Tag Archives: basketball

Just play Silvio De Sousa

Kansas_Jayhawks_Open_Practice_at_the_2016_March_Madness_Opening_Rounds_(25817826036)

Late on Friday afternoon — during the prime newsdump hour, a time likely chosen to prevent as many angry screeds from being written as are deserved — the NCAA ruled KU’s Silvio De Sousa ineligible for not just the last dozen-plus games of this basketball season but the entirety of the 2019-20 season. It barely needs mentioning this ban is completely insane. A guardian of De Sousa received the money, some $20,000. He was not directly paid and maintains he had no idea any money was exchanged, and the NCAA has gathered no evidence of its own to suggest otherwise. He has also already sat out more than the first half of this season. Other players, from Cam Newton to Zion Williamson, have been accused of having parents or guardians ask for or receive money and face little consequences.

Kansas coach Bill Self said in an animated statement: “In my 30-plus years of coaching college basketball, I have never witnessed such a mean-spirited and vindictive punishment against a young man who did nothing wrong,”

Here’s what I would say to Bill Self or any coach in the same situation:

Just play De Sousa. Continue reading

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DeShawn Stevenson was (sort of) KU’s first Andrew Wiggins

I wonder if Andrew Wiggins will be as good for KU as I hoped DeShawn Stevenson would be. That sentence should not make any sense to sane individuals, even sane individuals who followed Kansas basketball with ritualistic intensity in the late 90s,  which, I guess, might actually make them insane, thus placing me squarely into that camp. Oh well.

But back in the late 90s, DeShawn Stevenson was the shit, which also makes little sense. Stevenson these days conjures up two distinct, incredibly awesome images.

 1. His tattoo of Abraham Lincoln

Continue reading

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Center Stage

“Have you ever entered an empty stadium? Try It.” – Eduardo Galeano from Soccer In Sun and Shadow

 *****

The woman working at the ticket office tells me I can come in, opening the one door from the inside that isn’t barred shut. “There won’t be any lights on,” she says.

I walk into Texas Hall, a place I’d never heard of until perhaps two or three days earlier when my editor assigned me the job of writing about UT-Arlington’s new arena, known as the College Park Center. It is replacing Texas Hall had been UT-Arlington’s home since 1965. It is a theater, not a gym, but the basketball team has played there, on center stage, on a portable basketball court. The team performed where Louie Armstrong played jazz, where Jerry Seinfeld joked, where Ludacris rapped. Continue reading

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Wearing Chuck Taylor

I guess it’s kind of like this.

I just don’t care much about shoes. I certainly want them to look good. And I do care quite a bit about how shoes look with certain pants.

Although, I’m not really talking about how they MATCH with the pants.

No. What I mean is this: I really want my pants to fall nicely on the shoe itself. In my mind, the smaller and skinnier the shoe the better. But maybe it’s just me.

I suppose these words maybe contradict what I just said. Maybe I do care quite a bit about shoes. Continue reading

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25.

Here is a story. A few months back, a few weeks before my 25th birthday, I went to go see the Arcade Fire at Starlight Theater.

The opening band went on at 7:30. We got their late. I had to finish up an assignment for work before I could finally be free. And after running around for almost two hours, making phone calls, finishing up interviews, running through a story outline in my head, I was finally ready.

Ready to start. Continue reading

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Above the Rim

Basketball is beautiful. It really is. Even the crummy WNBA ad campaign from a few years ago centering on that concept didn’t take away the simplistic yet resonant meaning of those three words. BASKETBALL IS BEAUTFIUL.

Rustin Dodd recently listed it as the most artistic game, more aesthetically pleasing than soccer and even tennis, a game, to me, defined by the unparalleled grace of its greatest champion, Roger Federer. But Rustin is right, and I fully understood why on Thursday.

I was watching the KU-UCLA game. All my life, I’ve loved Kansas basketball. That should come as no surprise to the 13 readers of this blog. The roots of my love are superficial at best, maybe embarrassing at worst. I began loving Kansas because of the colors. My parents, Debbie and Paul Dent, introduced the concept of colleges when I couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. Kansas wore red and blue. Kansas State wore purple. Red and blue was cool. And purple sucked. I was a Jayhawk.

Not long after, I began watching the basketball games because my dad viewed every one of them (and still does) like every member of the Jayhawk family, with religious fervor. I watched Steve Woodberry and Patrick Ritchie, then Jacque Vaughn and Ryan Robertson, then Jeff Boschee and Kenny Gregory, then Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison, and then in the most recent times I watched Russell Robinson and Brandon Rush. Then I stopped.

