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


Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On

Another earthquake rattled our old house today, and we still haven’t quite become accustomed to it. It only lasted a few seconds, and doesn’t seem to have done any noticeable damage around here, and residents of Los Angeles and Tokyo and Teheran and other earthquake-prone places probably wouldn’t have thought it worth mentioning, but during our first half-century here on the once-solid plains this sort of thing was unheard of, and even after the last few years of earthquakes becoming a rather regular occurrence it’s still a topic of local conversation.
Before the local old media could provide official confirmation that an earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale had emanated toward us from the not far away small town of Crescent, Oklahoma, we were happily assured that weren’t going crazy by all the alarmed posts on our Facebook page. Folks of various degrees of familiarity spread across the entire city were describing the same unsettling phenomena we experienced, with most of them sounding even more rattled that we had been, and of course more than a few them were assuming that all the “fracking” going on down in Oklahoma was to blame.
We remain agnostic about the theory, as we have to admit that the earthquakes didn’t start around here until the “fracking” did, while at the same time we can’t help noticing that earthquakes are happening in all sorts of unlikely places where no “fracking” is going on and that “fracking” is going on in places that aren’t experiencing earthquakes. Most of the scientists who presumably know more than us about these sorts of things are admirably frank that they don’t know what’s going on either, and we rather like having the local convenience stores selling gasoline for $2.41 a gallon, and would be quite annoyed by paying $4 a gallon for Iranian oil and still experiencing an occasional earthquake if the theory is wrong, so we aren’t jumping to any conclusions. Still, we can understand the temptation to believe that there’s something we can do.
One of those Facebook friends from the local university was angrily demanding that these earthquakes be immediately stopped, just as his preferred presidential candidate vowed to stop the rise of the oceans, and if it were truly that simple we’d probably go along as well. Few things in life are so simple, however, and if more of them were we’d also be demanding an end to the tornados and hail storms and droughts and floods and miserably cold winter nights and swelteringly hot summer days that are the more traditional banes of Kansas life. The tornados and hail storms have lately been unusually and quite pleasantly uncommon around here, despite the dire predictions of our university-affiliated friend’s preferred presidential candidate, and last winter was no colder than usual and this summer has been only as hot as our lifetime’s average, with no recent floods but enough rain to bring an unmistakable end to the most recent drought, and the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye and the bumper wheat crops have helped with the state’s budgetary woes. A lifetime on the prairie has left us in awe of nature’s power and skeptical of mankind’s, so we can’t quell a certain suspicion that the former has more to do with these occasional rumblings of the earth than the latter, and we’ll patiently await the conclusions of those scientists who supposedly know more about this stuff than we do. In the meantime we’ll be checking the basement for cracks and perusing the news for about the more consequential earthquakes that seem to keep happing elsewhere, and hope that our brother in southern California doesn’t fall into the Pacific Ocean as has long been predicted, and continue to worry about the national debt and the nuclear bomb that the Iranians are building with their oil revenues and the rise of Donald Trump and the greater possibility of a Hillary Clinton and all of the other disasters that can only be blamed on mankind.

