Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tales from the Final Four

The NCAA Final Four is the ultimate competition in team championships. Bar none. No other sport compares to the the magic of "March Madness."

I have been fortunate to actually attend two Final Fours and headed to my third this weekend in Houston.

As such, I thought I would recount my first Final Four experience and guarantee unless you are a close personal friend, you've never heard this story before.

Dateline: Kansas City--April 4, 1988

It all started eight years earlier in August of 1980. The month I started college in Baldwin City, Kansas at Baker University. Oh I went on a partial baseball scholarship and lots of student Pell grants-in-aid, but I would be lying if I didn't say the allure of living 30-minutes from professional sports in Kansas City and 10-minutes from the University of Kansas in Lawrence didn't factor into the equation.

At tiny Baker, you were either fat, played sports or were on financial aid. If you were fat and on financial aid, you were from Coffeyville and considered a LOSER! Baldwin City is the size of my current neighborhood in Dallas. The student body was only 900. Baker was the first private university in Kansas, one of the top leading independent, private schools in the county and basically a one-horse town. Literally.

So, if you were of the adventuresome type, all bright-eyed and bushy tailed, like me, in the fall of 1980 you spent alot of time in Kansas City or Lawrence!

And, back in 1980, if you lived in or around Lawrence or Kansas City you lived for Jayhawk basketball. The land of Phog Allen and located smack in the middle of the heartland's breadbasket, literally bled Jayhawk red, yellow and blue. I want to be perfectly clear that I think that any school whose mascot is a fictional bird shouldn't be taken seriously. Unless, that schools' team played in Allen Fieldhouse on the campus of the University of Kansas.

So, I know all about the mystique and power of the brand called "Rockchalk Jayhawk." My bona fides include the 1980 KU vs. OU football game and experiencing firsthand a legendary KU "cup fight." (NOTE: It's what KU students do during football games to take their minds off the lopsided scores by the opponents on the football field.)

I have spent more than my share of nights at the bar just off Jayhawk Boulevard called The Wheel than I can remember. If you've spent any time in Lawrence, you know what I mean!

I've slept in the "cold" quarters of the Kappa Sigma house just west of Kansas Memorial Stadium on a below freezing October night ("Cold" sleeping quarters meant the floor with bunk beds without any heat and the windows open. It gets really cold in Lawrence, Kansas in October. Trust me.)

I've attended the legendary Kansas Relays track and field championships in Memorial Stadium. It's really a big deal!

I've sat on the metal bleacher seats in Kansas Memorial Stadium in 1986 on a really cold October afternoon in a driving snow blizzard and stayed until the final snap watching my beloved Oklahoma Sooners pound Kansas in football 64-3!

I had my very own Kansas University library card and have spent more nights than I can remember studying in the stacks of the library entering during daylight and departing many hours after sunset.

I enrolled at the University of Kansas in the spring of 1981, had an off-campus apartment and was ready for orientation until the head baseball coach retired and former Kansas City Royals pitcher Marty Pattin arrived from a Junior College in Kansas and brought his staring catcher with him to Lawrence.

And, I have played baseball on Jayhawk Field against the mighty Jayhawks at least a dozen times and quite frankly am in the University of Kansas Baseball Almanac. You see, I was the starting catcher for the Baker Wildcats and it was my called fastball high and inside that KU starting third baseman Russ Blaylock sent 425' over the center field fence to set the Big 8 single season home run record at 16 in 1981. Look it up. It stood until a youngster at Oklahoma State named Pete Incavilgia smashed the record in Stillwater a few years later.

And, my most memorable experience in Lawrence occured on spring break in February of 1981. The Baker Wildcats were scheduled for a spring break trip through southern Missouri eventually ending up in Fayettteville, Arkansas for a doubleheader against the Arkansas Razorbacks.

However, with two days to kill, myself and three of my teammates headed to Lawrence to kill some time. What did 19-year olds in Lawrence, Kansas do on spring break in 1981? We cruised down Massachussetts Avenue, the main drag in Lawrence.

With me were three teammates from South Florida. I made the mistake of driving. As we were sitting in front of a red light waiting for the light to change, Jack, a pitcher from Coral Gables, decided to reach into the front seat and honk my horn. The only problem was there were two Jayhawk "softball" players walking across the street as the horn honked. The next thing I knew "Mary Jane" from the softball team was offended by the impromptu car horn and was hopping on top of my hood severely denting my car.

Finally, although I never made it to Allen Field House for an actual Jayhawk basketball game, I did attend the "Kansas" concert inside the vaunted arena in 1981. How much better does it get for a 19-year old to hear the band Kansas in Kansas!

So, I know Lawrence, Kansas and the mystique of the Jayhawks!

Opening Day 1988

It just so happened in 1988 that the NCAA National Championship basketball game occurred on opening day of Major League Baseball!