I haven’t watched much KU basketball this year, nor did I watch much last year. That is what happens when you live in a city located far away from Lawrence. There are bars to watch it here in Dallas and ESPN3 is a God-send and good Samaritans illegally stream games on Justin.TV, but the games have tumbled down my list of priorities. The euphoria present with every dribble in Lawrence-KC fades away when you leave the city limits. Even when I watch the games, I am not watching them the same way I do at Allen Fieldhouse or in a Johnson County family room. I am watching them detached from what makes the games special.

But I did watch on Thursday. I was into the game more than most I see because it was a tight game. I even got a little angry at the missed free throws and when Tyrel Reed threw away the basketball with 13 seconds left. Then Tyler Honeycutt squared up, then the entire game depended on his shooting stroke, then it hit me.

Basketball is beautiful.

I prayed he would make it. I wanted to see the union of ball and net. I realized I love KU, but I love basketball more. Basketball is improvisational art. It is spontaneous, and the performances last for two hours, longer if we’re lucky. No single team or player can transcend the joy provided by the actual game; they only contribute to it. That is what happened when Marcus Morris lofted a Todd Reesing pass in transition to Markieff Morris, and it is what happened when Honeycutt pulled up six feet behind the three-point line with a hand in his face and made the shot all of us knew he would make and the shot I wanted him to make so he could prolong the masterpiece he had composed over the last 39 minutes and 50 seconds.

Of course, had the refs not interfered with art, I also wanted Kansas to destroy UCLA in overtime.

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Speaking about the Rucker

THE night before our pilgrimage to Rucker Park, we lounged on a Lower East Side rooftop, drinking and talking and people-watching. I was in New York on vacation, time spent with my friend Pat, cousin John and aunt Kathy.

John and his friends wanted to go to the bars and stay out late. Pat and I wanted to join, but partying didn’t reside at the top of our itinerary. We longed for the next morning’s promise of basketball.

To build a trip to the greatest city in the world around a visit to a patch of manicured asphalt anchored on both ends by 10-foot tall hoops would, of course, be foolish. And really, it didn’t seem like we built our trip around playground basketball. But when Pat and I finalized our plans for New York, he mentioned basketball. He had been playing the game often in his new hometown of Washington, D.C. for the last few months and wanted to try it out in the City. I thought of the Rucker immediately.

We had no other concrete plans for the weekend visit. We thought we wanted to bike all over the five boroughs, and my aunt lives close to the Met, and Ray’s Pizza is supposed to be delicious, and, well, we wanted play basketball. So maybe we did build the trip around a game. Maybe we were/are idiots. Either way, playing at the Rucker was a must. The must.

We kept mentioning this on the rooftop as night teetered closer toward early morning. Crowds of young people below passed a decaying church on the way to bars and apartments, and the glowing Chrysler Building touched the sky in the distance. After a couple of beers, another friend of John’s arrived to join the group. He wore high-tops and gym shorts. He had played basketball earlier in the night. He was tall and lanky, and his legs looked like they held the secret of an explosive first step.

I asked him if he had played at the Rucker. He hadn’t and offered an ominous reason.

“You actually have to be good to play there.”

*****

DESPITE the fact that I’m more suburban than Iron Kids bread, I knew about the Rucker because my granny wanted me to read something, anything, on a boring, late-summer day in the tiny burg of McPherson, Kan. We went to a book store on the town’s main strip, and a lightning yellow cover with Shaq, Kobe and the bolded letters of S-L-A-M peeked at me from a shelf of magazines. I loved basketball. All Kansans do. We watch the Jayhawks play in an old barn on the campus where the doctor who invented basketball coached and then go home and rehearse jump shots for hours on hoops hanging above driveways.

Granny bought the magazine for me. I remember reading about the Lakers’ 2000 championship, Duke’s Jason Williams, a high school diary from Eddy Curry and then getting hooked enough to subscribe. Yes, I subscribed to SLAM – kind of wish I still did. And if you’re a suburbanite who even knows what SLAM is then you’re probably already either laughing or blushing in embarrassment because you read a few copies back in the day as well. SLAM was and still is a basketball magazine, only it was more than that. SLAM was the self-proclaimed “in-your-face basketball magazine.”

The writers from SLAM drenched their stories in hip-hop. And SLAM, before And-1 Mixtapes and Hot Sauce, before Skip to My Lou made the NBA, pried me away from plush, private school gymnasiums and into the foreign world of street basketball. Into the Rucker.

