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Meanwhile, On the Prairie Sports Pages

As much as we hate to see another summer pass, one of the compensations of autumn is that it soon brings basketball season. That’s a big deal here in hoops crazy Kansas, where all the universities and colleges and the big city and small town high schools and all the local playgrounds pride themselves on how well they play the beautiful game.
The big political story of the moment in is the ongoing argument about whether President Donald Trump or former Vice President and still front-running Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden should be hanged for treason because of the Ukrainian thing, but what caught our eye is the news that the University of Kansas Jayhawks are under scrutiny from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. On a calm and temperate autumn evening here in Wichita there’s a palpable feel of both the dismay and schadenfreude around here.
For those of you not who are blessed to be living in here in the heart of God’s country, we should explain that basketball exposes some class divisions around here. We grew up in the golden age of Wichita’s City League, when it was producing future professional stars, but these days the suburban leagues are holding their own in non-conference games, the small towns still continue to impress and come up with the occasional division one star and professional player, and for the most part it’s a friendly rivalry. The junior colleges in the Jayhawk League of community colleges produce a surprising number of professional players who couldn’t pass the pathetic minimum test scores for a division one are the big sporting attraction in a number of small Kansas towns, but that’s also mostly a friendly rivalry.
At the D-1 level of this hoops crazy state it’s more of a blood sport. The Kansas State University Wildcats have won numerous conference championships and often been top-20 teams, with a couple of Final Fours thrown in, and we don’t think that there are more than 40 states who can claim a college with a more impressive record. Our most beloved Wichita State University Wheatshockers also have a lot of conference titles and top-20 rankings and a couple Final Fours to brag about, and given our coach’s coach-of-the-year-award-winning record there’s hope that they’ll be back in the top 20 and the tourney next March, when we hope Spring will arrive.
There’s no denying, though, damn it, that the KU Jayhawks sit atop the state’s basketball  hierarchy. They’ve been playing the game so long that basketball inventor James Naismith was once the coach, and over more than a century they’ve won a couple of contested and a few more un-contested national championships. They won 14 Big XII championships in a row before falling just short in the injury-riddled last year, routinely send players to stardom in the National Basketball Association, and along with Duke and North Carolina and Kentucky they’re one of the most blue-blooded of the sport’s perennial dynasties. Such a consistent record of excellence does demand some respect, of course, but to a Wildcat or ‘Shocker fan those Jayhawk fans can be damned annoying.
One wonders how they do it year after year, and we won’t be surprised if this latest NCAA probe provides some embarrassing explanation. KU’s basketball team and our still-beloved and similarly blue-blooded University of Oklahoma Sooners football team have occasionally been caught breaking rules. So have all the other blue bloods in the college football and basketball rackets over the past century or so, as well as both major party players in the political racket.
Perhaps there’s some perfectly reasonable explanation for everything, as there occasionally is in both the sporting and political realms, but we’re not bettors and will wait and see. In the meantime we’ll be rooting for the Wildcats and especially the Shockers, and wishing no malice against the Jayhawks, and hoping that it all the rest of everything ends with the the best team winning. Here’s also hoping that the ‘Shocks have a good run.

— Bud Norman

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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

The End of the Season

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