Basketball season is over in Kansas, spring has not yet arrived on these windy plains, and gloominess has settled over the Sunflower State.
Spring will get here sooner or later, we hope, and basketball will be back next year, we can be sure, but for now there’s simply no shaking that pervasive sense of gloom. The collegiate tournament lingers on, the professionals will keep playing until the sun is hot, and the local driveways and park courts will then be full of aspiring young Kansas hoopsters, but another year of diabolical basketball disappointment was entered into the state’s record books this past weekend. Kansas State University’s Wildcat squad went down with a fight in the first round of the tourney to the Wildcats of the University of Kentucky, the University of Kansas Jayhawks lost a close game in the round of thirty-two to the Stanford University Cardinal, and our beloved Wichita State University Wheatshockers missed a last-second three-point attempt in an epic battle to fall at the same point in the tournament to that pesky Kentucky team.
In other states where football or NASCAR racing or surfing some other such nonsense dominate the sporting scene it will be hard to understand, but in Kansas this is a rather devastating development. We take our basketball all too seriously here in Kansas, no matter how the loyalties are divided. The KSU team has enjoyed some notable success over the years, and gave the world Tex Winter and his sophisticated triangle offense, as any stereotypically hayseed fan of that fine cow college will tell you, so first-round losses to even the most storied programs are hard to take there. The KU squad has been playing the game since its inventor joined the faculty and has won the whole she-bang on three separate occasions, as any of its alumni will tell you ad nauseum, so losing to an even snootier school such as Stanford is a bitter disappointment, especially when they had one of those one-and-done pro prospects that was supposed to wow the world. Even lowly WSU has had some good years, too, and although many of them ended in second-round losses there were tantalizingly plausible reasons to believe that this season would be stretch deep into the competition.
The ‘Shockers hadn’t lost since last April, after all, when they took the eventual national champions to the wire in the semi=final round of the tournament. Since then the plucky band of overlooked recruits had beaten all comers, including four tournament teams along with the mid-major nobodies, and after steamrollering a hapless Cal-Poly University squad they went into the second round with an unprecedented 35-game winning streak. It was only unprecedented because Indiana University’s ’76 squad didn’t get as many games, and a couple of UCLA teams from the dynasty days stretched their much longer winning streaks over consecutive seasons, but by any measure it was a good run. Even the most fatalistic long-time ‘Shocker fans were emboldened to an unfamiliar hope, and the city at large was awash in the black-and-gold of the hometown team. Almost everyone around here had become fond of these lads, including a friend of ours who works at a local restaurant where the team had a weekly meal, who swears they’re the most respectful college students she’d ever encountered, and the city seemed to gained a pep in its economically depressed step because of their efforts.
A predictably bad break of bracketing luck had put them against a blue-chip laden team from Kentucky, which has won the whole she-bang five times more than even almighty KU and was the pre-season favorite to add that total, and in the end their height and talent and a some questionable calls and few missed ‘Shocker free-throw attempts made the two-point difference. There was considerable satisfaction in a 35-and-one season, and seeing the our blue-collar local boys put up such a spirited fight against the blue bloods, but we will always look back on this great season with a nagging realization of what might have been. That was a damned good team that could have shown those pro prospect blue chippers how it’s done, and the city will have to take an immense satisfaction in that.
Spring will be here sooner or later, we still hope, and soon our attention will turn once again to the Wichita Wingnuts. Our local unaffiliated minor-league baseball team tore up the American Association’s roster of similarly odd-named teams from similarly mid-sized cities last year but lost in an upset in the championship series, and we’re hoping that another summer of drinking beer in the smoking section of our charmingly antiquated ballpark will provide the same welcome distraction from dreary reality. In the meantime our most wonderful mother is battling a serious illness in a San Diego hospital, and we’re awaiting a call to assure that all is well, and even in this basketball-crazed state we are reminded of what’s really important.
— Bud Norman