March Madness on the Prairie, Minus the Politics

An unaccountably warm February got all the trees and flowers budding around here, but March has thus far been back to its usual cold and windy way on the Kansas plains. The Kansas State University Wildcats played themselves into the round of 64 in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual men’s basketball championship tournament on Tuesday, though, and thus pretty much all Kansans are once again warmed by the fever of March madness.
Every state has its own distinct sports culture, but especially here in the hinterlands where there’s not much else to do. Down south in Oklahoma they’re mainly concerned with football, although they can boast about Oklahoma A&M’s basketball championships back in the ’40s with original big man Bob Kurland and many other big-time players since, and our kin in Oklahoma City do love that Thunder team in the National Basketball Association, and they can also boast about that injun Jim Thorpe as an all around-athlete and such stalwart baseball white boys as Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench. The sparsely populated eastern part of Colorado that looks just like the sparsely western Kansas plays eight-man and six-man football and mostly concerns itself with five-man basketball just like western Kansas, but in the western half of the state they seem to ski and root for the Denver Broncos in the National Football League. Up north in Nebraska they only care about football, and although the baseball’s not bad they don’t seem at all embarrassed that except for Omaha’s Catholic Creighton University their basketball is abysmal. Back east in Missouri baseball’s the big thing, especially the Kansas City Royals and more especially the St. Louis Cardinals, and although they used to wreak occasional havoc in the old Big Eight’s basketball competitions they’re seemingly content as an also-ran in the Southeastern Conference.
Here in Kansas we take football and baseball seriously enough to have produced our per-capita share of top-notch players, and we’ve got high schools girls winning Olympic gold in skeet shooting and can boast of some legends in track and field and the skateboarders aren’t bad, but the big game by far around here is hoops. There’s no professional franchise in a state where the biggest city has only a half-million or so in its metro area, but we’ve got three state universities competing in the collegiate championship, several more playing in their lower divisions’ tournaments, the state’s highly competitive community college teams are always contenders, and even at the small school tourneys the state high school championships always feature enough talent to draw the recruiters for the next level.
Even the kids who didn’t make the high school teams are playing in the driveways and playgrounds all over Kansas, and we’d put them up against the kids playing in the driveways and playgrounds anywhere else. Folks have been playing the game around here ever since it was invented by James Naismith for the Young Men’s Christians Associations that were here from the start, and ever since they’ve been pretty good at it. Naismith coached at the University of Kansas, where he’s the only coach with a losing record, and its program has won multiple national championships and is one of the most blue-programs in the country, with another number one seed in this year’s tournaments and a decent shot at winning it all. The land grant cow college Kansas State University has some big time wins to brag about, including several notable ones over the the snooty KU, many provided by those tough-nosed kids from the hard-luck small towns that those small school championships always seem to turn up.
As good as those small town Kansas kids are, we’re from the big bad city of Wichita and take a particular pride in our local brand of ball. The City League has sent several players to the pro ranks, including a couple of nice guys we went to school with, and many more to Division I collegiate glory, and we recommend that you get in shape for a pickup game around here. Although we spent a couple of all-too-carefree years at K-State and only a couple of hours at Wichita State University we root for the WSU Wheatshockers, because Wichita is our city and the ‘Shocks are its team. Back in the ’30s and ’40s they used to play their homes games at the old Forum building downtown rather on the campus, and tended to draw more from the local factory workers and businessmen and hoops aficionados rather than students, and although a local haberdasher built a roundhouse on campus in the ’50s and a local oil-refining billionaire rebuilt to state of the art more recently the Shocks still belong more to the factory workers and businessmen and hoops aficionados than the students. Over the years, Wichita State fans have had some lulls but also some things to cheer about.
Back in the ’60s WSU had some championship years in the then-feared Missouri Valley Conference, went to a Final Four in ’64, had another run in the ’80s that would have resulted in a Final Four if not for some recruiting violations and probations, made a few tournaments and won a few games in the ’90s, and for the past decade have been on another tear. Coach Greg Marshall inherited the team at a very down point, immediately started bringing it up, and has since notched a National Invitational Tournament victory and a Final Four and a 35-0 streak and a run of tournament appearances with at least one victory that bests some of the blue-blood programs, and we hopeful that will continue. As always the ‘Shockers are under-ranked as a 10 seed, but most of the sportswriters regard them as a favorite in their first-round matchup against Dayton University, and the Vegas line has the ‘Shockers as a 6.5 point favorite, and with all due respect to the hard-working factory of Dayton we like our chances. In the second round they’d most likely meet the University of Kentucky, which is about as blue-blooded a program as there is and the same ones who ended that 35-and-0 run in a down-to-the-final-second thriller, but who knows? The Washington Post’s supposed expert ranks the ‘Shocks as the sixth most likely winner overall, just behind KU and just ahead of Kentucky, and a Facebook friend altered us to some site that predicts WSU beating not only Kentucky but also the blue-blooded University of California-Los Angeles and University of North Carolina to get to another Final Four. Those scribes rightly note that “Wichita thrives on beating up snobs from the rich side of town and will relish giving UK a bloody nose,” and predicts “Wichita is going to the rich side of town with a pack of matches and a five gallon tank of gasoline and try to burn everything to the ground.
As nice as it sounds that’s a bit optimistic for our dour prairie souls to believe, but one can always hope. Next year the ‘Shocks are bringing everybody back from an already 30-win team, and they’ll all be one year better if Marshall’s methods once again prove true, and they’re also bringing in a juco player of the year and this 7’2″ Danish guy that looks pretty good from the YouTube videos, and the thought of how good that team will be should get us though one more change of the damnable seasons we experience around here.
In the meantime Kansas has three teams still playing, and even the hoops-crazed and more densely populated states of North Carolina and Indiana and Kentucky and New York and California can’t match that, and we’re even rooting for that snooty KU and hoping for a rematch next year, which would allow the ‘Shocks to go 3-and-0 against the rich kids in tournament competitions, and we’ll still put our Kansas kids in the driveways and playgrounds up against anyone. Back in the day we had a pretty mean hook shot ourselves, even if we never came close to playing on the high school team with those future pros, and on these cold and windy days that’s a warm memory of a cold wintertime’s most beautiful game.

