The other Ford Center memory

The Ford Center brings with it a certain connotation, giving rise to images of weariness, disgrace and pain for Kansas fans.

Everyone remembers a night from 2005. A group of seniors thought by many to be the greatest class in Kansas history lost to Bucknell. It had been to two Final Fours and came within three points of a national title. It came within an overtime period of another Final Four a year earlier. It included Wayne Simien, Michael Lee, Keith Langford and Aaron Miles.

And those stars lost to a group of guys in pumpkin-orange jerseys named McNaughton and Bettencourt.*

*Funny how people with variations of the last name Bettencourt (i.e. Betancourt) just seem to aggravate Kansans/Kansas City sports fans.

The senior who spoke forever on his senior night missed the last shot. With about three seconds left, Simien found a spot just inside the top of the key, turned around and attempted a shot he had made hundreds of times throughout his career, the shot that fans associated Simien with…and missed. The ball bounced off the iron, the Bucknell players swarmed the court and Kansas reached what many considered the nadir of its basketball program.

I didn’t see any of it. That night I was in Guatemala City, far away from TV or radio or March Madness or any type of medium in which you could even see a bracket. The next morning at the airport my group and I wondered about the game. We, of course, assumed Kansas won. A few Guatemalans told us otherwise, but we assumed it may have been a joke or miscommunication. Only when I returned home and saw the “Death-Knell” headline in the Kansas City Star did it fully hit.

Yet none of that night has ever quite registered the way it likely has for most Kansas fans.

This week, perhaps, they’ll think of the Ford Center because Kansas is playing there again. They’ll think of that night. They’ll think of Bucknell.

I’ll think about the NCAA Tournament at the Ford Center in a different way.

***
The 2002-2003 season was the first time I hadn’t seen a KU game in person at Allen Fieldhouse in six years. My family started going to one game a year in 1997.

That season we saw Kansas defeat Brown by approximately 984 points, and it was Jacque Vaughn’s second game back from his wrist injury. The next year, we saw them defeat Baylor by approximately 983 points. Then it was a loss to Iowa, then a loss to Iowa State and so on.*

*Yeah, we were a pretty unlucky group. Kansas never loses at Allen Fieldhouse, unless the Dent family comes to watch. Later on, as a junior in high school, I was there when KU lost to Richmond, too.

Every season, we saw one game. That was pretty much the rule, and it was generally a game that no one else would want to see, thus the reason why we could actually get/afford tickets.

But we didn’t see one in 2002-2003. Oh, I would have liked to have seen one. It was Nick Collison’s last year. Same with Kirk Hinrich. Two of Kansas’ all-time greats were going to graduate, and I wouldn’t get to see them in their final season.

It wasn’t exactly a tragedy along the lines of, say, Oedipus Rex or Macbeth, but I was a high school kid living in Kansas who had studied KU basketball for years. It sucked.

Then the NCAA Tournament rolled around. The Jayhawks earned a No. 2 seed and would play their opening round games at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City. I’m sure I could use a quick Google search to determine who they played in the first round but at this point, I am feeling lazy and just wanting to stream of conscious everything, so I will just say that they smoked their first round opponent.

In the second round, they would face Arizona State. The Sun Devils had a power forward named Ike Diogu who was supposed to be one of the best power forwards in the nation. I assumed, like for all the games, that I would watch it on TV.

Then my dad, Paul Dent, had this crazy idea. The day before the game, a Friday, he suggested that we travel to Oklahoma City to watch Kansas play against Arizona State.

It was a five-hour trip. Oklahoma was playing in the other second-round game, meaning all those football fans would be more than happy to sell their tickets and watch replays of Josh Heupel, Jason White in their basement.

We would have an opportunity to see Nick and Kirk, not to mention Keith Langford and Aaron Miles. Yes, it was a great idea.

My brother, sister, dad and I (my mom had some sort of open house thing, whatever that means, and couldn’t go) left early in the morning in my dad’s Toyota Avalon.

You get to Oklahoma City on I-35, a devil of a highway that pretty much runs from Canada to Mexico. It seems that everyone in the Midwest must traverse I-35 to reach any destination. It also seems that I-35 intentionally drags through the ends of the earth regardless of its latitudinal location.