— Bud Norman

A Murder in Oklahoma

A young man was senselessly shot and killed Tuesday in small town Oklahoma, and yet another racial controversy has followed.
The usual admonitions about the questionable reliability of early press reports and the presumption of innocence are hereby made, but the known facts of the case are sufficient to provoke an emotional debate. Christopher Lane, a handsome and by all accounts likeable 22-year-old who was attending Oklahoma’s East Central University on a baseball scholarship, was shot in the back while jogging in a well-to-do neighborhood of his girlfriend’s hometown of Duncan. A short time later three teenagers were arrested for the crime, and police say that one confessed they had committed the murder with the explanation that it was done “for fun” to relieve the boredom of their last days of summer vacation.
As horrific as the crime and its shocking motive might be, the story would probably have never been heard of outside south-central Oklahoma if not for the fact that Lane is from Melbourne, Australia, and the papers there regard such a murder as big news. The angle there is America’s murderous culture, of course, and the Australian media seem as eager as their American counterparts to exploit any story that will advance the cause of draconian gun control. America’s difficult race relations are apparently of less interest to the Australian media, but neither are they bound by the rules of racial etiquette that prevail in American newsrooms and the reports all included photographs revealing that Lane is white and two of his three alleged killers are black.
The race of the victim and his alleged killers might or might not have anything to do with the murder, but most American media are disinclined to report on any crime involving white victims and black perpetrators. Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report seems to relish such stories, however, and trumpeted his links to the Australian news reports with a banner headline. The Drudge Report has more readers than all the famous American newspapers put together, and is therefore hated by the mainstream American media with a especially intense passion, so its interest in Lane’s death has forced it into the national conversation. Such reliably liberal commentators as MSNBC’s Piers Morgan have quickly seized on the murderous culture and draconian gun control angle, while others have hewed to the usual rules and either left out the racial identifications or ignored the story altogether, but the more daringly conservative outlets have addressed the racial aspects of the story with a startling frankness.
This reaction was quite predictable in the wake of months of relentless coverage of the trial of George Zimmerman for shooting Tryon Martin in far away in Florida, which was widely portrayed in the media and by prominent politicians as a typical case of a racist white man gunning down an unarmed black teenager in murderous America with its insanely permissive gun laws. That trial ended with an acquittal after evidence clearly demonstrated Zimmerman, who is mostly Hispanic and a former Bema supporter, was being severely beaten by Martin, who turned out to be something less than the angelic child in the years-old photographs that routinely accompanied the stories, and since then press critics have been waiting for the chance to see how the press might cover a story with less promising racial implications. They might have expected that they would see the story of an law-abiding man being killed at random by people flouting the guns laws as further proof that more laws are needed for the law-abiding to abide by, just as they had seen the case of a law-abiding man protecting himself from a potentially deadly assault as proof that more guns laws are needed for the law-abiding to abide by, but Lane’s death still provides an irresistible opportunity to expose the hypocrisy.
Those critics have a point, given that black-on-white violence is eight times more common than white-on-black violence yet receives far less attention from the media, and in the case of Lane’s tragic death there are early indications that race might have played a deadly role. The first thing a reporter in the modern age does when reporting on a crime is to check the social media postings of the suspects, and in this case they reveal two young men steeped in the violent ghetto sub-culture with an unabashed hatred of white people. Both of the suspects had posted pictures of themselves in gang paraphernalia and flashing gang signs as well as various firearms, and one “tweeted” a claim that “90% of white people are nasty” and a boast that he had “knocced out 5 woods since Zimmerrman court!” For those unfamiliar with the latest slang, “knocced” is a spelling of “knocked” that employs a popular signature of the Crips street gang, and “woods” is an abbreviation of “peckerwoods,” a racial slur against white people. The reference to “Zimmerman court” should be self-explanatory.
Some good might come of this if the story forces a frank acknowledgement of the violent sub-culture that has affected far too many young black men and women, and mitigates some of the hysteria that shows up in the “tweets” of accused murderers in the wake of the relentless hyping of the Zimmerman trial. If the story reminds America that the last notable murder of an Australian occurred during the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, when the eminently respectable Rev. Al Sharpton whipped the mob into such a frenzy that Yeshiva student Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed by a man who would later be acquitted by a sympathetic jury, all the better. It will be of little comfort, however, to those who knew and loved Christopher Lane. Whatever the facts of his tragic death, we can only hope that there will be some measure of justice to comfort his loved ones.