The Rucker, I read, was the capital of basketball’s Holy Land. It was Madison Square Garden, only everyone could play there. If, as Rick Telander wrote, heaven is a playground, then the Rucker is the first court you see when you enter the pearly gates.

The Rucker acted as a refuge for Harlem youths and a springboard for superstars. Stephon Marbury, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kenny Anderson and Wilt Chamberlain played there, and they aren’t even the legends. The Rucker’s greatest fame isn’t granted to those who move on to a better basketball life; it’s reserved for the ones who don’t leave, men like Earl Manigault, the Goat. Manigault supposedly had a 52-inch vertical leap. He did the Double Dunk, an impossible move where he dunked, caught the ball as it went through the net while in mid-air and then dunked again. Kareem called him New York’s greatest of all time. His pro career was limited to a failed ABA preseason, and before he died his arms were punctured with holes in the places he injected heroin. But he dominated at the Rucker and that meant something.

After all, the Rucker means something to all New York players. I spoke with former Kansas basketball player Russell Robinson for a story two years ago about his upbringing in the Bronx and Harlem. He loved talking about the days where he’d buy a couple of Arizona Iced Teas for energy and head to playgrounds in the Bronx or to the Rucker for an afternoon of basketball.

So yes, I knew about the Rucker. Knew about the legends. Knew about the history. Knew that Arizona Iced Tea, at least according to Russell, was the street baller’s drink of choice. I knew you had to be good to play there.

And I knew about us. Knew that we were from Overland Park, Kan. Knew that we honed our game firing jump shots on driveways. Knew that we couldn’t jump 52 inches. Knew that our most genuine Harlem experience came when we listened to Mase’s first rap album.

But at least we enjoyed drinking Arizona Iced Tea.

*****

THE M2 bus trekked through Manhattan, past the Park and past 110th into Harlem, and let us off next to the Harlem River. The new Yankee Stadium beckoned from across the water, baseball’s Mecca situated so close to basketball’s.

We stared for a moment and then walked toward 155th and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, to the Rucker. It was still early, and it was a Sunday, so men and women scurried around in suits and sun dresses, the wardrobe of the hardcore churchgoer. Even if we weren’t white and from Kansas, the gym shorts and t-shirts would’ve separated us from the people ambling on the sidewalks.

Before we turned the corner to the Rucker, I didn’t know what would happen. Part of me expected near-vacancy. It was early in the morning, and the sun already sizzled streets and skin. In fact, we decided to come at a relatively early time thinking we’d have a better opportunity to stick around in a game for this very reason.

The other part of me thought the opposite. This was the Rucker. I imagined lithe, young bodies dribbling, passing and dunking. I imagined the next Earl Manigault crouching on the sidelines, cradling a ball in his hands while waiting for some real competition and then posterizing the pretenders. Neither time of day nor stickiness of humidity would stop ballers at the Rucker; nor would it allow for two average-at-best outsiders to step on the court and involve themselves in its transcendent game.

Finally at 155th, we could see the Rucker. Lush trees guarded the court and a row of dilapidated project buildings towered across the street. Yellow bleachers, their hue as sharp as the SLAM cover from years ago, commanded attention on one side of the court. Plain metal ones stood on the other. Dark green tinted the playing surface, relenting for maroon lanes, and a fresh mural painted in the middle of the masterpiece depicted LeBron wearing a blue Knicks uniform next to a caption that read “Harlem Loves You LeBron.”

A man loitered on the metal bleachers, solitarily tinkering with a cell phone. He didn’t have a basketball. A father helped his son practice layups on one side of the court. The other side was empty. Our side. I made my first shot, and the swish of the ball in the net sounded like nothing I’d heard from other basketball goals before. The net was nylon, but it sounded like it was chain-link. It was perfect.

We shot for a while, enjoying our time but craving a game, a true Rucker experience. The man from the bleachers walked toward us and held out his hand for the ball. He wore a white t-shirt that sagged over his stocky body. When he made shots, he motioned at me like he didn’t think I knew to give him his change. I began chatting with him, asking about how often he plays and if he thought more people would come for a game. After telling me he thought not many people would show up today, he pointed at LeBron’s gigantic face, saying how badly he wanted him to come to New York. I said it was a good thing that the Knicks had at least signed Amare Stoudemire.

Soon, another man arrived. Pat asked them if they wanted to play two-on-two. Game on.

