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Grant Wahl
April 15, 2008
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April 15, 2008

A Tribute


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IN 1988, THE LAST TIME KANSAS WON THE NCAA BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP, I WAS A FLOPPY-HAIRED EIGHTH-GRADER AT INDIAN HILLS MIDDLE SCHOOL IN PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KANS., A SUBURB OF KANSAS CITY. THESE DAYS I'M A NO-HAIRED 34-YEAR-OLD SPORTSWRITER WHO YEARS AGO SUPPRESSED MY LOVE OF THE JAYHAWKS FOR THE RIGHT TO SIT IN PROFESSIONAL detachment on press row at the Final Four. It's a great gig, don't get me wrong, yet you can't help feeling like a mercenary sometimes when all you do is cheer for your story. Why, in the fall of 2001, I even rooted against the Jayhawks in a game at Arizona. If the Wildcats had won, my feature on them would have run in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. But KU took them out, and my story never saw the light of day. I was crushed.

Part of me misses my simpler, purer days of fandom, misses that glorious Jayhawks run in 1988, though I couldn't even get into Kansas City's Kemper Arena for the Final Four games, much less snag a seat at midcourt on press row. But I can still remember every detail of the week when Danny and the Miracles won it all: the Thursday when the KU team made a surprise appearance at the NABC All-Star Game at Municipal Auditorium and got a monster ovation; the Friday when my buddies and I played hooky and attended the free team practices at Kemper; and the 50th tournament exhibit that the NCAA had set up downtown, full of black-and-white pictures from the record nine Final Fours that Kansas City had previously hosted.

Given how forgetful I can be about doing chores around the house nowadays, my wife will no doubt be chagrined to learn that I do remember any number of arcane moments involving the 1987-88 Jayhawks. That their bus driver—at the Midwest Regional and at the Final Four—was a character named Driver Jimmy. That they wore white Nike Air Assault hightops with red-and-blue trim. And that they actually donned gold jerseys one time, in a close win at Western Carolina. (Which prompts two questions: Why gold? And why schedule a game at Western Carolina?)

But I have an even more detailed recall of the '88 title game against Oklahoma, not the least because I have probably seen it 50 times. Our well-worn VCR tape still exists somewhere, presumably in a back room at my parents' house, but I can still close my eyes and rattle off scenes from a championship conquest: Milt Newton's crazy-legged reverse layup; Danny Manning's breathtaking fast break and one (and fist pump) to conclude a thrilling 50-50 first half; the seven treys hit by Oklahoma's Dave Sieger, the hyena-cackling, thick-mulletted embodiment of Oklahoma evil; and CBS's Billy Packer saying (wrongly) early in the game that KU couldn't win if it ran with the favored Sooners.

It was Manning's night, though. Danny scored 31 big ones, and Oklahoma guard Ricky Grace kept shooting errant threes instead of passing down low to Stacey King (duh), and the Hawks pulled it out, 83-79. (I can write that score from memory, too.) I celebrated with my pal Todd and my parents and went out and bought the same T-shirt that all the other KU fans did, the one that read, THE HAWKS SPREAD THEIR WINGS AS THE FAT LADY SINGS!

As T-shirt slogans go, it probably could have been better, but isn't fandom (at least the fandom I recall) about being willing to look like a fool with everybody else for the sake of cheering on your team? My golfing buddy Dave, a decade-long Lawrence resident, likes to deride Jayhawks basketball fans as "a cult," and I suppose an alien landing in Allen Fieldhouse might be slightly frightened by a 16,300-strong crowd singing the eerily cool Rock Chalk chant. But even Dave has been converted to the cause: There he was in Madison, Wis., heckling me from the KU fan section in 2002 when the Jayhawks won the Midwest Regional.

KU basketball will always be a religion because of its rich history—13 Final Fours, five national championships, players like Manning, Wilt Chamberlain and Clyde Lovellette—but there's another explanation for the Jayhawks' modern-day allure: They're the only team in the region that ever wins anything. No matter how many REVIVE'85* T-shirts Royals fans buy, George Brett isn't walking through that door, and ever since Joe Montana left the building, the Chiefs have been content to sell lots of tickets but never make the big move they need to win a Super Bowl. (As for Kansas and Missouri football, did you really think one of them would win last year's national title? Me neither.)

That Bill Self could lead Kansas to the 2008 national title is a special accomplishment. That the Jayhawks did it by eliminating Roy Williams and North Carolina in the Final Four only adds to the significance. And that they could do it with an assistant coach named Danny Manning brings everything full circle, back to 1988. There's only one figure in college basketball who can still render me starstruck, who can turn me into a floppy-haired eighth-grader again. It's nice, however briefly the moment lasts, to remember what it feels like.