And, yes, I was there. My fraternity brother from OU and friend Paul Britton was a petroleum engineer with Conoco-Phillips and was living in Kansas City overseeing a pipeline project in Kansas City. I was living in Oklahoma City and bound and determined to get to Kansas City if the Sooners made it that far.

The only problem was I had to ask off work that weekend. That's right. I worked at an advertising agency and had just been there one year. It was expected you worked on Saturdays. So although some of you might find it a bit odd to have to ask off work on the weekend, that was standard business for me. Fortunately my boss Bruce Anderson allowed me to take off Saturday to attend the Final Four with one caveat: if OU lost Saturday I would have my ass back at work at 8:30 a.m. sharp Monday morning! And, he bet me $20 OU would lose! More on that later.

A little backtracking. If you grew up in Oklahoma in the 1970's and witnessed the Switzer-Juggernaut on the football field, you barely knew the Sooners had a basketball team.

However, all that changed in the fall of 1982, when a youngster named Wayman Tisdale from Tulsa Booker T. Washington High School arrived on the OU campus. Wayman Tisdale was Michael Jordan, Carmello Anthony and LeBron James all rolled into one. Seriously. And he chose to play basketball in Norman, Oklahoma. Home of the Sooners. You know them. Wilkinson, Davis, Washington, Selmon, Switzer and the boys won a total of 5 National Championships in football before the basketball team ever made a noise.

Until, BillyBall arrived. You see about the time Wayman Tisdale arrived on campus a little smirky, arrogant, smart-assed coach named Billy Tubbs arrived at the same time. Together, they put Oklahoma basketball on the map.

Suddenly, the ticket you could not have given away in 1981 to any event in Lloyd Noble Arena, could not be had in 1982. Wayman, Billy and the boys revolutionized Oklahoma basketball and threatened to equal the greatness Bud and Barry had taken 30 years to create on the gridiron.

Wayman Tisdale and Billy Tubbs singlehandedly resurrected a dormant Oklahoma basketball team and made Thursday nights and Saturday mornings in February something special in Norman. Suddenly student tickets that guaranteed baseline seats the season before didn't guarantee anything let alone a seat unless you sent the entire Kappa Sigma pledge class to Lloyd Noble Arena at 9 a.m. to reserve a general admission seat for the 2:30 p.m. Big 8 Game of the Week vs. Missouri!

Top that off with an irreverent coach named Billy with a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas and possibly the greatest basketball player from Oklahoma ever playing on the home court and you had "Sooner Magic" on the hardwoods.

How great was Wayman Tisdale? He scored 51 points in just his seventh game in Norman, shattered Wilt Chamberlain's Big 8 rebounding record and led the Sooners to a 24-9 record his freshman season. He was and still remains the only three-time AP All-American in history as a Freshman, Sophomore and Junior.

My favorite memory remains the time Coach Tubbs grabbed the microphone during a Missouri game against famed coach Norm Stewart and reminded the raucous Sooner fans, "Please refrain from throwing anything on the court regardless how bad the officiating gets!" Classic Billy Tubbs!

Fast-Forward Kansas City 1988

So here we were all these years later on Monday, April 4, 1988 first-base box seats in Royals Stadium for Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season: Kansas City Royals vs. The Toronto Blue Jays!

Sunny, 80-degree weather. Not a cloud in the sky. Bo Jackson, Bo knows nothing about baseball, George Bell, George Brett, and a beer an inning! Does it get any better than this?

George Bell would set a Major League Baseball record homerun in three consecutive at bats on opening day and the Blue Jays went on to defeat the Royals 5-3.

So, after the game, my friend Paul Britton and I headed to the Country Club Plaza Hotel where the Oklahoma Sooners were staying looking for Final Four tickets.

The game didn't start until 8 p.m. but we didn't have any tickets and were looking for a hook-up from the OU ticket lady I had met the night before at a pep rally for the Sooners.

Of course, she was nowhere to be found at 5:30 p.m. in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel. NOTE: I am intentionally omitting the scene behing the hotel with a security guard but a beer and inning at the baseball game can let your imagination run wild! However, after a brief search we looked up and to our surprise what did we see? The entire University of Oklahoma basketball team milling around in the lobby headed to Kemper Arena. And right in the middle, who else but their fearless leader: Billy Tubbs.

I didn't let the moment pass. I went right up to Coach Tubbs and shook his hand, patted him on the back and wished him luck against the Jayhawks. No big deal. Except for the coach of the #1 seed Sooners who had previously beaten Kansas twice in the regular season was as tight as a catholic virgin schoolgirl at a fraternity rush party! You could have bounced a quarter a mile high off his back. The irreverent, smart-ass had wilted into an uptight nervous-nelly two and a half hours before the most important basketball game of his and the university's life!