I am 5-foot-9, perhaps 5-foot-10, with spindly arms and an accurate jump shot. Pat is an inch taller, slightly more built and wins games because he cares more than anyone else. Our opponents were older and bigger. They weren’t muscular but they were thick. The man in the white shirt liked to shoot, and the other one liked to dribble through his legs and attempt crossovers. Neither was particularly fast. Neither appeared to have a 52-inch vertical. This was a good thing.

I did what I do best: made a few dribble moves, floated in the air long enough for my opponent to falter and then delicately released the ball, relying on my touch to save me from what should be a terrible time to shoot. Pat stayed in the post, his moves more polished than his defender’s, and scored often. We took an early lead.

About five to 10 other men filtered onto the metal bleachers, loudly recanting their Saturday nights as our game went on. They arrived one-by-one or in pairs. It seemed a spontaneous gathering. If you wanted to hang out, you walked to the oasis across from the projects, you watched basketball, you swapped stories and you jumped in when the game beckoned.

One time when my man drained a three-pointer, someone hollered from the bleachers in support. Fortunately, that didn’t happen often. The game went to 16, by ones and twos, and we won easily. Our opponents slapped our hands, and the guy guarding me said I played like Steve Nash, exasperation in his voice. It was a flattering, if egregiously untrue, compliment, but I didn’t care much anyways. As we rested on the bleachers and drank now-warm water from plastic bottles, I thought about the impossibility of the circumstance: We, two Kansas boys south of six-feet, had control of the court. We had control of the freaking Rucker.

A few minutes passed. The men who arrived during our game now wanted to play. One of them joined our side, and we would play a game of three-on-three. No one asked where we were from or why we came. We checked the ball and played.

Our teammate was ripped like a linebacker and wore a sleeveless shirt. He invited contact but didn’t embrace it. He grunted, “Get off me, nigga,” playfully but never actually called fouls. We were hopeless. Pat bended over breathlessly after baskets, and a hip injury from a few years ago stabbed my side every time I tried to shuffle my feet or make a first step. We trailed by plenty when my man dribbled to his left. He flashed by for a layup, a wave of long legs and dreadlocks.

“Is the game over?” Pat asked.

They laughed. No, it was just 15-8. One point away from elimination, one point away from a .500 record at the Rucker, an accomplishment we would have happily accepted.

Then something crazy happened. Anger shifted into success for the Harlem guy on our team. Pat’s low post moves started complimenting him perfectly. I said to hell with my hip and started driving again.

I wish I remembered the exact baskets, but I don’t. I remember the sweat, the panging heat, the voice in my head switching its tone from leisure to rage and an abstract flurry of beautiful basketball produced by a Harlem native and us not because the artists painted with deft strokes but because the perfect canvas willed us to try.

16-15.

We won. We were still undefeated at the Rucker. We had controlled the court, again, but the two games were enough. The sun blazed and my hip ached. We shook hands with our opponents, waved so long to the players in the bleachers and walked toward a bodega on the corner of 155th for Arizona Iced Teas.

Right before that, before the Harlem men began the next game and before we retreated to reality I had to make my last shot. For years I have practiced the superstition, believing it is bad luck to leave any court having missed my final attempt.

I planted my legs on holy ground for the final time and aimed toward the hoop where the gods double dunk. I was Russell Robinson, I was Kareem, I was the Goat, I was the kid fascinated by the stories of the same game practiced in a different world.

The ball rippled through the net, sounding just right, the way I imagine it does for everyone.

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Lavin is perfect for the Storm

Imagine Alumni Hall for just a minute. It’s a Friday afternoon, shortly after lunch time, and the place, situated on the aptly named Utopia Parkway, is packed. A smattering of students mill about the court, bricking three-pointers and lazily checking the man they’re supposed to guard.

This is the rec center, and it is also the same cramped gymnasium where guys like Ron Artest, Eric Barkley and Lavor Postell not only practiced but played a few Big East basketball games.

I love this about St. John’s. It’s small time, only it’s big time. The names – Lou Carnesecca, Chris Mullin, Artest – and the numbers – only six schools have more all-time victories – prove that. Really, St. John’s is Big East basketball, more so than Georgetown, Syracuse, Villanova, Connecticut, any of those schools. There’s more history at St. John’s, more pride.

I started watching the Red Storm when Artest and Barkley played. Later, Postell took over, then Marcus Hatten. He would lead them to the NIT Championship one year and the NCAA Tournament the next. That was 2002, and the Red Storm hasn’t been back since.

