So here it is, the first week of March, the temperature has climbed into the 50s, the sun is shining, joggers have hit the pavement in T-shirts and shorts, and Kansas City… my hometown… is coming alive.
Kansas City, one of the greatest college basketball cities in the country, the site of more Final Fours than any other city, will become a national basketball capital for the next week.
Of course, you probably know that the Big 12 Tournament starts at the Sprint Center in Kansas City on Wednesday.
And you probably know that Kansas, the No. 1 team in the country, is coming to town. And you probably know that Texas, one of the most disappointing teams in the country, is coming. And you probably know that Kansas State, one of the most surprising teams in the country, is coming to town, too.
There will be NBA talent on the floor and million-dollar coaches on the sidelines. And downtown Kansas City will be hopping with parties and music and basketball junkies.
This is Kansas City’s week. And it’s always been one of my favorite weeks of the year. To me, this week will always remind me of the days in the mid-90s, when my dad would show up at my elementary school in the mid-morning, bust me out of class, and take my siblings and me down to Kemper Arena for four basketball games at the old Big Eight tournament.
In honor of this week – and those memories – we’re breaking out a list of eight short stories about Kansas City, basketball, and the Big Eight Tournament.
Chapter I: The Building
They called Kemper Arena so many names. Of course, Kemper Arena was the home of the old Big Eight Tournament for decade. There were so many stories about Kemper.
*For one, it looks like there’s an erector set on the roof.
It was built in the early 70s, a futuristic-looking arena rising up from Kansas City’s old stockyards.
So many memories. NBA Hall-of-Famer Tiny Archibald and the Kansas City Kings played there. Paul McCartney and Wings performed their. Gerald Ford was nominated for the presidency there, defeating Ronald Reagan at the 1976 Republican National Convention. And wrestler Owen Hart died there, falling from the rafters during a stunt gone wrong.
But at its core, Kemper was always a college basketball building. I used to be mesmerized by a banner that memorialized the 1988 Final Four. Wow, I thought, this is where Danny and the Miracles cut down the nets.
Still, they called the place names. Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock used to call the place the “Dump with a Hump”. And he may have been right. In the mid-90s, when Kansas City wrongly figured that they needed a bigger building to keep the Big Eight (and later, the Big 12) Tournaments, they decided to expand the building by adding onto one side. As a result, the building became asymmetrical — and ugly. They later would add a large glass façade to improve the aesthetics of the exterior… but for one year, the building literally had a huge white bulge hanging off the top of one side of the building.
They also criticized the building’s charms. Or at least, its lack of anything resembling charm.
They criticized the location, too. The building was in the West Bottoms, a deserted area haunted by the ghosts of cowboys and livestock and cattle. And despite what some people say, most Kansas Citians despise the term “Cow-town”. It’s our history, but some just don’t want to remember. And the West Bottoms, in the shadows of downtown, are an old reminder of the past.
None of that mattered to me. Kansas City didn’t have an NBA team when I was growing up. So to me, Kemper was as close as you could get to a major-league arena. To me, it felt like a palace.
Chapter II: The Signs
I’m pretty sure every little kid dreams of being on television during a sporting event. This is just one of those axioms that seems universal. So how do you do it? How do you become one of the fortunate ones that the cameras focus on? Well, you can become lucky. This is one way. But to improve your chances, every little kid knows you must have a catchy sign. And in almost all cases, this sign must also reference the television network that is broadcasting the game.
*For some reason, in the early 90s, those signs that used the letters of ESPN seemed original. Maybe they weren’t. But for an eight-year-old kid, it sure seemed that way.
So one year, I decided that I must be one of those kids. Must make a sign. Must be on TV. It was meant to be.
And so, I talked it over with my brother and my dad. What should the sign say?
Well, it just so happened that Kansas was playing Kansas State in the first round of the tournament. And then, it hit me. The perfect sign.
Yes. It was perfect. I was all set to be on television. This would be my moment.
I brought the sign to Kemper Arena. I held it above my head proudly. I received high-fives from drunk 30-year-old men. Yea. Little man, great sign.
Of course, I didn’t appear on television that day. I think I was sitting too high up for the cameras to see me. But there was one other problem.
I would find out later that the game was definitely not broadcast on NBC.
Chapter III: The End
In 1996, the Big Eight died. The cause of death? Progress.
In an effort to keep up with the Joneses of the college world — in this case, the Big Ten and the SEC — The Big Eight added four Texas schools — Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor — to the conference.
In so many ways, it was a business move. And in so many ways, it was a move based on football.
