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