After Hatten, Elijah Ingram, a McDonald’s All-American took over as the lead guard. Losses piled, Ingram was charged with a crime and then dismissed from the team, coach Mike Jarvis would lose his job, more losses piled, Norm Roberts was hired, New York ties were supposedly reintroduced, more losses piled; and now when the Red Storm gets brought up in conversation, it’s more likely to get mentioned with South Florida than Georgetown.

***
Who has the hardest job in America?

I began the first journalism assignment of high school with that question. Keep in mind, we didn’t actually learn anything about journalism – i.e. reporting or structure or writing or anything of that nature. So this first assignment was basically a column. It was a column about UCLA coach Steve Lavin.

At first I couldn’t stand Lavin. His slick hair and scratchy weasel voice made John Calipari seem wholesome. He only got the UCLA job because it fell to him after Jim Harrick was charged with NCAA violations and other top assistants like Lorenzo Romar had already found head coaching jobs elsewhere.

Then players from Kansas City started going out west. Lavin recruited JaRon Rush, and one of my all-time favorites, Earl Watson, and I began watching UCLA.

Every year followed the same structure. Lavin’s teams would begin the year with high expectations, a top 25 ranking and a tough schedule. They would slump in the middle before gaining ground at the end and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, even if it was because they got the Pac-10s automatic berth.

Anyone who watched this season after season could form one of two opinions, the first being that Lavin disappointed. He twice brought the consensus No. 1 recruiting classes to Westwood and never put together a complete season.

The second opinion differs greatly from the first, penciling Lavin as a good coach who couldn’t meet wild expectations. I agreed with this one.

After all, Lavin did his best in the NCAA tourney. His teams advanced to the Sweet 16 five times in six seasons, most of the time upsetting higher seeds along the way. Only Mike Kryszewski and Duke made the same number of Sweet 16s in that stretch.

Of course, this wasn’t enough. John Wooden coached the Bruins, and we all know how he did. Nothing short of Final Fours and national championships wins goodwill from UCLA fans.

So no matter what Lavin did, UCLA wouldn’t accept it. Everyone called him a great recruiter and a terrible coach. He could bring in the talent and then let it lay dormant until it moved on to the NBA.

The placing of his name onto the so-called hot seat became a midseason tradition, a tradition that always ended with those Sweet 16 runs and thus the inability to fire him. I admired how he dealt with the unfairness, persevered, struggled a while again, and then still found some way to bring it all together.

Then came his final year – 2003. The Bruins never had that middle of the year run, and his firing was inevitable. Lavin spoke in the past tense about his time in Westwood. He knew he was finished, and he had no problem admitting it, even embracing it.

But then something strange happened, although with Lavin nothing was entirely strange. UCLA defeated Arizona, the top seed, in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament. Would the Bruins mount another tournament run? It sure looked that way.

In the second round, UCLA held a big lead against Oregon. It was happening again, all the late season theatrics and victories that certainly incensed athletic officials and boosters. Somehow Lavin would save his job.

But that’s not how it worked. UCLA coughed up that lead, and Oregon won 75-74. The Bruins finished the year 10-19. Finally Steve Lavin could be fired.

***
Nobody can win at St. John’s. That’s the sentiment circling around right now; it has been since Mike Jarvis left, a cloud of controversy staying there behind him. Yep, no one can win there. No one can win at Rutgers or Seton Hall either. Schools like them, schools like St. John’s, they’re urban schools.

On the surface, coaching St. John’s would seem like an easy job. You’re based in New York. You’re based in the Mecca of college basketball.

About 20 million people live in that Mecca. Plenty of them grow up playing rec ball in cramped CYO gyms in the winter before bringing the game outside to the famous playgrounds in the summer. The smaller ones become pass-first point guards, and the taller ones develop mean streaks; they become the type of player no one wants to drive against in a game. Yes, the talent is there, but mining it is the hard part.

All the best players from the NYC area generally want to get out of the five boroughs. They don’t want to live in Jamaica, Queens. And outside of the NYC metro, no one has heard of St. John’s or cares about St. John’s. They don’t want to live in Jamaica, Queens, either.

The Red Storm’s last coach, Norm Roberts, knew New York as well as anyone. He was the man who first convinced Russell Robinson to leave the City and come to Kansas. He had connections. He could recruit the public and private schools of New York.
Roberts lasted for six seasons. He never made the NCAA Tournament.

