The Power of Senior Day

His lips began to quiver first.

He slowly swayed back and forth, rubbing his hand on his shorts, hopelessly trying to hold it in.

And then it happened… the first tear rolled down Russell Robinson’s cheek.

He stood on the floor at Allen Fieldhouse — in the middle of it all — surrounded by 16,300 cheering fans, flanked by his parents, and united with his four fellow seniors standing just inches away.

Darnell Jackson was standing behind him, a player who had emerged from the ashes of family tragedy — His mother had survived a horrific car crash that claimed the life of his grandmother, his estranged father had been murdered, and his uncle had been beaten to death with a hammer.

Sasha Kaun was behind him, too, a player who also knew the pain of death all to well — his father had been murdered when Kaun was a young boy growing up in Russia, and years later, Kaun would leave his homeland to find a better life.

Jeremy Case was there too, so was Rodrick Stewart, players with stories of their own.

And for Robinson, the emotions were too much.

It was March 3, 2008 — Senior Day at Allen Fieldhouse —and Robinson felt it all.

The joy of four years of basketball at Kansas. The sadness of playing his last game at Allen Fieldhouse. The lingering sorrow of those first-round losses.

Of course, none of those feelings could compare to this — none of those feelings had driven him to tears. He wasn’t ready for it. Who could be?

“It hit me,” Robinson would say. “It hit me that it was my last game. It was the last time I’ll be out there, in front of the fans…”

*****

They always start with the tears. That’s what people remember. Tonight — Wednesday, March 3, 2010 — is Senior Day at Allen Fieldhouse.

Tonight is Sherron Collins’ night. Of course, he is the only senior on this year’s Kansas team, and he is one month away from concluding one of the most illustrious careers in the annals of KU basketball history.

Glance at the numbers and you will see what we all see — one national title, four Big 12 titles, the most wins by a player in Kansas history.

Yep, Collins will soon belong to history.

And tonight, after No. 2 Kansas plays No. 5 Kansas State in the biggest regular-season Sunflower Showdown in 52 years, Sherron Collins will step out on the floor at the Fieldhouse and attempt to sum up the emotions from his four-year career in a 5-minute speech.

And everybody wants to know: Hey Sherron, will you cry?

“I wish I could run from it, but I can’t,” Collins said on Tuesday. “I wish I had more time to play here.”

*****

There are so many stories about Senior Day. So many little moments — some forgotten, some revered, some only remembered by the people that were there.

Rick Reilly once wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated about the greatest moments in sports. Of course, he wrote about Senior Day at Allen Fieldhouse, when KU seniors are showered with love and flowers and tears.

If you’re not from Kansas, or if you didn’t attend KU, you probably don’t understand it. And I’m not sure you can understand. And that’s OK.

For four years, Kansas fans invite each successive class of KU players into their lives. They watch them on television. They travel to faraway cities on the coasts to watch them play. And they buy their Kansas jerseys to give to their kids.

They learn about the obstacles and challenges — and sometimes tragedies — each player has had to overcome. They are obsessively protective, defending their players against critics like a mother protecting her young. And lastly… and I think this might get to the heart of the love affair between KU players and fans more than anything else… KU fans call the players by their first names.

KU fans don’t say: Collins had a great game against Kansas State. They say: Sherron had a great game.

They don’t say: Aldrich was a man inside. They say: Cole was a man inside.

From Danny to Rex to Jacque to Nick and Kirk to Wayne to Russell to Sherron.

This is how it’s always been. And this is how it will always be.

Of course, the Kansas players receive adulation and rock-star status — but the fans receive something more.

Kansas winters are brutal — they can arrive in November and last until March — and they are often unforgiving.

The one saving grace is the old Fieldhouse on Naismith Drive in Lawrence, Kan.

The greatest college basketball program in the country arrives every October for Late Night… and on that night, the latest installment of the KU program shows up to shepherd us through the cold and wind and snow.

*****

The stories are passed down, generation to generation, a never-ending cycle of tradition and history and basketball.

And the stories always come back to Senior Day.

We hear about the day that Jacque Vaughn, Jerod Haase, Scot Pollard and B.J. Williams took their final bows.

They told us there’d never be another class like that — Vaughn the poet, Haase the human floorburn, Pollard the eccentric, and Williams the, well, forgotten big guy off the bench.

But then, six years later, we said goodbye to Hinrich and Collison, the most beloved duo in Kansas history, two sons of basketball coaches, two kids born to play — and two stars who helped deliver Roy Williams from the ignominy of three straight second-round flops.

And we heard that we’d never see another day like that.

They said players like Nick and Kirk just don’t stay four years anymore.

But then it’s two years later, and here comes Wayne Simien, Aaron Miles, Keith Langford and Michael Lee. They exited KU as one of the winningest classes in history — and perhaps the classiest winners.

They graduated on time, said the right things, and played the game the right way. They were Jayhawks.

And Simien, a kid who had grown up down the road in Leavenworth, a kid who had been coming to Allen Fieldhouse for practically his entire life, gave perhaps the greatest Senior Day speech in history*.

*It definitely was the longest anyway.

And again, we were told that we’d never see a class like them.

*****

We all have our own Senior Day stories. But this one is mine.

Minutes after Russell Robinson broke down on that Senior Day in 2008, the game had to start.

Kansas was playing Texas Tech that day. And KU started hot.*

*The Jayhawks also stayed hot. The ended up winning 109-51. And afterward, Texas Tech coach Pat Knight said he felt like he had been thrown into a dogfight lion’s den with a meat necklace on.

By chance, I ended up sitting directly across from the KU family section. And I continually found myself glancing over at the Robinson family.

They had made the trip from New York City. And unlike some of the families of KU players, Russell’s parents had rarely seen Russ play in person. I kept looking at the smile on the face of Russell’s father, but I also became distracted by a mysterious young kid sitting next to Russell’s parents.

He was no doubt a friend from New York who had never seen Russell play at Allen Fieldhouse. And to be honest, he didn’t look like much of a basketball player himself. He was short and skinny, and I assumed he must have been a cousin, or a friend from high school, or something like that.

You probably know that Russell Robinson had one of the greatest games of his career that night against Texas Tech. He made all five of his shots, including three-of-three shooting from the three-point line, and he finished with 15 points.

But I’ll never forget the reaction of that young, mysterious kid from New York. Each time Russell drained a three, the mysterious kid would stand up, put his arms in the air, close his eyes, and let out a scream toward the ceiling. It was almost as if, in that moment, this young kid from New York was being saved.

Of course, I have no idea what was going on in his head. But a part of me likes to believe he was. That’s the power of Senior Day.

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One thought on “The Power of Senior Day

  1. I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Perfectly written!

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