My immediate reaction: "Oh shit. We're *&%@#!"

My friend Paul, the engineer, would have none of my nonsense. "You're making a big deal out of nothing!" So we headed to our apartment across the Country Club Plaza and reaffirmed my worst nightmare a few minutes later.

As we sat at a red light waiting in traffic, I glanced to the right and saw three men standing over the bridge overlooking one of the creeks in the Country Club Plaza. NOTE: If you're from Tulsa, think Utica Square. From Dallas: think Highland Park Village. You know what I mean. The only thing noticeable about these three men was that one of them appeared to be 7' tall and black. You see, 7' tall black men aren't normally the scenery anywhere but let alone in the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City!

A closer look revealed that the tall black man was Ed Manning. Who? Ed Manning. Former NBA basketball player whose son Danny was a 6'11" star at the University of Kansas. Look closer. The small, white man without any shoes, wearing shorts and his shirt untucked looked a helluva lot like Larry Brown. The Kansas Jayhawks head basketball coach. Oh shit. My worst nightmare was true. Two hours before the NCAA National Championship basketball game, Billy Tubbs the head coach of the #1 seed Oklahoma Sooners was as tight as ever and his opponent was feeding the ducks!

Are you kidding me?

"We're totally *&$#@!" now!

Paul the pragmatic, engineer, said "You're overreacting. Shut up and drive."

The Road to Kemper Arena Would Be A Dangerous One!

So drive we did. Back to our friends' apartment on the Plaza. Showered. Changed clothes and headed to Kemper Arena for the National Championship. Oklahoma vs. Kansas. Ticketless.

The fact the NCAA National Championship game was being contested in Kansas City in the heart of Jayhawk country did not faze me. We had beaten Kansas twice in the regular season, were #1 seeds out of the Southeast regional, had scored 107 points on 1986 NCAA Champion Louisville during the tournament and beaten Villanova in the Regional Final. And, we handled the mighty Arizona Wildcats and legendary coach Lute Olsen easily on Saturday night.

This wasn't just a basketball game it was was going to be a coronation. The day the Oklahoma Sooners basketball team won their first NCAA title on the hardcourts. The pioneer days of Wayman Tisdale were about to be rewarded for this bunch of Sooners all future first-round NBA draft choices: Lawton-native Stacy King, Harvey Grant and Mookie Blaylock. Our days of suffering were about to end against one of the legendary basketball programs of all-time: the Kansas Jayhawks.

So we stopped at every ATM machine in Kansas City on the way from the Country Club Plaza to Kemper Arena. Now, anyone who knows Kansas City knows that this route was not one that two white boys from Oklahoma should be stopping let alone getting out of their cars to empty ATM machines!

But we made it unscathed, loaded with cash and arrived at Kemper Arena in the venerable Kansas City Stockyards about an hour before tip-off.

Pete Maravich Autograph for $500

At first glance, Kemper Arena didn't look any different than any other of a dozen visits I had made as a freshman in college watching the Kansas City Kings of the NBA. Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons had led a team of misfits to the NBA playoffs that year losing to the eventual NBA runner-ups the Houston Rockets in the NBA Western Conference Finals. A team lead by Otis Birdsong, Phil Ford and Scott Wedman would lose to Moses Malone, Rudy Tomjanovich and Calvin Murphy.

I had spent many nights watching those Kings teams play during the 1980-81 season against the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and many other NBA teams and knew Kemper Arena like the back of my hand.

So after a few nervous moments and a few trips around Kemper, I suddenly realized, we were up a creek without a paddle. No tickets were to be had.

You see Kemper Arena only holds 19,000 for basketball. And, when you show up at 7:15 p.m. without tickets you get a little nervous.

I made one lap around the arena the only bite I received was a $500 Pete Maravich autograph. So I continued around the arena and the next bite I received was a concessionnaire inside Kemper. He wanted to sell me his photo ID for $50. The only problem was LeRoy was black and I surely would not pass the attendant with a Food Service ID.

Now it was 7:45 p.m. and Paul was feeling a bit nervous. He didn't fly all the way back from Houston and drive all the way down to Kemper Arena to watch the game in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel--as he repeatedly reminded me!

So, one more pass around the arena revealed an OU ticket representative inside the porte cochere of Kemper. She was the same lady who sold me my ticket for Saturday night's OU win over Arizona. So I went right up to her, showed her my OU ring and said, "I have to be in this game or he won't ever let me live it down!"

As on cue, she turned to a man in an NCAA blazer and told her this was the man who came by earlier. He nodded and reached inside his blazer pocket and removed an envelope. The lady pulled out two tickets and sold them to us at face value. But before she would release the tickets she had a word for me: take these tickets and promise you will go right inside to the game. I told her that as soon as she released the tickets we would go inside before she could say OU!