And now here comes Lavin. He probably doesn’t have enough connections to reserve a table at a restaurant in New York City, let alone enough to gain favor among the area high schools.

Most people say this is a problem. How can the coach of a basketball team in New York City survive without any connections? How can a laid-back San Francisco guy inspire the gritty players of the Northeast to come play for him?

Here’s how. Lavin won’t. He won’t get the best players from New York City. He won’t establish deep connections with the city’s high schools. He won’t have to. And he shouldn’t try to.

St. John’s has been milking the New York City route for too long, and it’s a pointless endeavor. All the great connections of Jarvis and Roberts have gotten the Red Storm nowhere except the bottom of the Big East for the last several years.

New York City boys don’t respect St. John’s like they used to. They’ve moved on. St. John’s needs to do the same, and finally did so by hiring Lavin.

Like he did at UCLA, Lavin will recruit from all over the country and probably still largely on the West Coast. There’s no question it will be tougher. This will be a challenge.

But, remember, Lavin once held the hardest job in America. His new job fits into that same category, and there are few others more prepared for such a challenge.

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Going to Kansas City…

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.

Not
Backing
Cats

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.

Success.

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?

Here’s mine:

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…

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Much Ado About Dunking

OK, so this is a little bit late, but I’ve been busy. Anyways, here is a story about NBA All Star Weekend in Dallas a week and a half ago.

Scene 1: Before Saturday’s contest, at a massive hall in a Dallas hotel
Enter Nate Robinson, Shannon Brown, DeMar DeRozan, Gerald Wallace and a horde of media ready to probe as if they are trying to provoke the release of state secrets. There is no HERO in this story.

The grand banquet hall of the Dallas Hyatt Regency sits on the second floor of the downtown hotel.

Outside the room on this Friday, the day before the dunk contest, Stephen Curry talks to an autograph seeker who must have snuck past security. Media shuffle about. Rookies wearing their team warm-ups step on the escalator, descending downstairs, where there appears to be a photo shoot for a new Wolfgang Puck cook book. This doesn’t make sense at all. But cameras and those felt-covered lights surround an area that features a cover with Wolfgang Puck’s picture

Inside the hall, Magic Johnson finishes up a press conference. Chandeliers hanging from the ceiling provide light. Tables, at least 20, are situated about seven feet from each other throughout the room.

Nate Robinson leans back in a chair at one of these, the always-hungry New York media surrounding him with bright lights and massive cameras. He has won the dunk contest twice. No one has won it three times. He will have the opportunity to do so on Saturday night.

They want to ask him about the contest.

As a general rule, though, no one asks a productive question at a massive event such as the All-Star Game. More than 1,800 people have credentials here.

The list of names includes reporters from El Pais and L’Equipe. It includes someone who has a Maxim microphone, and it includes McLovin. Yes, really. I wanted to joke that Cat Fancy has three reporters, and Horse and Hound has another, but the reality of McLovin is funny enough.

This saturation leads to an environment of disorder and thus bad questions. And based on the Fox Sideline Reporter Law of Questioning, an athlete must respond to a cliché question with an equal and opposite unproductive answer.

This is apparent throughout the weekend, although, nothing brings out the FSR Law like the dunk contest.

Media: Nate, what do you want to achieve this weekend?

Robinson: I just want to have a natural dunk contest.

At least the environmentalists are smiling.

Shannon Brown sits across the room, diagonally from Robinson. He’ll go against Robinson in Saturday’s contest. Gerald Wallace, another contestant, sits two tables down from Brown.

I can’t recall seeing Wallace, even through a picture or a highlight, since the McDonald’s All-American game many years ago. His sight alarms me.

He has dread locks longer than Bob Marley. He looks and acts higher than Jim Breuer.

Upon hearing him talk, I realize he is as interesting as a tree stump. But to say he is as interesting as a tree stump wouldn’t quite capture his display of general detachment toward any topic. After all, tree stumps have those circles that help signify their age, which is actually kind of interesting.

Media: Gerald, how have you done in previous dunk contests?

Wallace: (gargling sound)

Media: Gerald, what do you have planned for Saturday night?

Wallace: (closes eyes)

Then, he speaks. It isn’t a complete sentence, only a run-on, but progress is progress, right?

He speaks of his goal in the contest.

Wallace: Try not to get hurt, try not to pull anything.

Scene 2: The confused, inner workings of my mind, used as a vehicle to hopefully portray everyone’s thoughts.
Enter: Memories

Thing is, I love dunk contests. Have since seventh grade. Back then, I didn’t really know anything about them. I had seen the Sportscenter highlights of Julius Erving leaping from the free throw line, and Michael Jordan leaping from the free throw line, and Brent Barry leaping from the free throw line.

