization.” That should be the standard for every revision it makes. But you get the feeling that it’s just a buzzword and not a mission statement.
It was funny, watching Memphis as a guest of honor at the Phil Knight Invitational. Bad booster, entertain good booster. All hail Nike for its assistance in making college basketball a multibillion-dollar mess. But shame on Memphis, a Nike school, for getting caught in this sticky web of money and exploitation.
Near the end of the game, a couple of fans attempted an uninspired heckling. “Wiseman, you need some money?” they asked. Their words were faint, not contagious. A few minutes later, Wiseman — perhaps the best player in college basketball for as long as litigation allows — walked off the court with the rest of his precocious teammates.
“There are no losses,” Hardaway said afterward. “There’s learns. There’s wins and learns. I promise you, we will get better from it.”
Despite Hardaway’s optimism, he cannot be certain that only progress will come from the current drama.
Throughout Moda Center, electronic Nike signs read: Sport Changes Everything.
There should have been an asterisk, followed by the words “Except the NCAA.”
While Memphis doesn’t qualify as completely innocent in this saga, it also shouldn’t be the target of capricious discipline from a graying establishment anxious about its diminishing importance. The NCAA probably feels it needs a win. But more than anything, it needs to redefine what it considers success. The objective should be evolution. Right now, the NCAA is undermining its interests — and its potential for a future — with obdurate leadership.