Tag Archives: Kansas basketball

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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The story of Self

LAWRENCE | The story begins here, on Naismith Drive on a bitterly cold December night.

Start here, on the sidewalk, with a college freshman decked out in a blue T-shirt.

Can you see him? He’s walking fast, among a pack of disgusted fans. He is furious, talking nonstop to no one in particular.

“That was embarrassing,” he says.

The throng of fans, a jagged line of bundled-up fans, leads all the way back to the front of Allen Fieldhouse.

It is dark. And it is winter. And the Kansas basketball team has just lost a heartbreaker — 72-70 to Nevada on the first night of December in 2005.

“Are you kidding me?” the kid in the blue T-shirt says. “Nevada? Are you kidding?”

The pack of fans is quiet. There is no response. There is no reason to.

They had all seen the same thing. A lanky kid named Nick Fazekas had ravaged the Kansas defense for 35 points. And with the loss, Kansas had been humbled again.

They had started the season 2-3. But, of course, there was more.

This was Bill Self’s third season, his first without the leftover mainstays from the Williams era.

Simien, Langford and Miles were gone. J.R. Giddens had the left program, too. And his departure — the muddied result of a stabbing incident at a Lawrence club — had left a stain on the program

Can you see the freshman in the blue T-shirt?

“Nevada, are you serious?”

But, of course, there was more. Just eight months earlier, a 3rd-seeded Kansas team had fallen to Bucknell — yes, Bucknell — in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

And dating back to Feb. 14, 2005, Bill Self’s Jayhawks were 5-9 in the program’s last 14 games.

So can you see him, the kid on Naismith Drive? Can you hear him?

“It’s Bill Self, man,” he says. “This guy can’t coach.”

******

I thought of that story on Monday, as Kansas dismantled Texas 80-68 in Austin to improve to 23-1 and 9-0 in the Big 12.

How did we get here? How did we get from that angry young freshman on Naismith Drive to here.

Here, Bill Self is coaching the No. 1 team in the country. Here, Self is on track to lead the Jayhawks to their sixth-straight Big 12 title. Here, Self and Kansas are just 22 months removed from a National Championship — 22 months removed from The Shot.

KU has an All-American candidate at point guard, an All-American candidate at center, and a future first-round draft pick on the wing.

And on Saturday, Self and Kansas will welcome Iowa State to Allen Fieldhouse — a building in which they’ve won 55 straight games.

And so Kansas will most likely win, and Bill Self will win his 400th career game.

How did we get here? How did Bill Self, at age 47, become the best college basketball coach in America?

There is no easy answer. Yes, Self can recruit. And yes, Self can coach. And so yes, Self wins.

But there has to be more to it, right?

There is no easy answer — but there are moments.

So let’s take a trip back in time, before Sherron cemented his place in history, before Cole Aldrich’s NCAA tournament triple-double, before Mario’s shot, before Brandon Rush tore his ACL, before Bradley and Bucknell… before it all.

*****

On the day we met Bill Self, the city of Lawrence was still in mourning, still reeling from the national championship game loss to Syracuse, and still in shock that Roy Williams was gone.

Roy? Gone? It was supposed to be forever, wasn’t it?

The press conference happened on a Monday — April 21, 2003 — one week after Williams boarded that private jet for Chapel Hill and said that he was a “Tar heel born” and he’d be a “Tar Heel dead”

One week after Wayne Simien stood outside Allen Fieldhouse and, with his emotions flowing, told reporters that he’d “given his arm” for Williams.

So with the wounds still gaping, with the heartache still fresh, Bill Self showed up in Lawrence and introduced himself.

“It’s a tough act to follow,” Self would say, mentioning Williams’ legacy of success. “But you know something, Larry Brown was a tough act to follow… And Ted Owens went to two Final Fours and was a tough act to follow… and Phog Allen was a very tough act to follow… and the guy who started it all, is the toughest of all acts to follow, Dr. Naismith.”

Self was the guy Kansas had wanted. And now they had their man. But there seemed to be one collective thought among Kansas people after Self’s first press conference.

Man, this guy sure does stutter a lot.

*****

So how did we get here?

Here’s another story about Bill Self.

Perhaps it will help us on our journey. Perhaps it won’t.

But if you squint really hard, you just might just be able to find the exact moment that Bill Self made the KU program his own.