Once you get past the Flint Hills and Wichita the only destinations between there and Oklahoma City are rest stops with broken vending machines and sketchy bikers wearing jean jackets. Diners with names like “Grab and Dash” and “Manny’s” pop up every 50 miles or so but that’s it.

After stopping at Braum’s (and thankfully not “Grab and Dash”), we found a hotel in Edmond, Okla., the hometown of Bill Self. This being 2003, none of us knew or cared about that then. We cared about finding tickets. And that would be a problem.

The Ford Center was buzzing. Oklahoma would play the first game of the day and you could tell.

Men and women in red shirts milled around outside, each desiring tickets like us and scanning for the either nonexistent or unapparent scalpers. My dad looked puzzled. My sister joked that she should try and persuade a security guard to let us in. I could have sworn I saw someone from my high school, not that that would have helped.

At this point, nothing helped. Kansas would be playing inside the arena looming tall in front of us in about two hours, and we had no idea how we could move from the sidewalk to the cheap seats.

So we didn’t. We kept walking, and my watch kept ticking, moving closer toward game time. With about an hour to go and elusive scalpers still very much elusive, we decided watching the game at a restaurant was better than not watching anything at all.

Bricktown’s red hues rose up within walking distance of the Ford Center, and we settled on a restaurant there. TV screens showed Gonzaga lose to Arizona in a second round overtime game before the Kansas game started.

My brother and I split a pizza. We would watch Kansas on TV again, just in a slightly different location.

And for a while we did. Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich, Aaron Miles and Keith Langford dominated Arizona State like we all expected.
Then something funny happened. CBS switched broadcasts. The screen went from that awkward split-phase to full-blown coverage of something else, something that wasn’t Kansas.

We drove five hours in one day, and now we couldn’t even watch the Jayhawks on TV? This was a new low. The game involving our favorite team, with two of its greatest players of all time, was taking place five minutes from where we sat and we couldn’t see it.

Powered by the thought that there had to be some sort of TV screen showing this game closer to the Ford Center, we walked back. Like before, hordes of people in red Oklahoma shirts walked outside.

This was different, though. They were leaving the arena en masse. They saw the ensuing KU blowout victory as CBS did, a worthy diversion for one half but not for anything longer.

Problem was, empty seats didn’t make a difference. We couldn’t just ask for their tickets because, upon leaving the arena, they were voided.

One half of basketball was left, one half that seemingly nobody in Oklahoma City wanted to see but us, and we couldn’t see it.

Then we had an idea, my sister’s desperate idea. I don’t know how we came up with it or who exactly suggested it, but we ran with my sister’s joke from earlier about just asking a security guard to let us in the arena.

An old man wearing a yellow jacket guarded one of the side entrances. He appeared to be a volunteer, the type of person excited about sports and helping others. My sister asked the question. Would he let us in?

Sure, he said.

We didn’t even think of ascending the stairs toward the upper levels and instead focused on seats located a few rows behind the Jayhawks’ bench. Four of them awaited.

For one half, we watched, the best view I’d ever had at any sporting event when 30 minutes earlier it seemed we wouldn’t get to see any of it.

I don’t remember much about that second half now. Kansas extended its lead, and I’m sure Hinrich and Collison led the way; but it’s really just a hazy image of fast-breaking, turnover-inducing Roy Williams basketball at its finest.

I do remember the end. As we walked out, a few older people decked out in KU garb waited by the same exit. I recognized one of them as Wayne Sr., or at least that’s what they always called him during the game broadcasts.

He was Wayne Simien’s father and came down to watch even though his son couldn’t play because of a shoulder injury. Feeling content from all the night’s events, I approached Wayne Sr. and told him I wished for a smooth recovery for his son.

He shook my hand. He told me he appreciated everything.

In two years, this man’s son would miss a shot in the same arena that would send fans fuming and writing threatening letters to Bill Self, a shot that people still remember and probably will for quite some time.

I won’t. I’ll remember Wayne Sr.’s handshake.

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