— Bud Norman

Tragedy on the Plains

On Monday the weather here in Wichita was as close to perfection as the world allows, with a warm sun shining down from a rich blue sky, a gentle breeze cooling the clean and fresh air to an ideal temperature for a top-down drive through the newly-green parks, and much-needed water from the recent rains flowing once again along the Arkansas River. Just a couple hours’ drive down scenic and fast-moving Interstate-35 in Moore, Oklahoma, the weather was destructive and deadly, as bad as the world can be.
Such is life on the plains, where nature remains as irresistible and overwhelming a force as ever. Few people around these parts romanticize nature, a pastime best left to the smart people in their penthouse apartments back east, but nature commands its due respect. Nature can be bounteous in its blessings, murderously cruel in its tantrums, and capricious in its moods, so you learn to cope with it. Still, the scenes of devastation and the accounts of death in Moore are heartbreaking. Although it happens somewhere every spring — and has happened in Kansas towns such Greensburg, Udall, Hesston, Andover, Haysville, and Hesston, where we were hunkered down in a roadside motel hallway while the twister blew our company car down the street — there is no getting used to it.
The Moore dateline makes it all the more personal because that is the town where our beloved father grew up, hunting and fishing in the wide open fields between the wells where his father wrenched oil from far beneath the red dirt, and where he learned the lessons of nature and the enduring values of small town America that were passed on to the next generation. Moore has changed since then, transformed from a hardscrabble small town comfortably far from its neighbors to a relatively affluent suburban community surrounded by the vast sprawl of metropolitan Oklahoma City, but it remains a place where good people live. The latest reports gave a death toll of at least 51, with 20 of them children who were following the same tornado emergency procedures that were drilled into the students at our own prairie elementary school, and all will be properly grieved.
Not everyone will grieve, of course, for human nature can also be cruel. A Senator seized the moment to rant about global warming, as if all that oil that our grandfather brought up were somehow responsible for a natural phenomenon that predated him by many millennia, and similar nonsense will persist for weeks. The comments section at the rock bottom of CNN’s internet story about the tragedy is full of people snidely noting Oklahoma’s recent Republican voting record, high levels of church attendance, and low trust in the global warming hysteria, with suggestions that it would be hypocritical for the state to accept any federal assistance. Hard-luck Okies don’t command the same sympathy from bleeding heart lefties that they used to back in the Dust Bowl days, but we expect these sneering urbanites will soon learn that Okies are a remarkably self-sufficient people who will get by just fine without the assistance of their snooty critics, and that their churches will play a crucial role and that their view of man’s relationship with nature is grounded in a more hard-earned realism.
We wish the people of Moore bright sunny days and the very best of the world, and offer only prayers, sympathy, and whatever meager assistance we can provide.

— Bud Norman

Oklahoma Crude

There’s no telling what the White House’s internal polls are saying, but the travel itinerary says the president is schedule to appear today for yet another energy policy speech in Cushing, Oklahoma, and that says he’s getting very nervous about the recent rise in gasoline prices.

Obama is not popular in Oklahoma. He lost Oklahoma by the widest margin of any state in the last election, a proud distinction that rebuts every dumb Okie joke ever told, and in the most recent voting he lost 15 counties in the Democratic primary. As frequent visitors to the Sooner State, we can attest that there’s even a good deal of loathing toward the president there.

It is safe to assume that Obama feels no particular affection for Oklahomans, either. Aside from their annoying habit of not voting for him, Oklahomans tend to cling to their guns and religion, although not at all bitterly, and have a strange preference for relying on themselves rather than the government. Many of them also work in the oil fields, rather than in a non-profit advocacy group or government-subsidized solar panel factory, and one gets the impression that Obama would find that yet another example of how very gauche they are.

Which is apparently why Obama chose such a far-flung locale for his latest attempt to prove how very pro-oil he really is. After blocking construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which proved wildly unpopular, Obama will announce in Cushing that he’s going to expedite the review process for construction of the southern part of the project that runs through Oklahoma. The construction of that portion is already slated to start by June, Obama’s intervention won’t speed its progress at all, and it still won’t reach halfway to the source of oil due to Obama’s edicts, but the fact that he went to Cushing to announce his new policy should convince a few gullible voters that he’s serious.

A sharp political operative should be able to round up a small hall’s worth of star-struck Obama supporters even in rural Oklahoma, and the president will no doubt get a cheer when he boasts that domestic oil production has increased during his term, but few other Oklahomans will be swayed. Even ABC News is forced to admit that “energy experts say his policies have little to do with those developments,” and most Oklahomans already know that from their friends in the oil business.

Still, we hope the president enjoys his time in Oklahoma. He should try the chicken fried steak, punch the numbers for some western swing music on the juke box, take in a prairie sunset, and enjoy the simple pleasures of a fine state, because he probably won’t be back for another visit.

— Bud Norman