Looking back, it’s easy to say it was the right move. Save for the Gorilla that is the SEC, the Big 12 is generally considered the second-best football conference in America. And why not? It’s a conference filled with traditional powers, big-name coaches and fertile recruiting grounds.
Of course, it’s easy to forget about the Big Eight — the little power conference on the Plains.
You see, Nebraska and Oklahoma ruled the Big Eight football scene. It just worked that way. But for the most part, Big Eight basketball lived a relatively egalitarian existence. Sure, Larry Brown showed up at Kansas in the early 80s, and Kansas started to dominate.
But before that, during the 1970s and 1980s, the Big Eight was one of the deepest basketball leagues in America.
Kansas was Kansas. Missouri played tough, gritty basketball under Norm Stewart. Jack Hartman and Lon Kruger took Kansas State to five Elite Eights during a 17-year span. Legendary coach Johnny Orr rebuilt the Iowa State program. Oklahoma State had tradition. And Oklahoma had Billy Tubbs.
Perhaps that was why there was such a sense of sadness when the Big Eight ceased to exist — at least, in the way people remembered it.
I remember being at the last Big Eight Tournament in March of 1996. There was a cavalcade of emotions flowing at Kemper Arena… Sadness and Grief and Anger.
And I still remember seeing a guy wearing a shirt with the Big Eight logo on the front. And on the back it said:
“Big Eight’s great. Big 12’s a snitch. We win the titles as the Texans get rich.”
Chapter IV: The Tragedy
If you were in Kemper Arena on that day in 1995, you can still remember the silence.
Colorado star Donnie Boyce was writhing on the ground in pain. He had crumpled to the ground with a gruesome leg injury, and he would never be the same.
Today, Boyce is just a tragic footnote in the history of Big Eight basketball. But if you saw him play, he was so much more.
First, he had an intriguing backstory. He had played at Proviso East High School — near Chicago — with future NBA players Michael Finley and Sherrell Ford. They had earned the nickname the “Three Amigos” — and some have called that Proviso East squad one of the top prep teams in the history of Chicago hoops.
They were destined for greatness and fame and NBA riches.
Ford, a 6-7 forward, was the most accomplished in high school. He would go on to play at Illinois and was the 26th pick in the first round of the 1995 NBA Draft. Finley, who would go on to play at Wisconsin, would become the success story. He was drafted 21st in the NBA Draft by the Dallas Mavericks. He would play in two All-Star games and win an NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs.
Boyce was supposed to have all that, too. But his dream ended on the floor of Kemper Arena on March 10, 1995.
Boyce’s Colorado team was playing Oklahoma — led by Big Eight player of the year Ryan Minor (see below).
Colorado was outgunned, but with Boyce, Colorado’s all-time leading scorer, the Buffs had a shot.
And then it happened. In an instant, Boyce was on the floor and the crowd was hushed. After a long delay, he was carted off the floor on a stretcher with his broken leg stabilized. And just like that, his college career was over.
He would attempt a comeback — the Atlanta Hawks would even take a flier on him in the second round of the NBA Draft. But he would never be the same. He would gimp through two non-descript NBA seasons before floating out of our memories.
Chapter V: The Memories
If you were going to make a case for the one Big Eight program that always had the most entertaining players to watch, you could easily make a case for Oklahoma.
From the great Nate Erdmann to Eduardo Najera to Hollis Price, the Sooners always had somebody worth watching.
But my favorite Oklahoma player was always Ryan Minor, a sweet shooting swingman with freakish athleticism. He’d score more than 1,900 points at Oklahoma — and he was also dominant in the video game “College Slam” for Super Nintendo.
But here’s why Minor’s name will live forever.
On Sept. 20, 1998, Orioles Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken Jr. ended his record-breaking streak. He had played in 2,632 straight games. On that night in Baltimore, a young rookie third baseman took Ripken’s spot in the lineup. His name? Ryan Minor.
Chapter VI: The Players
Let’s have some fun with lists…
The Top Eight Players I Ever Saw At The Big Eight Tournament
8. Tony Battie, Texas Tech
7. Tyronne Lue, Nebraska
6. Jacque Vaughn, Kansas
5. Dedric Willoughby, Iowa State
4. Raef LaFrentz, Kansas
3. Bryant Reeves, Oklahoma State
2. Chauncey Billups, Colorado
1. Paul Pierce, Kansas
The Top Four Most Underrated Players I Saw At The Big Eight Tournament
4. Manny Dies, Kansas State
3. Kenny Pratt, Iowa State
2. Cookie Belcher, Nebraska
1. Eric Piatkowski*, Nebraska
*I once saw Piatkowski score 42 points in a Big Eight tournament game in 1994.