The old tapes left me with a lingering thought: How exactly did Brent Barry win a dunk contest? But that uncertainty never led me to watch one.

Before classes started at Holy Spirit grade school, we would sit around the desks in our white uniform shirts and dark Dockers slacks and discuss the weekend, our distaste for our teacher, Mrs. McKinzie, or I don’t know, just talk about whatever seventh graders talk about.

On a Monday morning in February, a friend began talking about Vince Carter and the dunk contest from Saturday night. I, like most of the seventh grade class, had spent that evening at Chili Bingo.*

*The Cub Scouts put on Chili Bingo every year. It was the social event of a lifetime, along with the Pinewood Derby, for sixth, seventh and eighth graders. You ate Chili, and you attempted to talk with girls, and you played Blackout for a $100 reward, and you bought tickets for door prizes.

That seventh-grade year, I won a door prize. There were two choices left. I can’t remember the other one, but I decided to grab a video titled “Golf With Steve J.” Steve J, apparently, was so well-known that he didn’t even need to endorse his instructional videos with his surname.

This friend, Drew, didn’t go that night. He watched the dunk contest.

Drew spoke, admiringly, about Vince Carter and how he bounced the ball, grabbed it mid-air and brought it between his legs before dunking, all in one motion.

Someway or another, I think, I ended up seeing those highlights. I was amazed. Carter did the legs thing, and he stuck his full arm down the rim. He also twisted his body the opposite way most people would on his way to a 180 or something.

I wanted to watch dunk contests. All of them.

I watched David Lee, at the McDonald’s All-American game, bounce the ball, then take off his red jersey, then grab the ball and do a reverse slam to win that contest. I watched some sort of Kansas City high school all star showcase that probably no longer exists. Jeff Hawkins tried to dunk in it. He didn’t do so well. Jamar Howard won, jumping over a few young children before doing a one-handed slam.

I watched those as often as I could, and I also watched the NCAA dunk contests. I bought this VHS tape called “Ball Above All.” Among other cool basketball moves, it featured a high-school-aged James White, who I still believe is the greatest dunker of all time.

And, of course, I watched the NBA dunk contests, starting in eighth grade.

I sat in our half-finished, always-cold basement and looked on as DeShawn Stevenson completed something called the “Off the Heezy for Sheezy” dunk; as Baron Davis cut eyeholes in his headband and pulled it down over his eyes for a dunk; as Desmond Mason jumped over a crouched Rashard Lewis in what was good enough for the victory.

Kenny Smith complained the whole time. He complained that they weren’t even “sweating.” Not sure how perspiration helps with the gripping of a ball, but you get the point. The dunk contest had lost its luster. That’s what everyone said, and they would continue saying it over the years.

The NBA started calling it the Rising Stars Dunk Contest for a while, thinking they could convince us that Fred Jones would become someone we might not confuse with Tom Jones. Players like Jonathan Bender and Corey Magette competed. Vince Carter would never return, nor would Tracy McGrady or Kobe Bryant.

I didn’t care. I enjoyed that 2001 dunk contest, and I continued to watch them in high school and college.

I remember the infamous dunk wheel. I remember Andre Igoudala completing the greatest dunk of all time, where he jumped from behind the goal, and then e-mailing one of my NBA-loving professors the next day just to talk about it.

The contestants always smiled and laughed. They wore Superman suits and they blew out candles on frosted cupcakes.

Celebrities like Usher and Puff Daddy watched from courtside, mere mortals as giddy as anyone watching from home. They watched the same way we all did.

I knew I would never be able to dunk. Even if I lowered our driveway basketball goal to 7 ½ feet and used a miniature ball, I couldn’t do a 360 or even a 180.

These athletes could do it on regulation goals, and once a year they would put on a show so we could admire the creativity, the grace, the way they had to exercise caution to prevent their foreheads from banging into the rim when they floated up there.

We could watch an already impossible display of athleticism become fortified with tricks and showmanship when we watched them. That’s why I loved dunk contests.

Scene 3: Saturday’s contest, at the American Airlines Center
Enter the valiant contestants, Craig Sager’s screaming suit and unfortunate Cheryl Miller.

