On a whim, I went over to Lawrence last night to attend the Kansas-Kansas State basketball game.
I’m much more likely to be found at KU women’s games, but with the Kansas men having lost three in a row, I thought a close, interesting game might be in the offing.
I arrived a few minutes after 8, the scheduled tip-off time and stationed myself in front of Allen Fieldhouse to see what was available. Within two minutes, I was able to get a $100 face-value ticket for $50. In addition, I got a chance to be a Good Samaritan: A KU student who had not exercised his option to buy athletic tickets as part of his tuition, was trying anxiously to buy a ticket from the guy who sold me one.
The young man told the seller that he had only $22 with him. The seller wanted $30. Turning to me, the seller said, “Can you help him out?” I peeled a ten from my quickly thinning layer of bills and handed it to the student, who promptly bought the ticket.
“Thank you,” he said, beaming, as we walked to the front door. “You don’t know how much this means to me.”
Seeing the joy on his face was reward enough for me. “Have a great time,” I said, as we parted ways.
Naturally, I didn’t sit in my assigned seat, which an usher told me was on the third level.
Instead, I went to a corner of the court, behind the K-State bench, and took an empty bleacher seat in about the 10th row. I noticed that another seat was empty behind me. At that point, the teams were just being introduced, about 15 minutes later than scheduled. (The delay probably had something to do with TV; Brent Musburger and an ESPN crew were there to broadcast.)
Just before tip-off, two guys came along, and one motioned to me that I was in their seats. The seat behind me was still open, and I deposited myself there.
I said that the guy motioned to me…That’s because it was so loud in the fieldhouse, even during the introduction of the KU players, that I couldn’t hear a word he said to me.
At that point, I knew it was time for me to break out the earplugs. I learned after attending a men’s game last year that, for me, earplugs are a necessity. I was glad I had brought them, too. I think that without them last night I probably would have lost about one percent of what hearing I have left.
KU took control of the game from the outset, and Bruce Weber, the K-State coach, crossed his arms tightly in front of his chest and adopted an expression of frustration, which he maintained most of the game.
As KU went up by 10, then 15 and then 20, KU Coach Bill Self countered Weber’s frustration with a rigid-jawed, fiery-eyed look of intensity. It was evident that he wanted his guys to not let off the gas for a minute.
Off to my right was an end-zone section full of arm-waving, leather-lunged KU students. Many of them spent a lot of time looking at the video board, hoping for an opportunity to get on camera. A student not too far from me waved a sign that said “Pope Jeff Withey V.” I’m sure that got on TV.
Another person who caught my eye was Sheahon Zenger, KU’s athletic director. Two years ago, Zenger succeeded Lew Perkins, who I consider one of the worst big-time collegiate athletic directors of all time. It was under his watch that a bunch of Okies who ran the KU ticket operation made off with at least $2 million in a ticket scalping scandal. Several of the Okies are now in prison, and Lew got himself a big, fat buyout on the way out the door…So what else is new, eh?
Anyway, Zenger, who came to KU from Illinois State University, is a clean-cut, earnest-looking guy who always sits at the end of a floor-level table that appears to be reserved for Athletic Department employees.
At one or two of the women’s games I’ve attended this season, I noticed that Zenger spent most of his time texting. Once in a while he’d look up for a few seconds, without changing expression, and then direct his eyes back at his phone.
I wondered if it would be the same last night. Well, your faithful reporter can tell you that he spent part of the time texting, but much less than he did at the women’s games.
Just from looking at the guy, I don’t care for him. He strikes me as a cold fish. Maybe he will be successful — his biggest hire so far has been Charlie Weis as head football coach — but it’s hard for me to see how he’s personally going to win anyone over…And, hey, Sheahon, how about getting off that fuckin’ phone and paying attention to what’s going on before your eyes????
When the game was over, Holly Rowe of ESPN first interviewed Bill Self and then Ben McLemore, the freshman star, who scored 30 points. After a while, Brent Musburger packed up and made his way out of the gym, smiling and exchanging a few words with people as he went along.
I hung around because I was waiting for my favorite part of KU home games. After each one, the KU Pep Band (or Marching Band during football season) waits ’til things have settled down and then eases into a rendition of “Home on the Range,” the official state song.
Last night, I positioned myself several rows below and facing the band, led by Sharon Toulouse, assistant director of KU bands. Several people standing close to the band put their arms around each other’s waists, as is the tradition, and swayed slowly back and forth as the horn section led the way into and through that beautiful, soul-soothing song.
I’m not a KU graduate, not even a Kansas resident, and am only a casual fan. But when the KU band plays “Home on the Range,” I feel myself being pulled gently, steadily westward for a few minutes, out onto the open range land, where the sky is high and mostly clear blue…and where our country separated itself from all other nations.