— Bud Norman


A Fast Break from the News

The nuclear-armed nut cases who run North Korea have declared a state of war with their southern neighbors and are threatening missile strikes on America, the European Union’s economy is staggering under so much debt that it has resorted to the outright theft of a member country’s private bank accounts, and there’s plenty more bad economic news even closer to home. Still, the big story around these parts is basketball.
Those plucky underdogs of the Wichita State University Wheatshockers basketball squad have somehow advanced to “Final Four” of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual championship tournament, and suddenly all that other stuff has been rendered at least momentarily unimportant. The team’s black-and-gold colors are on display all over town, that ferocious-looking shock of wheat that is the “WuShock” mascot seems to adorn every other shirt, and everywhere citizens are greeting one another with the plain-spoken battle cry of “Go Shocks.” All the local media have found little time for anything else, with even a good bloody crime or car wreck relegated to a few seconds after the first commercial, and the locally-produced ads for the car dealers and electronic stores are also featuring some sort of ‘Shocker reference.
It might seem slightly quaint and perhaps even a bit parochial to an outsider, but it doesn’t seem to have done any harm and has provided a rather pleasant diversion from reality. Wichita was very much in need of one, too, as the times have been hard and the mood glum lately.
Although the unemployment rate here is lower than the national average it’s still far too high to satisfy this hard-working city, and the political trends are even more worrisome than the economic data. The mainstays of the local economy are corporate aviation, agriculture, oil and gas, health care, and the United States Air Force, none of which seem to enjoy the favor of the current presidential administration or the “progressivism” it represents. Indeed, corporate jet owners have become the epitome of capitalist decadence and a favorite whipping boy of the administration, agriculture is being regulated right down to the last dust particle, oil and gas are to be punished so that “green energy” might flourish, with our hometown’s arena-sponsoring Koch Industries being the arch-villain of them all, there’s Obamacare to deal with all those doctors and nurses, and the defense budget seems to be the only part of those trillions of dollars of deficit spending that can be cut. Nor do gay marriage, gun control, subsidized contraception, or any of the other great leaps forward being offered have much appeal to this very traditionalist town.
It sometimes seem that the brave new world being created by the liberal elites will have very little use for a city such as Wichita, which heightens the usual insecurities of a middle-sized city in the middle of nowhere. Being a city that provides the world with some of the best darned airplanes in the world, an iconic campfire lantern, top-notch carnival rides, gas for the ride home, the literal bread on the table, and a base full of crack airmen who can re=fuel a bomber on its way to bomb the hell out of anyplace on the globe that needs bombing doesn’t get the much national recognition or respect, so we’ll gladly take it if the local basketball team is the lead story on SportsCenter. Basketball is another thing we do around here, with the same sense of pride felt in all the work that gets done. The driveways and park courts are full of basketball when the weather permits, and he Greater Wichita High School Athletic League, known around this hoops-crazed state as “The City League,” has produced decades of top-notch players and teams. The ‘Shockers are part of the city, too, with all the mechanics and barkeepers and small businessmen keeping the team’s schedule posted on the wall, whether they went to the school or not, and almost everyone feels obliged to root them on even if they went to snooty old KU with blue blood tradition. Over the years the team has been pretty good, too, with a few good tournament runs and unhappy periods of futility thrown in, but they haven’t been this far since the long-ago days of All-American Dave Stallworth, still a beloved figure in this town, so the city’s momentary giddiness should be forgiven.
Wichita knows basketball well enough to know that the ‘Shockers are a long-shot in the next game. They’ll face the University of Louisville, which has rolled through the tournament and earned its berth with a convincing win over perennial big-time college power Duke University, and the odds makers will give our boys little chance. Anything seems possible, though, and at the very worst the hometown heroes made it to the “Final Four.” That’s quite a accomplishment, and one can hope that the good feeling will last long enough to help out with the inevitable return to reality.

— Bud Norman