LAWRENCE, Kan. — KU students wore skullcaps and blew hot air into their cold hands. They popped their collars so their jackets and fleeces covered their necks.
They lined the sidewalk outside Allen Fieldhouse at 4 p.m. — four hours before game time and two hours before the doors opened — raring to sprint through the building like Secretariat careering down the final straight at Belmont. More than 4,000 of the 16,000-plus seats in the gym are reserved for the students. When the doors finally did open, they filled them all within minutes.
Men’s basketball tickets for students are hard to come by in Jayhawk country already, but you could secure one and still not get in if you don’t make it through the door in time. The butts of old teenagers and young 20-somethings planted firmly on wooden blue benches. There’s a seatback section for the young at heart — and rich in wallet — on either side of James Naismith Court. But not many.
The students taunted the fellas from Norman with posters that read “DECADE OF DOMINANCE” and “PO(U)STERIZED” and “YOU’LL WIN SOONER OR LATER.” They wore jerseys with their classmates’ names and numbers on them. For every No. 15 jersey, every No. 34 jersey, there seem to be at least three shirts, jerseys — shirseys! — with No. 22 and Wiggins writ large across the back of them in the red, white and blue of the Jayhawk nation.
“It’s like this all the time, at least the three years I’ve been here,” said Dante, a KU junior. “We come out for every game.”
KU students aren’t shy about how much they love basketball, how much they love their team, and that only serves to intimidate the uninitiated. But if by miracle of miracles an opponent, an opposing team’s fan or even the neutral observer like yours truly doesn’t feel the least bit fazed by this atmosphere called one of the greatest in all of college sports, all they really would have to do is look up.
The rafters at the Phog illustrate why Jayhawk basketball has won the hearts and minds of its faithful. NCAA Final Four banners line the gym ceiling from one end to the other. They date as far back as 1940 and as recently as 2012. There isn’t room in the gym to display all 56 of Kansas’ conference titles, so they grouped them according to the conferences they’ve dominated since the turn of the last century.
The jersey numbers of Mario Chalmers, Wayne Simeon, Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison and Drew Gooden line the west wall. And those are just the jerseys retired at KU since 2000. Kansas’ five national championship banners adorn the east wall.
There is no loser’s loyalty here.
From the seven o’clock hour to tip-off, the gym goes from nearly a quarter full to near capacity. Nine minutes before the national anthem is sung, the folks in the stands rise and sway together to sing the KU alma mater, which might as well be their version of “Kumbaya.”
When the Jayhawks came out for their final round of warm-ups, they received a standing ovation from students and old-timers alike. As the ref walked toward the neck of the gigantic Jayhawk smack in the middle of the hardwood, the low buzz around me cranked into a seismic roar.
This is college basketball — KU style.
I’d never been to a game at the Phog before, but I’d heard stories. There are rumors, myths about the environment. I’d heard if I never attended a game there I hadn’t really experienced the best of Big 12 basketball.
I’d heard it was unlike any thing I’d ever covered before from a man who knew I covered a game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind., not six months ago. I was skeptical when my buddy Eddie Radosevich and me began our five-hour trip north into God’s country.
I think most sporting environments are overrated. I think they’re only as good as what you expect them to be, and most folks — folks who paid good money to attend these sporting events — are biased. They can’t help it.
Everyone wants to believe they’re getting the best bang for their buck. I mean, try telling the folks who bought tickets to the Super Bowl earlier this month that the experience is overrated.
Try telling them for what they spent on that Super Bowl ticket they could’ve bought a 70-inch flat screen TV, enough wings at Buffalo Wild Wings to cause a chicken shortage and absorbed the game in greater detail and greater glory in their pajamas than they did in frigid New Jersey. They’ll probably try to injure you. Or maybe not.
At the very least, they’re going to blow you off. I know I would. But, generally speaking, advancements in the television industry have made for a better game experience. TV folks conduct interviews during the game.
At halftime of nearly every game on TV, you can guarantee a head coach — almost always the coach losing the game — will be asked by a TV reporter what has to happen for her team to win the game. Men who were once superlative officials are routinely brought in to explain a rather intricate ruling on a play — while the play is still under review.
TV has given us the benefit of replay on calls fallible human beings have to make at a time when other human beings are bigger, stronger, faster than ever in history. In their living room, most folks don’t even have to wait for the producer to replay the play. They can pick up a magic wand — called a remote — and rewind live television.
There are even points during some sports events where TV imposes on the rhythm of the game itself. In college basketball, we have TV timeouts — four points during each half where the game WILL stop. Those times occurred during the Oklahoma’s game against Kansas on Monday night, but in between them, there was also one heck of a basketball game.
The student section stood every time an OU player attempted a free throw and put on a kind small elaborate stage play to try to distract him. With each of the 27 buckets KU scored, there was a loud roar and applause. With each OU bucket scored, there was an audible groan.
In the middle of the first half, Oklahoma mounted a 15-2 run to tie the game. Kansas fans didn’t seem worried so much as perturbed. They had come to see the crowning of another Kansas conference championship team, and yet another OU drubbing. After all, the Sooners hadn’t walked out of the Phog with a win since the 20th century, and nothing pointed to their being able to win there this year. And yet, they kept fighting.
Kansas jogged out of the locker room with a 42-33 lead, and it took all of two minutes for the Sooners cut that lead to one point. They tied the game with just over 15 minutes left to play and began trading buckets with the No. 5 team country, and Buddy Hield was getting into the mix.
Hield is OU’s leading scorer on average, but he’d scored just three points in the first half. In the first 10 minutes of the second half, he dropped 10 points. And with 10:04 left to play Oklahoma held a 58-54 lead. There the Sooners’ dream of winning at the Phog ended there.
Late in the game, Kansas mounted the kind of run championship teams mount. Naadir Tharpe and not Andrew Wiggins became the Jayhawks’ talisman, and they pulled away from the Sooners in the final six minutes of the game.
KU dispatched OU 83-75 and clinched their 10th straight regular season conference championship — or a share of it at the very least. The Jayhawks only need to win one of their remaining three games to raise the banner alone.
On the court after the buzzer sounded, Bill Self held up 10 fingers to the crowd who praised him for being the man to guide the program to that brilliant accomplishment. A few minutes after he left the floor in the interview room, he only spent a little time talking about what it means to win a decade’s worth of conference titles in one of the best leagues in the country before he began talking about the need to win again and again. And again.
“There would be nothing better for us than to go down there and do something special in a juiced building on someone else’s home court,” he said. “Then we want to back it up and have a great senior night. Then we want to go and play at West Virginia and have as much momentum as we can going into the Big 12 tournament.”
Self’s continuously thinking about winning the next one. Maybe that’s how he’s won so many championships during his time Lawrence. Maybe he owns an insatiable need to stack victory on victory.
Or maybe it’s because of those students who camp out at the Phog for tickets and arrive hours before the game to make sure they get in the building. Or maybe it’s because of the old couple the folks at KU honored during the first TV timeout for their life-long devotion to KU basketball.
Or maybe it’s because of the hundreds of parents and children still standing in the tunnel outside the KU locker room waiting with balls, jerseys and posters for he and his players autograph until damn near midnight on a school night.
Or maybe it’s because of those folks who created the best basketball atmosphere I’ve ever experienced. Whatever it is, I sincerely hope one day you get to experience it too.