Chapter VII: The Food
Talk to a Kansas Citian long enough, and the conversation inevitably leads to barbecue. You know, Kansas Citians are a funny people. In general, they possess typical Midwestern characteristics: They’re generally humble and self deprecating. They know Kansas City is special place. And they won’t be boastful, but they’ll be protective if somebody wants to slam their hometown. In simple terms, there just aren’t many reasons for Kansas Citians to be arrogant.
The Chiefs are mediocre, the Royals a laughingstock, and city officials have struggled for decades to implement a successful public transportation system.
But there is one reason for Kansas Citians to be arrogant: barbecue.
Did you know KC has the best barbecue in the world? You didn’t? Well, lemme tell you, KC has the best barbecue in the world.
You can go to Gates and hear, “Hi, may I help you?” You can go to Oklahoma Joe’s — named by Anthony Bourdain as one of the 13 restaurants you have to eat at before you die — and you can sit in a gas station and eat the juiciest ribs in the world. And you can go to Arthur Bryant’s and eat the same great meat that has charmed presidents*.
*In 1974, writer Calvin Trillin wrote in Playboy that Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City was “…possibly the single best restaurant in the world.”
Of course, there’s more than just barbecue in this town.
Here’s eight other classic KC establishments to visit during this week’s Big 12 tournament:
1. Fritz’s, 250 N. 18th St, – OK, so it’s not in Kansas City proper, but trust us, you can’t skip this place, where the crumbling walls go unnoticed while you wolf down a greasy Poor Dan Sr. and a creamy chocolate shake. Order your food on a phone then wait until a train brings it right to your table. Remember to grab a cardboard engineer’s hat on your way out. Choo-Choo!
2. Granfalloon, 608 Ward Parkway – The ‘Falloon has 18 High Defintion TVs for great sports viewing and the place gets hopping around midnight. But watch out: the crowds might be a little intense this weekend, and you might have to throw some elbows to make room for yourself.
3. Minsky’s Pizza, 427 Main St.- It’s not flat and big like New York pizza, deep like Chicago’s crust or disgusting like St. Louis’s awkward, thin contraption. Minsky’s is just good, classic pizza.
4. Brooksider, 6330 Brookside Plaza – The ‘Sider is what it is: A classic neighborhood bar. Grab a drink, put a dollar in the jukebox, and if you get bored, you can always walk down the street to Charlie Hooper’s.
5. Town Topic, 2121 Broadway and 1900 Baltimore- The burgers are small, greasy and filled with tiny grilled onions. Order at least two, or maybe three if you’re really hungry, and saddle up on a stool in this old-fashioned diner.
6. Blonde, 1000 Ward Parkway – Girls, put the Prada bag over your shoulder. Guys, switch your Birkenstocks for the Gucci loafers. Seriously, this is high society at its finest or most obnoxious depending on how you look at it. If you can stomach the long lines and expensive beverages, you’ll be rewarded with the most upscale crowd in town. Word is that Christina Aguilera even once stopped in for a drink.
7. McFadden’s, 1330 Grand Blvd.- It’s right across the street from the Sprint Center. Even if the only drink they serve is Strawberry Nestle Quik, this place is still too convenient to pass up.
8. Kona Grill, 444 Ward Parkway – A Country Club Plaza staple. The food can be exotic and the atmosphere is relaxing. Plus, what’s KC without a walk on the Plaza.
But here’s the question: If you were going to live out the ultimate Kansas City food fantasy — three meals in a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner — what three joints would you choose?
For breakfast, I’m booking it to John’s Space Age Donuts in downtown Overland Park. Walk into this this classic hole-in-the–wall donut shop, and you’re transported to an earlier time. Grab a Caramel Long John, smell the batter sizzling in the back, and sip on a eight-ounce carton of milk. You can also sit on a stool and listen to old men sip black coffee and talk about better days.
For lunch, I’m driving to the Plaza and sliding into a booth at Winsteads — the iconic KC joint that’s been doing burgers right since 1940. There’s nothing better than a double-Winstead with a chocolate shake.
And lastly, for dinner, I’m either going Oklahoma Joes or Arthur Bryants. Yes, this is a cop-out, but here’s the deal. I just can’t choose. But I’ll say this. For ribs, it’s Joes. For the best barbecue sandwich you’ve ever had, it’s Bryants.
Chapter VIII: The City
Still not convinced that KC is the greatest basketball city in the world?
Listen to this song…
Or better yet, listen to this one…