The Big 8 Tournament runs through my veins, and even though that was replaced by the Big 12 tournament, I feel tonight like a big part of me is leaving for good. If you grew up in Kansas City during the 70’s and 80’s, well, that’s just part of the deal. I grew up in the era of Billy Tubbs and Mookie Blaylock, Steve Henson and Mitch Richmond, Jeff Grayer and Jeff Hornacek, Danny Manning, and Derrick Chievous’ bandaid.
Before I ever watched or cared about basketball, I was aware of the arrival of the Big 8 tournament on a magical weekend every March. My family was from Oklahoma, and we had relatives that attended OU and would come up every March and stay at my grandparent’s house during the tournament. That was in the days when Wayman Tisdale was dominating the conference and Billy Tubbs had a football school going crazy over basketball.
And you may not believe this now, but for a brief moment, I was also a Kansas Jayhawk fan. Kansas fans are spoiled now by success and McDonald’s All-Americans and having supposed down years when they have the national player of the year. That wasn’t the case in 1985. Kansas wasn’t the phenomenon it is now. They hadn’t been particularly good for the previous decade until Larry Brown arrived, and Danny Manning signed, so when that 1986 team hit, it was a huge deal and swept the city as they surged to a #1 seed.
I was an eleven year old boy living in Northeast Kansas City, and I was just starting to play basketball with the adults at the church gym. A young Danny Manning may have been on that team, but my guy was Ron Kellogg. I would pretend to be Ron Kellogg as I shot left-handed baseline jumpers.
I don’t know why I didn’t stick as a fan, something about the precociousness of a young boy, I suppose. Maybe I was just a Ron Kellogg fan and he was no longer there. I had no personal ties to any University in the area, no family that were alums, nobody pressuring me to like one team over the other. The next year, though, I became a Missouri fan for life. That team wasn’t expected to do much, but I remember the exact point, a Saturday in January against Oklahoma State, that I became a fan.
A year later, I was a scared twelve year old getting ready to go through big changes. My family was in the process of moving out of the home where I had lived all my life, and moving to a new house in the suburbs. I was going from a small private school to a big public one, and by April, I would be staying at my grandparents’ house while we finished our new one. So my constant became seeking out those basketball games on weekends, watching the Tigers. It was like a novel, and it kept drawing me in, never failing to deliver drama. By the time freshman Lee Coward hit the game winning three pointer to beat Kansas, I was on board. I watched as they won close at Oklahoma State, and then went to Kansas State to win the league.
By the time the Big 8 tournament rolled around, I was hooked. I watched that Sunday afternoon when Lee Coward did it again.
Sports are uncertain, they are drama, and they don’t always follow the narrative. For a few months, though, it delivered over and over for a young boy. Thirty-seven year old me would probably tell twelve-year old me that teams that win close games aren’t probably going to continue, and are a tad overrated. Twelve-year old me fell in love with those wins, though. And yes, they came crashing down in the NCAA tournament against Xavier, and I cried.
I cried a year later, when Derrick Chievous’ career ended in another NCAA upset to Rhode Island. Two weeks later, the Final Four was in Kansas City, and it was a monumental occasion. Kansas and Oklahoma were both in it, along with Duke and Arizona. My dad took me to the Friday shoot-around, and I got to see Sean Elliott, Danny Ferry, Stacey King and Danny Manning. I also bought a Final Four program there, and that became my obsession. I took it home, studied it, memorized everything in it, from Bob Kurland to Austin Carr to Rollie Massimino. I played imaginary games in my driveway pitting former tournament champs, and learned all the stories.
And I threw myself into Big 8 hoops and Missouri. I watched the next year as another lefty, Anthony Peeler, captured me. I remember an amazing preseason NIT tournament involving North Carolina and Syracuse. I watched as Billy Tubbs got T’ed up for inciting the crowd at Lloyd Noble. (and man, do I miss those 100-95 track meets from that era). I was ecstatic when Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma were all ranked #1 in 1990, and Missouri went into Lawrence in a #1 versus #2 game and won. I was despondent when that team collapsed at season’s end and lost to Colorado in the Big 8 tournament, then were shocked by Maurice Newby (below), and I was sad for the Big 8 when Kansas and Oklahoma were upset by round two that year also.
And the Big 8 tournament was always there, signaling the unofficial start of Spring, and the start of an amazing weekend. By 1993, I was in college, and watched an improbable run to a Big 8 tournament title for a team that finished 7th. The next year, I watched Eric Piatkowski’s shot rim out to complete Missouri’s undefeated season in Columbia, then sat at the very top row in a metal chair in Kemper Arena for the Big 8 Tournament that year. I’ve been back several times since, and the smells of the tents around Kemper will always linger.
So here we are. It is ending, those memories of early March in Kansas City, for a bunch of reasons that have nothing to do with Kansas City and basketball and those old memories. As Missouri fans will chant “SEC” and Kansas fans will act like it doesn’t matter, I’ll be sad. I’m going one more time tonight. I’ve seen too many tournament games to know anything is guaranteed beyond that.
I cried writing this. It’s what we men, sometimes emotionally stunted and stoic, do. Cry over an offensive lineman retiring or a key game lost. Often, it’s not the sport or event itself, but what it brings up, how it is associated with more meaningful relationships or times. So yeah, I am crying now thinking about all those memories, and about my dad taking me to that Final Four shoot around. I’ll pull it together and hope to cheer tonight for one more time instead.
[photo of Norm Stewart via ksdk.com]