Why Sports is Sometimes Better Than the Rest of The World

The past weekend was cold and windy and slightly snowy here in Wichita, with plenty of state and national and international and personal problems for everyone to worry about in the upcoming week, but it worked out well for the local sports fans. In the grand scheme of things it’s not very important that the Wichita State University Wheatshockers basketball squad and the Kansas City Chiefs football team both won big games, but at this time of year in this part of the world one relishes whatever good news comes along.
Our beloved ‘Shockers blew a nine-point lead in the final minute of regulation on the road against the University of Connecticut Huskies, but hung on over two hard fought overtimes to escape with an 89 to 86 win. The victory runs their season record to 15-1, one of the six best in the country and second only to the Auburn Tigers’ and San Diego State Aztecs’ thus-far unblemished records, and after a home win earlier in the week against the University of Memphis’ then-22nd-ranked Tigers the ‘Shocks are alone atop the tough American Athletic Conference’s standings and will likely be in both of the top 20 polls today.
More than 50 years of rooting for the ‘Shockers have taught us to not be too hopeful, but we can’t shake a feeling that our boys are pretty darned good this year, maybe good enough for a couple of wins in the March tournament. They’re a very young team with one senior and six freshmen and four sophomores, and most observers expected them to be pretty darned good next year, but they’re already there, which has us looking forward to next year.
Wichita’s greatest sports passion is hoops, but folks also take their football seriously around here. The only college football in town is played by the Quaker-affiliated Friends University in the most tiny-school division, so local college fans are divided between the University of Kansas’ mostly hapless program and Kansas State University’s more respectable team and the perennial powers at the equidistant University of Oklahoma, but most of the football fans root for the nearest National Football League franchise, the Kansas City Chiefs. We’ve mostly given on watching football, what with the prolonged pauses for video reviews and the wife-beating and the head injuries and all, but we’re Wichitans and can’t shake a lifelong habit of rooting for the Chiefs when we check the scores.
We’re old enough to remember when the Chiefs won the IVth Super Bowl, way back in ’70, when star quarterback Len Dawson was smoking cigarettes in the locker room at halftime, and how happy everybody seemed about that. Our parents hosted a Super Bowl party for the neighbors, which was before that became a thing, the kids scrimmaged in the backyard afterwards despite the cold, and we’ve always wanted to enjoy that feeling again. Over the subsequent years the Chiefs have some great offenses and great defenses, but rarely at the same time, and every season has ended in a heartbreaking loss. The past few years the Chiefs have been pretty darned good, though, and this year they’re one win away from a shot at another Super Bowl title.
The Chiefs embarrassed themselves in the first quarter of their game against the Houston Texans, falling behind by three touchdowns, but we missed that and didn’t tune in until the second half when they finished off a 51-to-31 romp, so they looked good to us. The Tennessee Titans also scored a big upset win against the odds-on Super Bowl favorite Baltimore Ravens, which means that Kansas City and its superstar and non-smoking quarterback will be playing in famously loud Arrowhead Stadium as the odds-on favorite. Which means one can hold out realistic hope.
Which is no big deal, as we said before, but it seems to lighten the mood and bring people together around here. For reasons we cannot explain the Chiefs have a large following among Wichita’s lesbians, and all the ones on our block in the fashionable Riverside are flying Chiefs flags cheering loudly enough for us to hear them whenever the Chiefs score. If you find yourself standing in a long line at a bank or grocery store it’s something safe to talk about, even a sort of superficial bonding, and everyone’s a little cheerier despite the massive layoffs at the big aerospace factory in the south part of town because somebody at Boeing screwed up the 737 Max airliner.
We’ve lost enough games over the years to empathize with those fans in Memphis and Baltimore and Hartford and Houston, who surely have their weather and other problems to cope with, but we hope they’re brought closer together in commiseration, as always happens here in Wichita. As silly and pointless and head-injury-inducing as it might seem, sports has socially redeeming qualities.