Wolf* Blitzer walks down the aisle of American Airlines Center and takes a courtside seat in the third row. Darryl Dawkins, in a suit ostentatious by everyone’s standards except for Craig Sager, sits next to Dominique Wilkins and Robert Horry, looking very Fresh Prince-esque, in the first row on the court, diagonally in front of Blitzer. Spike Lee has a courtside seat across the floor from them.

*Who would have thought? A blog post that includes two people named after Wolves.

Saturday is officially here. Dunk contest night. This is about star-studded glitz, through your-legs-flash, off the heezy for sheezy power.

Let’s have Gerald Wallace explain to Cheryl Miller and the whole arena the exact superlatives that this contest is about.

Miller (talking to Wallace at halfcourt on the loudspeaker): How much creativity will it take to get by Robinson?

Wallace: I don’t know.

Yep, that’s how it all starts on Saturday night. Gerald Wallace, looking like he just stumbled off the set of Half-Baked, says his first complete sentence of the weekend.

You might guess that now the crowd is ready to erupt. NBA dunk contest excitement, after all, had already reared its head a month earlier courtesy of Robinson and LeBron.

Robinson, the two-time winner and former “rising” star like Fred Jones, told New York media that he didn’t want compete. He would compete, though, because he had had to.* He certainly didn’t desire the championship, and he said this.

*Someone later explained to Robinson that this was not the case. He did not HAVE to compete. At this point, though, he had already committed.

LeBron, apparently, didn’t either. Captivated by Dwight Howard and Robinson in 2009, he made an on-air promise to Miller that he would compete in the Dallas 2010 contest. The NBA’s greatest theater would again have its King, the great James.

When January rolled around and the NBA asked for a commitment…uh, not so much.

LeBron’s spurn left the league in a predicament. It needed a fourth dunker. But we all know how the NBA reacts to predicaments. It creates the Dunk-In, a wonderful televised event for “rising” stars to introduce themselves.

DeMar DeRozan wins this over Eric Gordon and says he hasn’t lost a dunk contest since the ninth grade, a Roman-Empire-grand period of domination that has lasted all of five years.

So there you have it. Saturday’s storylines: Will DeRozan preserve his Ripken-esque streak, will Nate Robinson have to accept the inconvenience of winning another contest, will Shannon Brown show off his “rising” star-ness, will Gerald Wallace do his best Gerald Green impression and place a weed brownie on the rim so he can blow out the candle?

DeRozan is the first contestant to dunk, the first one with the opportunity to build on the fervor started by Wallace’s announcement.

He completes a been-there-done-that reverse, going through his legs after jumping from under the goal. He scores a 42, and the on-court announcer says DeRozan is setting the tone. Oh my.

Next up is Shannon Brown. Brown actually seems like he wouldn’t rather be spending his millions of dollars on one of the strippers that were flown into Dallas solely for this All Star Weekend. He got into the dunk contest because of fans. They started a Web site, LetShannonDunk.com, petitioning for his spot.

His story line actually is interesting. Like Jason Richardson or Desmond Mason in the past, he really has the opportunity to spice up a contest that on paper looks like a dud.

Brown fails on a running dunk from midcourt. Then he jumps, and in mid-air switches from his right hand to his left hand for a dunk. Uh-oh.

Wallace is now up. Uh-oh, indeed. He performs a standard reverse dunk. Repeat. He performs a standard reverse dunk.

On-court announcer: Wallace, with the old-school!

Time for Robinson, time for Krypto-Nate, time for the one of the smallest, most creative dunkers we’ve seen. He gulps energy gel on the court. OK, this looks promising. Then he begins his run to the hoop and completes an average two-handed dunk off the bounce.

It may just have been a coincidence but the arena’s giant TV screen shows Spike Lee. He’s covering his eyes.

I look over at Blitzer. He’s tinkering with his phone.

We know what happens after this. DeRozan finishes a nifty, 50 dunk after taking a pass from the side of the backboard, but the pass, from Sonny Weems, seems more remarkable. Brown fails again. Wallace decides to go even more old school and shoots a jump shot on his next turn. Robinson wins because he asks Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders to stand next to him on the court for seven seconds.

Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, I can only guess, must be ravenous with disgust. Blogs and columns will be all over this. Where’s Vince Carter? Where’s Kobe? The dunk contest is dead, again.

But there is progress. This dunk contest isn’t all about nothing. In the media room afterwards, with Robinson sitting next to his trophy, the Fox Sideline Reporter Law of Questioning is finally broken.

Media: Nate, are you going to try and go for a fourth title.

Robinson: No, no, no. I can’t bear that anymore.

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