We’ve all seen it: the free throw that clanks off the iron, the PAT that sails wide, the routine grounder that’s booted by the shortstop. We pull out our hair and question why the hell we even bother watching sports. That’s when the voice of reason prevails with the mantra that drives us seething fanatics crazy.
It’s just a game. This isn’t life or death.
99% of the time that voice is correct, but my story is about the other 1%. The time? April 4th, 1988. The place? Lawrence, Kansas. More specifically Massachusetts Street, where some 60,000 students flooded downtown Lawrence in celebration of one of the most miraculous championships in NCAA history.
Danny Manning had just stepped to the line with a national championship hanging in the balance. Two free throws later, the senior’s 31 point, 18 rebound performance culminated in the buzzer sounding an 83-79 victory over Oklahoma. Of the 29 champions since, only the 2014 UConn Huskies were ranked lower than the sixth-seeded Jayhawks.
One of the 60,000 college kids dancing around happened to be a freshman of note: my father. He recalls seeing a man who was bleeding from his leg while chugging a beer and shouting something to the tune of "F--- YEAH!"
Fast-forward to the fall, when my dad returned to school after spending the summer at home in Wichita, Kansas. One of his classes was a chemistry course. He had gone to KU for its J-school, but, you know, mandatory classes that make stories like mine possible. He was seated next to some crazy dude who wouldn’t stop talking about chemical reactions and explosions. Don’t worry about him, my dad never saw that guy again.
However, the next day saw an incoming freshman from St. Louis ask if she could sit next to my sophomore dad. You know where this is headed. They quickly found a common ground in KU basketball. They both professed their love for–you guessed it!–Steve Woodberry, loathed Oklahoma State center Bryant Reeves (to this day they scowl upon hearing his nickname "Big Country"), and used their sports passes like kids at an unattended candy shop. Shortly after graduation, they married and moved to St. Louis, where they raised two children, one of them being yours truly.
I grew up on a steady diet of books and sports, in particular KU hoops. I was pretty young when Roy Williams left for UNC, but the Bill Self era–and the current run of 13 straight conference titles–is home to countless memories. Hundreds of games played out in our living room. If a chemistry class introduced my parents to each other, a study in Xs and Os 101 drew me to my true love. I absorbed basketball knowledge–pick-and-rolls, the difference between a 2-3 and 3-2 zone, and three words that will bring any Jayhawk aficionado an instant smile: The Chop Play–the same way you would learn a new language: through exposure. My gateway to that exposure was Kansas basketball.
St. Louis hosted the Midwest Regionals in 2012, but the heinous price of admission kept me on the edge of the sofa rather than the edge of a seat at the Scottrade Center. I watched with apprehension as the Jayhawks mounted a comeback against Williams’ Tar Heels. I’m sure my fellow KU fans remember the moment when it clicked. When North Carolina lay helpless against the triangle-and-two scheme Kansas employed coming out of halftime. When the chess match concluded with Bill Self calling checkmate. When the Jayhawks of 2012–like the team of my father’s freshman year in 1988–marched on to the Final Four.
As a family we reminisce about the cries of joy when Kansas held on for a two-point semifinal victory over Ohio State the following Saturday. I’m still not sure if our neighbors forgive us for it. Of course, Kansas still had unfinished business to attend to: the National Championship Game. That was five years ago, and every season since has ended with the same silence of that fateful Monday night. The silence that means defeat. The silence that means goodbye. The top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats downed the Jayhawks to take the title.
Like clockwork, the green leaves hanging from the St. Louis trees radiate Spring amidst the annual silence. Soon enough, they will shift to beautiful shades of red, yellow, and brown. With these new colors arrives a new chapter in the book of Jayhawk basketball.
I will buzz with the usual excitement this autumn; the usual hope. I will marvel at the screen that leads to a kickout for a catch-and-shoot three. And I will think to myself: If not for this university, I wouldn’t be sitting here.