In the interest of documenting old bits of writing in one place (and because, well, it’s basketball season and the fever runs high around here), I’ve decided to post an old piece I wrote about the KU basketball team when I was hosting my Lawrence.com blog, the Front Row Forum. It has since been deleted from their server due to an overhauling of their blogs, but here I retrieve it from the depths and dust it off just in time for yet another round of hoops mania. Enjoy!
Originally published March 25, 2009
Last week over dinner my mother gave me a sneering laugh and quipped, “Since when do you know so much about college basketball?”
We had been discussing our brackets, a family practice I’ve participated in nearly every year since I was about ten. She didn’t expect Kansas to make it to the third round (though truthfully, a lot of people didn’t). I had a little more faith.
Her surprise was not that I chose to support KU’s tournament run by picking them to go far in my bracket. I’ve been placing KU in my Final Four nearly every year since I was a kid; most years, I simply didn’t recognize enough schools to predict otherwise.
But that night she was stunned that I wanted to sit and wax athletic about what conference had a stronger tournament representation, my curious love for the “big men” inside, and just why Aldrich and Collins won’t leave after this season.
Let me backtrack a little bit.
I grew up in Lawrence. Both of my parents worked for the university, and my father spent his spare time working his way up as a collegiate basketball referee. But the Jayhawk Basketball bug never bit me until after I graduated from KU—at least, that’s what I used to tell myself.
I occupied my youth with books, prided myself on academic achievement, and spent my high school years painting in the art studio. My younger brother played sports; I wrote essays. He went to KU games with our dad; I went to concerts and museums. I can count the number of Allen Fieldhouse games I’ve been to on one hand.
And it wasn’t but a couple years ago that my brother and I had to agree to disagree on the merits of high-priced athletic programs versus academic responsibility at universities. I hated that athletes are aided through their classes, hoisted on a pedestal, and treated like gods no matter what their intelligence quotient may be.
But like any true Lawrencian, the dusty memories of my childhood are littered with KU Basketball—I just refused to recognize it.
I remember in 1995 when Jacque Vaughn graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. My mom rushed out and bought my brother and I each a copy. I was more interested in the idea of local celebrity than I was the implication of KU Basketball prowess. A former family babysitter of ours was working as a student in my mother’s office, and I knew that she lived in the Towers with the basketball team.
Not only did I request an autograph on my behalf (still simply mesmerized by the idea of an autograph—if he was cool enough to sign something he MUST be a big deal!), but I collected my friends’ copies at school. I waved my “in” around like a popularity flag. I even collected a copy from my best friend’s boyfriend, future walk-on Stephen Vinson, who seemed exceptionally interested in obtaining Vaughn’s signature.
Maybe Stephen knew then that he would one day join those most prestigious of ranks, but I sure didn’t. I couldn’t have. I didn’t care.
Over the next several years, my Lawrence existence would be graced with glimmers of KU Basketball. I would watch Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz dominate the court, enamored with their size more than their talent, but enamored just the same. My dad played softball with Danny Manning, and Roy Williams attended my church. But I never came close to understanding what any of it meant.
Yet last year, when KU made its storied run all the way to the highest of victories, I was watching, and I knew what I was watching. I understood what it all meant. I knew the players names, could recite their stats, and yelled just as loud as anyone else in the bar. I read up on opposing teams, and theorized with friends about possible outcomes. I even donned my first personally purchased KU shirt—not just a shirt my mother had bought me in previous tournament years, but one I chose and wore proudly.
I can’t say that last year was my first year paying attention to KU Basketball. During college it was hard not to, even peripherally. And I was certainly watching when KU lost to Syracuse that sad day in 2003.
But last year was the first year that it all meant something more. It was a shared endeavor between all my friends as we watched and worried and celebrated with the team. The championship was almost just as much our victory, having made it through the season together, watching in disbelief as Mario drained that famous three, and of course celebrating when the overtime clock sounded its final alarm.
And so it is that this year I came to study college basketball with the vigor and energy I used to pour into my academics. Maybe it means I’m less of an authentic fan than most Lawrence natives. But if after twenty-plus years of disdaining the hoopla, that oh-so-magical Jayhawk bug finally bit me, I won’t be cleaning the wound anytime soon.
And in case anyone has any doubts that KU has a chance this season, I direct you to WhatIfSports.com—a sports simulation company whose statistical probabilities predicted the entire outcome of last year’s tournament. How far did they take KU this year? Well, let’s just say, don’t put your Jayhawk t-shirt back in the closet anytime soon.