— Bud Norman

Winning So Much You Get Bored With Winning

There was a lot in the news on Monday, including the late-breaking story that President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor has resigned in the wake of a scandal likely to linger a few more days, but that was all the more reason to take refuge in the sports pages. The big story there was the University of Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team winning its 100th consecutive victory, and although we rarely comment on the sporting scene that seemed worth noting.
We’ve followed some remarkable winning streaks over our many years of sports spectating, but none of them approached triple digits. Back in the 2013-14 season our beloved Wichita State University Wheatshockers men’s team reeled off 35 in a row before losing on a missed buzzer beater to a powerhouse Kentucky University Wildcats squad in the second round of the championship tournament, and we’ll always love them for that, but that’s a full 65 games short of 100, and of course the streak didn’t include a couple of national championships. Way back when we were first falling in love with basketball the University of California-Los Angeles was dominating men’s collegiate basketball like no one had before and no has since, but their best win streaks were 47 in a row with the great Lew Alcindor, now better as known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was inarguably the best college player ever, and 88 in a row with the pivot manned by the great Bill Walton, who was arguably the second best college player ever. UCLA won five national championships with those legendary centers and another five without them over a 12-year span, which is as many the blue-blooded programs of the University of Kansas and the University of Kentucky have combined to win over their many years of play, but the Connecticut women have won 11 since 1995 and are almost prohibitive favorites to make it an even dozen this year.
The longest winning streak by a professional basketball team was 33, set by the Los Angeles Lakers in the ’71-’72 season, which we well remember following, being big fans of the Jerry West and Gail Goodrich backcourt and awed by the comic book superhero play of Wilt Chamberlain at center. That squad won the championship and is still regarded as one of the best ever, but it didn’t sustain that championship level for long. In pro ball there are 82 games and none of them are easy wins, so the most impressive streaks were the Boston Celtics’ nine consecutive championships, with 11 in 12 years, and the Connecticut women are in that territory even though they’re forced by college rules to completely turn over the team personnel every four years.
No other American team sport has seen such a streak. The longest winning streak in college football is 47, set by the University of Oklahoma’s Sooners between 1953 and 1957, which coincided with our beloved pop’s matriculation at the school, and of course his children were taught to faithfully await it happening again, which we still do starting with every win, including their impressive bowl to finish the past season. The Sooner’s streak started after a loss to the University of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, and ended with a loss to the same villains, and to this day our beloved pop and all his children still root against Notre Dame in any sport even if they’re playing against the Islamic State. Those darned New England Patriots have the longest win streak in professional football, having reeled off 21 in a row from October of 2013 to October of 2014, but that provided only one of their five championships to show for it. You have to go way back to 1916 to find major league baseball’s longest winning streak, which was The New York Giant’s 26.
Connecticut’s Hartford Courant has been following the Lady Huskies’ streak closely enough to compile an intriguing list of other streaks, which includes an amazing 555 straight by Pakistani squash legend Jahangir Kahn, whom we admit we’d never heard, and 252 wins in a row by Hartford’s Trinity College in women’s team squash. The University of North Carolina’s women won 103 soccer games without a loss, and the great Edwin Moses went 10 years and 122 400 meters high hurdles races without a loss.
Given how humans tend to have off nights, even the very best of them, one hundred straight games without being so off as to suffer a defeat against the toughest competition in the land is a laudable achievement.
There’s some grumbling among the fans that Connecticut’s dominance is diminishing the popularity of the women’s game, as if the great dynasties of the UCLA Bruins and Boston Celtics and New York Yankees and the recent sustained excellence of those darned New England Patriots wound up hurting the ratings and gate attendance, and some of the old school feminists who’ve long been involved in the game are sore that the very much male coach Geno Aurriema has been the one constant presence over the streak, but we’ll pay no attention. We turn to the sports to find excellence that can’t be found elsewhere, and refuge from arguments and resentments, and we’re glad that the Lady Huskies are providing both. Their 100th win was quite a joy to watch, too, if you like seeing the beautiful game played beautifully.

— Bud Norman