She released the tickets and we jumped through the turnstiles up the stairs to first row seats in the upper deck behind the basket just as the ball was tossed for tip-off!

Danny And The Miracles

However, it was not a good night for the Sooners.

After a scintillating, NCAA record first half, the score was tied 50-50. How many points was this half worth? Consider Saturday nights national semifinal featuring Connecticut vs. Kentucky was won 56-55 by the Huskies!

After a blazing run and gun first half that favored the up tempo Sooners, Kansas Head Coach Larry Brown implemented his "feeding the ducks" strategy and smoked the red hot Sooners by slowing the game down to a half-court coaching lesson.

The rest of the game would feature perhaps the best coaching job in NCAA Final Four history as Brown's road to Kansas' second NCAA title would be placed in the hands of his best player: Danny Manning.

The Jayhawks would ride Manning's 31 points and 18 rebounds to defeat the powerhouse Sooners 83-79.

The best season in Oklahoma basketball history would end with a heart-breaking upset at the hands of their Big 8 rival who they had defeated twice during the regular season.

Hail To The Jayhawks

So stunned and disappointed we were faced with a choice: go home and pout or change from Sooner crimson to Jayhawk red and celebrate with the Kansas faithful in Kansas City. We decided to go "Rockchalk Jayhawk!"

A quick trip to Westport, a popular nightspot in Kansas City, and we joined the throng of thousands who were celebrating a Kansas victory just 40-miles from the KU campus in what OU coach Billy Tubbs would later declare, "Allen Fieldhouse East."

Kansas fans partied til the wee hours of the morning overturning cars, climbing up telephone poles getting pelted by beer cans and tossing bottles from the rooftops. Poor Greg Larson. Our fraternity brother Joes' older sibling from St. Joseph, Missouri. He made the mistake of loaning us his Kansas City apartment and regrettably tagged along as our designated driver after the game.

Little did he know that he would soon be huddling with Paul and me behind a portable pizza truck as we ducked the incoming beer bottles that were being hurled indiscriminately from the rooftops at no one in particular. We just happened to be right in the middle of harms way.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. The Kansas City police soon cleared the area on horseback and we all mosied back to our cars and home. The Sooners did not win but deep down I was glad if it had to happen, it couldn't have been to a better opponent than the Kansas Jayhawks.

Oh, and about my boss. When I arrived back in the office on Tuesday morning I found a 3' x 6' banner stretched across my office window that said: "Rockchalk Jayhawk-- KU 83 OU 79!" Bruce was in my office soon afterwards to collect his $20 bet.

The True Meaning of Friendship

Today is April 4, 2011. The 23rd anniversary of that dramatic first Final Four that my buddy Paul Britton and I shared together.

Today, Paul is married to his college sweetheart and soulmate and beautiful bride Meg with three lovely children and a wonderful family.

This weekend we have reunited for another Final Four in Houston where Paul and Meg live. They have graciously welcomed me into their lovely home and we have had a blast reconnecting.

Our careers have led us in different directions from our days in Norman but we have shared some memorable times together from his wedding in Wawatosa, Wisconsin in 1986, to Meg's sisters wedding in San Francisco in 1992 to a reconnection a few years ago in Dallas for OU/Texas weekend. Along the way we travelled in different directions all across the globe to Norway where Pauls' daughter Eli was born while he and Meg lived there, to China where we adopted our daughter Lucy and now back to Texas.

One thing the Final Four has taught me is that as important as sports are to our social fabric, as much money as it brings to the NCAA and CBS, and as many office pools as it generates worldwide, one thing you can't measure is the impact of true friendship that is shared through common sports experiences.

You find as you get older the memories and friendships you make in college grow deeper with every passing year. You yearn for those days in the sun of your youth only to realize life gets interrupted with work responsibilities and the routine of every day life.

As the great Ferris Bueller said in 1986: "Life moves pretty fast sometimes. If you don't stop and look around, you might miss it."

In a few hours Paul, Meg, Eli, Ryan and me will all get in the car and drive a few miles away to Reliant Stadium. There we will see if Connecticut can win its third national title or whether the upstart Butler Bulldogs will pull off another upset of a powerhouse basketball program.

Regardless of the outcome or whether the game can match the one for the ages we witnessed firsthand in Kemper Arena 23 years ago, we will certainly enjoy sharing our experience with his wonderful family.

Friendships are the stuff life is made of and tonight will be a memory his children will hopefully share with their children someday, too.

And, hopefull it won't take another 23 years for us to all get together and celebrate our love and friendship for one another.

My daughter Lucy's Chinese homeland has a word called "Guanxi" which loosely means the glue that holds families together through lifes' common experiences.

I am glad the the "glue" that has held Paul and my friendship together only grows stronger every year and is one we now share with our families.