A postseason honors banquet is supposed to be a celebratory time for a college sports program, a chance to show highlights and brag on graduation rates, to tell a few jokes, hand out some plaques and wish the seniors well as they head out the door and into life, on the professional playing field and beyond.
The Alabama men’s basketball banquet had all that on Monday night, but it turned into less of an awards show and more of a game show along the way, a real-life version of “Jeopardy” in which just about everything that happened had to be answered in the form of a question.
Braxton Key, the team’s Freshman of the Year, wasn’t on hand to accept his award. Instead, as he announced earlier in the day, he was out of town, staying with friends as he contemplates whether to forego the rest of a promising college career in return for a paycheck. Both doors are currently open. Key is taking classes remotely, a 21st-century way of maintaining eligibility. He has not ruled out coming back, although his decision-making process over the next few weeks will likely have Alabama fans in knots.
The current state of Alabama basketball fandom is swinging wildly from euphoric expectations to the kind of fearful gloom that a Stephen King protagonist usually feels just before the evil clown (or evil car or evil mist) creeps up from behind. Crimson Tide basketball fans are proud people, with a sort of hardiness that football’s 90 percent win ratio doesn’t require. At the same time, their patience hasn’t been rewarded lately with no NCAA Tournament wins in a decade.
It’s one thing to sit at home (or in the NIT) and watch Kentucky succeed in NCAA play but when Texas A&M makes the Sweet 16 or South Carolina makes the Final Four, Alabama fans get understandably frustrated. When they cast that frustration aside and get excited about the next season, an excitement loaded with rocket fuel by a highly-lauded recruiting class, there is still the occasional look-over-the-shoulder reflex for coming trouble. When the school’s first All-SEC Freshman team member, a player that most fans had written in ink as a three- or four-year starter, is suddenly in limbo, the reaction of “I knew it!” is understandable.
Nothing has been determined yet. Key is fact-gathering. If he gets feedback that says he’s not yet ready to cash a bonus check for NBA millions, the prospect of returning to school may look better than a career in China. On the other hand, depending on circumstances, some tax-free overseas money might look pretty good.
Around the country, not just at Alabama, the month of April has turned into a modified version of recruiting. Stars that were wooed just a year earlier have to be won over again, talked out of transferring or sold on the notion that returning is in their best interest. The better your team is, the more you have to deal with it. For sure-fire lottery picks, things are easy. The money is almost always to much to refuse, so you wish them well. Avery Johnson may well find himself in that boat a year from now.
Looking at things from a glass-half-full perspective, Alabama fans might say it’s a sign Johnson is steadily upgrading the team’s talent. That’s true. But those fans are certainly starting to feel like they deserve a completely full glass, at least for one season and that is understandable.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.