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A Good Day in Wichita

We’re the first to decry the American culture’s overemphasis on sports, but there’s no denying that the outcome of that basketball game was of some ineffable but nonetheless very real significance to our humble little prairie town. One needn’t be from Wichita to understand the sense of civic well-being and even spiritual satisfaction that currently pervades Wichita, as an instinct to root for the plucky underdog of low breeding against the heavy favorite of aristocratic breeding is common of humankind, but it does help. Only Kentucky and North Carolina and Indiana and a few other states or cities are quite so basketball-crazy as Kansas, and no town in Kansas is any more basketball-crazy than Wichita, and none of them fully appreciate the mythic connotations and nearly perfect exemplification of the the plucky underdog versus entitled aristocrat nature of a WSU versus KU match-up, much less the giddy feeling that follows a WSU victory over KU.
Here in Wichita, which is the big city by Kansas standards, the game looms even larger, with the state’s basketball passion meshing perfectly with the games’s big city flavor. Early on Wichita developed its own basketball culture, with the great Wichita Athletic League, better known to Kansas sports fans as the the “City League,” developing a distinctly urban brand of basketball. In the early years Wichita High struggled against the disciplined farm boys in the surrounding rural towns, but by the time World War II and the aviation boom had created Wichita East and Wichita North and Wichita West and the rest of the City League were going they had Cleo Littleton playing at East and Wichita was suddenly a hotbed. Littleton joined the ‘Shockers as the first black player west of the Mississippi, playing in a Missouri Valley Conference then known as the “Valley of Death,” a league of urban colleges that would challenge the state schools and would shake up the order of college basketball with such players as the University of Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson, and that led to the Shockers’ signing of future pro star Dave “The Rave” Stallworth and a Final Four run in the ’60s. Those games were played at the old Forum downtown rather than on campus, and made ‘Shocker games a passion of the local aircraft-factory working citizenry rather than the student body, and Wichita State University was always associated more with then city than the state’s univeriy system.,
Mediocrity followed, despite a number of local players of note, while KU continued its annual appearance in those top-25 rankings, but a flowering of local talent in the early ’80s put Wichita State back in contention. KU had had all-American point guard Darnell Valentine from our our alma mater’s historic undefeated and greatest-of-all-time Wichita Heights High School’s 1977 Wichita Heights High School’s team, but Wichita State University had the star power ford Antoine Carr from the game group, who was a very cool if somewhat less clean-cut dude from that same team, and when they met New Orleans in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1981 the guy who had stayed in the old hometown won, and the hometown remembers it still. Since then WSU has won at home with an ugly stall-ball victory over the great Denny Manning’s KU team,and KU won the next game at home by a 49-point route during the years of mediocrity that still stings, but on Sunday WSU prevailed again
.Unless you’ve been paying the same inordinate attention the intricacies of college of baskeball that Wichita has lately been playing, it’s hard to understand how thoroughly satisfying WSU’s victory on Sunday feels. The win in Omaha doesn’t have the same ring as the “Battle in New Orleans,” but that ’80s run was tainted somewhat by the recruiting scandals that followed and a certain sleaziness associated with the program of the time. The ‘Shockers who prevailed on Sunday were all righteously recruited from the overlooked ranks of non-McDonald’s All-Americans that the blue-blooded likes of KU deigned to recruit, including a spunky white boy from a small school in western Kansas, the second best player on the Wichita Heights High School team that won four state straight state champions, even if the star player did wind up on KU, an unheralded player from Georgia that completely shut down half of KU’s blue chip backcourt, and an all-American point guard from the KU coach’s home state of Illinois that the ‘Shockers had spotted and signed before KU had a chance. The overlooked kids at lowly WSU who were playing out their eligibility at WSU beat the KU media darlings were who were doing their one year in mere college competition before going on to million dollar contracts in professional basketball, and it wasn’t really that close, so we’ll hope you’ll forgive ur lack of attention of the rest of the day’s news. It truly was a sweet days of sport spectating here in Wichita.

— Bud Norman

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