The moment that Bill Self stopped being “that guy who took over for ROY WILLIAMS” — and instead, Roy Williams became “that guy who was at Kansas before BILL SELF”.

The moment came six weeks after the painful loss to Nevada.

KU was 10-4 at the time, and the freshman trio of Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Julian Wright was still finding its way.*

But after losing to Saint Joseph’s at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 6, the Jayhawks had churned out six wins in a row, including a 73-46 mugging of Kentucky.

There was hope.

*As you probably remember, the fourth freshman that year, Micah Downs, skipped out and headed back home to Washington during Winter break.

But that hope would soon diminish as Bill Self — the man who couldn’t coach, the man who lost at home to Nevada, the man who wasn’t Roy — would have his worst weekend at KU.

It started on Saturday, January 14th, when a Jim Woolridge-coached Kansas State squad would walk into Allen Fieldhouse and beat Kansas 59-55. The loss would snap KU’s 31-game winning streak against K-State.

“It is disappointing,” Self would say, “because we are a better team than what we played today.”

Two days later, Kansas would travel down to Columbia, Mo., to play Mizzou on Big Monday.

This was the Christian Moody game.

Yes, you remember. With the score tied with 0.4 seconds left in regulation, Moody — the player whom Bill Packer called the “greatest walk-on ever” — had two free throws to win the game.

He clanked both.

Of course, this was also the game that Thomas Gardner would score 40 points.

That Missouri loss would drop Kansas to 10-6 and 1-2 in the Big 12.

You could hear the whispers. They circulated in dorm rooms and fraternity basements and on message boards.

Will this team even make the tournament? Does Bill Self know what he’s doing? Can this guy coach?

*****

We can’t know for sure what happened after that Missouri game. We just can’t.

But we do know this number — and it’s staggering.

Since KU lost in overtime to Missouri, Bill Self is 135-19

Yes, 135-19 — He’s won 87.6 percent of his games.

Of course, the numbers don’t stop there. And if you look closely, the numbers point to Bill Self being the best coach in college basketball.

During the six-plus seasons Self has been at the helm, Kansas is 192-41 (an 82.4 winning percentage)

During the same period, Roy Williams is 189-48 at North Carolina. Coach K is 190-44 at Duke. Jim Calhoun is 172-55* at Connecticut.

*We should note that John Calipari, who won many games at Memphis before taking over at Kentucky before this season, is 203-39 during the same period. Of course, we’ll also point out that Calipari racked up nearly half of those wins playing in a picked-over Conference USA.

There are other numbers to look at. Yes, Ol’ Roy won national titles in 2005 and 2009, and Billy Donovan won two at Florida, and Calhoun won another title at UConn in 2004.

But how about this?

Bill Self is 47 years old, and he will win his 400th game this season. We can’t know the future. We can’t know if he will eventually move to the NBA, or if he’ll eventually lose the passion to recruit and replenish his program.

But let’s assume that Bill Self stays at the college level for the next 10 years. And let’s say he averages 25 wins* per season.

If he does that, he’ll have more than 650 wins by age 57.

*It might be a little conservative to say that he’s going to win 25 wins per seasons. He’s averaged 28 wins over his first six seasons, and he’ll surely win more than that this year.

*****

Let’s end here, outside Allen Fieldhouse — the place it where it all began. Let’s walk on Naismith Drive, let’s walk past Phog Allen’s statue, and let’s go inside and see the 2008 National Championship trophy.

There’s a great story about Bill Self.

It was the morning after the Memphis game, the morning after The Shot, the morning after the confetti had dropped.

Self had a morning press conference in the Alamodome. Russell Robinson and Sasha Kaun were there, too.

They were still holding the NCAA championship trophy.

Self talked about how’d he been woken by a phone call from the president. He talked about how the team had celebrated together at the team hotel. And he tried to explain how the past night had changed his life.

And then he brought up a conversation that he’d had the night before with assistant coach Joe Dooley.

“Coach,” Dooley had said. “We got to find a way to do this again.”

Of course, the NCAA tournament can be the cruelest of sporting events.

Kansas fans know this better than anyone. But right now, it seems likely that in March, KU will be favored to win its second title in three years.

Bill Self is doing it again.

And one day, when it all ends, Bill Self will be one tough act to follow.

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