If you are under the age of 30 and have watched MAC Basketball with any regularity over the course of the last 10 years, what I am about to say may in fact sound like lunacy; but there was a time that soon-to-be NBA players roamed the courts in MAC arenas on a nightly basis. For me this "Golden Era" that I thought, as a teenager, was the norm has become anything but in recent years. Like an extinct species, these behemoths of MAC basketball have been replaced with something that is hardly larger than life.
I fell in love with MAC basketball as kid because of dynamic players like Toledo's Craig Thames or Miami's Devin Davis. Thames was as proficient a scorer as there was in the conference during a time when the league was filled with future NBA talent, and not to mention the fact the guy could flat out jump out of the gym. Davis will be remembered by many for sporting his famous dreadlocks, but the guy could play and worked harder on the inside than any player of his era, while leading the then Redskins to two NCAA and two NIT appearances. Neither of these former stars of MAC hoops ever cracked an NBA lineup, or even had the opportunity to ride the pine in the Association, but several of their contemporaries did much more than just crack a roster in the NBA.
From 1995-1999 the MAC Tournament called the Toledo area home, and while the venues were lacking, the talent on the floor more than made up for it. I got a firsthand look at the abundance of talent the conference had to offer when my friends and I were asked about a week before the tournament started to hold ropes for the players and coaches to keep fans back when entering and exiting the court. It really was a mindless job, but it afforded us the opportunity sit courtside and watch some of the top talent the MAC has ever witnessed go head to head on a basketball court. I recall with tremendous fondness a Sports Illustrated feature on Antonio Daniels released a month or so before the conference tournament, and getting Daniels to autograph that story.
It was a phenomenal era to be introduced to MAC basketball because success blossomed all the way from early December until March Madness. I remember when a Gary Trent-led Ohio Bobcats team claimed the pre-season NIT Championship played at Madison Square Garden; or when the Wally Szczerbiak led Miami RedHawks (they changed their name from the Redskins in the summer of 97) pushed eventual National Champion Kentucky in a Sweet 16 battle in 1999. I would be remised if I failed to include Earl Boykins and Derrick Dial leading Eastern Michigan to a first round win over Duke, or a 1995 Miami upset of Lute Olsen and Arizona. These events all happened, and they happened with regularity.
Over this modest five year stretch, when the MAC Tournament visited the University of Toledo's then Savage Hall and Downtown Toledo's Seagate Centre, the following players walked onto the court and put on a show: Gary Trent, Ira Newble, Antonio Daniels, Bonzi Wells, Earl Boykins and Wally Szczerbiak. Those six former MAC stars logged over 3,600 combined NBA games played. It was an era that created my love for MAC basketball and it was a brief period of time that likely will never be repeated.
Eleven years ago Chris Kaman walked off the court as a Central Michigan Chippewa for the last time and was subsequently drafted sixth overall by Donald Sterling's Los Angeles Clippers. Kaman has logged more than 600 career NBA games, averaged just less than 12 PPG, 8 RPG and at the age of the 32 is heading down the homestretch on what has been a solid NBA career. While Kaman's career will hardly go down as remarkable in the history books for NBA big men; he does represent that MAC's last productive NBA talent. Others have had looks-John Edwards of Kent State and Xavier Silas of Northern Illinois, for example-but none of them stuck.
Following this run in the late 90's the MAC as a whole began to invest more heavily in football, let basketball facilities deteriorate, failed to hang on to some good coaches and watched leagues like the Missouri Valley, CAA, and WCC pass them by. The MAC was able to fill Tuesdays and Wednesday in November with their football product, and eventually saw a conference member play in a BCS Bowl game, but these advances have come at the expense of a once great basketball conference.
The MAC had a lot of talent on the court not all that long ago; I did not appreciate it when I was young, because I figured another crop of NBA ready players was right around the corner. That has clearly not been the case.