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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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The Madness of March

The news keeps coming at the same rapid pace, but for now the big story around here is college basketball’s annual championship tournament.
Wichita is a hoops-crazed city in a hoops-crazed state, so the tournament’s always a big deal, but especially so this year. Downtown’s shiny new Intrust Arena is hosting four first-round games and two second-round contests, the University of Kansas’ Jayhawks squad is among the competitors, and so far it’s proving quite a party. The arena is a short stroll away from the Old Town drinking-and-dining district that local tax abatements created out of abandoned warehouses, as well as four hotels that are a lot swankier than you’d expect to find in a mid-sized prairie city, so business is brisk, and if there’s one thing Wichita loves more than basketball it’s business.
The city has spruced itself up for the occasion, going so far as to at long last take some high pressure water hoses to all the pigeon droppings under the railroad bridge on Douglas Avenue, and they’ve set up giant television screens and half-courts and other family entertainment in a recently renovated park where the winos used to gather. There are “March Madness” banners flapping from every light pole, and the bars are all fully stocked. All the out-of-state fans might also find time to visit the nearby and surprisingly excellent Wichita Art Museum, or take in a movie at the very plush Warren Theater in Old Town where they bring cocktails to your recliner seat, and there’s a remote chance they’ll wind up having at beer at Kirby’s Beer Story up in the bad part of town. Television networks can show some pretty of footage of the Keeper of Plains silhouetted by a pastel prairie sunset reflected on the Arkansas River, so it’s good publicity for the ol’ hometown.
Most of the fans packing the arena are in-state or local, there to root for their Jayhawks, so they already know the city even when it’s not spruced up. KU fans can be rather snooty about their team, which has been among the sport’s blue bloods for many decades, and is once again one of the top-seeded entries in the tournament, and thus entitled a virtual home court advantage in downtown Wichita, but we suppose it’s good for business. So far they seem well behaved as they drift from bar to bar, even after a 16-point victory over the University of Pennsylvania’s Quakers squad. The victory was not unexpected, as no first seed has ever lost to a 16th seed, but the Ivy League entrant in the tournament always seems to put up a tough fight, and they Jayhawks didn’t pull away until late in the second half, so maybe they’re saving the boisterousness for the second round game.
Our more beloved Kansas State University Wildcats and most beloved Wichita State University Wheatshockers are also in the tournament, but they didn’t get the blue blood stream and wound up farther from home. KSU was a national powerhouse back when future pro ball guru Cotton Fitzsimmons was coaching in the ’50s, and then again when Jack Hartman was at the helm in the ’70s, with some notable teams in between and ever since, and they’ll once again be in the hunt down in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they’ll play the Creighton University’s Bluejays. After finishing in the top half of a very tough Big XII’s standing’s the ‘Cats are an eight seed playing a nine seed, which is what the gambler’s call a pick ’em, and if they win they’ll likely be playing topmost seed University of Virginia’s Cavaliers, but hope springs eternal in March.
The ‘Shocks have their own long blue collar tradition, with powerhouse years in the ’60s and ’80s and a steady climb to their current perennial top-20 status that has included a National Invitational Tournament title and an undefeated regular season and a Final Four appearance and a sweet, sweet upset over the hated Jayhawks in the championship tournament. After years of dominating the Missouri Valley Conference our ‘Shockers wound up in second place behind a very tough University of Cincinnati Bearcats team, but that was good enough to be a four seed and heavy favorite in a first-round game against Marshall University’s Thundering Herd today in San Diego. If the ‘Shocks play as well as they did when they whipped Cincy on its home court they should go far in the tournament, as we see it, but if they play as badly down the stretch as when they lost at home to the same team it might not get far past Marshall, and even that game is yet to be played.
Whatever the results, the weather’s lately been great around here, and the city’s all spruced up, and no matter what the Federal Bureau of Investigation finds out about the National Collegiate Athletic Association the game of basketball is still great. Around here we love playing it, watching it, arguing about it, and we pride ourselves on the many City League players who have gone on to collegiate and professional glory, and we get a wee bit mad about it every March.

— Bud Norman

So How Do We Refer to the Jayhawks?

The student senate at the University of Kansas has voted to repeal the rules of English grammar by using “gender-neutral” pronouns in its official pronouncements, and the news of it comes at a perfect time. With another college basketball season looming, it’s good to have yet another reminder of why we’re not rooting for the Jayhawks.
Proud though we are of being Kansan, and as much as we love to feel morally superior about the state’s abolitionist roots, we’ve never been able to embrace the Jayhawks. It’s partly the annoyingly smug attitude of their omnipresent basketball fans, who tend to go on at length about James Naismith coaching there and the three provable national championships and the two other mythical ones back in the ’20s that only fans of the mythical Jayhawk seem to recognize. They’re at a loss when they run into a University of Kentucky Wildcats’ or University of California-Los Angeles Bruins’ fan, and they keep nicely quiet during football season, but when they run into fans of Kansas State University’s Wildcats or Wichita State University’s Wheatshockers during basketball season they can be downright exasperating. Mostly, though, it’s the school’s tendency to do things like repealing the rules of English grammar for the sake of academic trendiness.
Pretty much any collegiate sports team you might root for is similarly tainted, given the appalling state of American academia, but KU has always seemed more so than either KSU or WSU. The S in KSU indicates that it is a Land Grant University, and thus dedicated to agriculture and engineering and architecture and other things that require objectively verifiable results, and although the departments of the fuzzier disciplines seem to have usual number of trendy academics it still draws a student body that is unlikely to elect a student senate that repeals the rules of English grammar. The W in WSU indicates that it’s an urban university, with a student body that has had enough years at the local aviation factories to realize that some extra educational credentials might move them up a step on the career ladder, and is not at all concerned with such matters as gender-neutral pronouns, and doesn’t even mind that some serious money from the left-wing’s favorite bogeyman Charles Koch has greatly assisted their basketball team’s recent success.
Up in Lawrence they pride themselves on their programs in law and journalism and the liberal arts in every sense of the term, among other fuzzy disciplines, and their students tend to come from swank Kansas City suburbs in Johnson County and the tonier parts of Wichita, rather than the small town folk who flock to KSU or the factory workers who wind up at WSU, so this sort of gender-neutral nonsense comes more naturally there. An impeccably liberal friend of ours used to cover the state legislature for the Lawrence paper, and even he went off on a rant one night about the professors of 18th Century Japanese poetry used to show up at the statehouse with wild demands, and how the agricultural guys from KSU and the the team from WSU touting its new composite aviation materials research seemed so much more reasonable, and although we assume he’s still rooting for his alma mater Jayhawks he seemed a bit embarrassed by it. He was always a most assiduous practitioner of the English language, too, so we expect he would be further embarrassed that it has been repealed by the institution where he matriculated.
The rules of English grammar have well served agriculture and mechanics and all those other objectively verifiable disciplines, and they’ve suited the small town folk and the factory workers well enough, and we hold out hope they’ll persist. KSU and WSU have gotten their licks in against KU over the years,and ¬†just last year the ‘Shocks whipped the ‘Hawks pretty good in the tournament, where the “Chickenhawks” weren’t able to dodge their rising interstate rival, and which we have re-watched at least twice on YouTube, and there’s faint hope we’ll even reach a day when you call a man a he and a woman a she and nobody’s offended that the indeterminate case is expressed in a male gender and we can get back to the more important business they teach at Land Grant and urban universities and in the real world.

— Bud Norman