Anatomy of a Classic

January 14, 2016
                                                             Anatomy of a Classic


               I suppose that I should warn you at the outset that I really don’t have any particular point to make here.   I was fortunate enough to be in the building on January 4, 2016, when Kansas played Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse.   It developed into a memorable basketball game, probably one of the best college basketball games ever played, and I feel that I should share with you my mental notes about the game, although really I don’t know that I have anything in particular worth sharing.

               It was a warm winter evening, comfortable enough walking to the Fieldhouse.  The streets outside Allen fieldhouse were empty by the time we got there.   My wife and I arrived about 10 minutes before the game started, but 99% of the crowd was ahead of us.   The policemen directing traffic had gone home.   The ticket brokers had sold their spares and gone into the game.  We were stragglers.

               A KU basketball game is highly choreographed, if that is the right word.   There are many things that we do every game.   There are 50 things that are always done in a certain order before the game starts.    The band plays, and we yell ourselves silly because we all know where we are in the program and what is about to happen.

               I said hello to my friend who sits behind me at the games; he is probably 5-foot-7 and I always worry if he can see over me, but he is too polite to admit that I am in his way.   I enquired innocently whether Oklahoma was supposed to be any good this year.   Everybody in the building knew, of course, that Kansas and Oklahoma were 1 and 2 in the polls; not only that, but KU was #1 in one poll and Oklahoma #1 in the other.  

               I did not know the lady sitting next to me, but she said hello and seemed friendly, so I talked to her for a moment.  She was a lawyer from Kansas City, and this was to be her only Jayhawk game of the year.   She had bought one-fourth of a season ticket, shared with three other guys from her law firm, but then she had donated two of the tickets to a charity raffle and given her seat away for another game, so this would be the only game she would see all year in the house. 

               It is impossible to explain how much we all love the Jayhawks, not that this is totally unique in the sports world, but it is at the high end of the spectrum.    School is not in session, but hundreds of students have come back to town for the game.   Every seat is filled ten minutes before tipoff, and no one will have left at the end of the third overtime.    On semester breaks the pep band isn’t here so the alumni band fills in, and you can’t really tell the difference; these people consider it an honor to practice 20 times a year so they can fill in for the band when the students are out of town.  It is a city of 80,000 people, 50,000 of whom are passionate KU basketball fans.     It is what we do in the winter.

               Oklahoma, not so much; they have football.   A couple of years ago Susie and I went to the KU-OU game down in Norman.   The arena is very nice, the seats are comfortable, but half of them were empty and half of those that were filled were filled by KU fans.   Different.   Low energy.   No focus to the game. . .the way Wrigley Field used to be, or Candlestick Park, back in the old days.   Oklahoma State is basketball crazy, I guess, and Iowa State, certainly, and Kansas State still packs them in although that’s become a football school.  It has been almost 30 years since Kansas and Oklahoma met in the national championship game, 1988.    I don’t suppose most of you remember it, but here in Lawrence you’d be regarded as a freak if you didn’t know who Milt Newton and Chris Piper were. 

               Since then Oklahoma has been up and down in basketball, and KU has been #1 part of the year almost every year, or so it seems.   We have lost a game since this one was played, so we will lose the #1 ranking next week.  We don’t care much about that; everybody knows the #1 seat comes and goes, and it that only matters at the end.   We don’t care about that; we care about this.   Winning this game.   Protecting this fieldhouse.    We don’t mind if the boys lose a game once in a while but we don’t want to see it.

               Much has been said about the noise.   In the last four or five years the people who stage the game(s), at KU and other places, have gotten into the asinine practice of trying to make as much noise as possible, trying to show that Allen fieldhouse or Arrowhead Stadium or whatever can be louder than any other fieldhouse or stadium or whatever.   I despise this practice; in fact, I sincerely believe that it should be banned by law.   It risks damaging the hearing of those in attendance—and for what?   Nothing.   Our fieldhouse is louder than your fieldhouse?   What is that?   That’s nothing.

               I do not doubt or question that a certain noise level contributes to the energy of the crowd, pumps the crowd up, brings out enthusiasm and makes the experience enjoyable.   What I question is that pushing this past its natural limits delivers more of these benefits.   They have started turning up the sound system so that it blasts at you at 100 decimals plus, encouraging the crowd to keep up.   It is juvenile and idiotic.   I cover my ears and sit down whenever they do this.  

               This was a loud crowd, no doubt, but. . .what is that?    Is this what we take pride in now?  So the game starts, and early on Kansas seems to be in control.    KU leads 32 to 21 with five minutes to go in the first half, an eleven-point margin.    I know the lead is not safe, but maybe it might be safe until halftime?  Let’s see, 11 minus 3 is 8, minus a half because OU has the ball, 7 ½, 7 ½ squared is 56. . .the lead would only be safe for 56 seconds.

               This point is driven home minutes later.   KU fumbles several opportunities but still leads 40-32 with a minute-forty (100 seconds) to go in the first half.   Then, with stunning quickness, Oklahoma seizes control.   They make a three, we miss a shot, they make a three, we miss a shot, they make a three.    That all happened in the space of 52 seconds with only five shots taken, three by them and two by us, but we missed both of ours, they made all three of theirs, and all three were three-point shots.   Oklahoma 41, Kansas 40.

               I know, of course, that my view of these things is biased, and that the referees have a clearer view of each play than I do.   It appeared, to those of us in the fieldhouse, that we were getting jobbed.    In the first six minutes of the game, the officials basically didn’t call anything.   Then they started calling fouls, but only against Kansas.  At the 16:20 mark of the second half, officials had called 19 fouls in the game, 14 against Kansas and 5 against Oklahoma.   We couldn’t really see, from our seats, that this disparity was necessary or justified.  

               Still, when KU was winning the game, we shook it off; OK, call everything for Oklahoma if you want to, we’re going to beat them anyway.   Then, when Oklahoma took over, the crowd turned testy.   We began to boo loudly and repeatedly at questionable calls.   With six seconds left in the first half, Buddy Hield tried to put up a shot, but Frank Mason took the ball away from him.   It was a clean block/clean steal, not really a blocked shot but a blocked pre-shot; Mason put his hand on the top of the basketball as Hield was trying to move it into position to heave up a shot.  It could have been called a jump ball, or it could have been called nothing, which would have meant that Mason had the ball.  The referee called a foul on Mason—the twelfth foul call against Kansas in the half, five against Oklahoma.   Mason slammed the ball down in frustration, and Bill Self, sitting just a couple of feet away from the play, yelled at the referee who blew the call.   The referee called a technical foul on Kansas; 13 to 5.   Buddy Hield now had four free throws.   He made three of the four, and Oklahoma led at half time, 44 to 40.  

               In the opening minutes of the second half Oklahoma stretched its lead to ten points, 54 to 44.   Jamari Traylor (KU) grabbed a rebound under the Oklahoma basket and was hit hard by two Oklahoma players.   A brief angry confrontation occurred, and the referee called a foul on one of the Oklahoma players who had mugged Traylor, which was obvious.   But then they tacked on to THAT call a technical foul on each team.   In theory this was a "calm down, get back on balance" effort; in reality it was another shot at Kansas.  The technical on KU was called on Wayne Selden, probably KU’s best player, and that gave him three fouls with 16 minutes to go in the game—actually 31 minutes to go in the game, but we didn’t know that at the time.   The officials had magically converted a play on which a KU player was crushed by two Oklahoma players so that it worked to the benefit of Oklahoma.     

               The crowd now was near a riot, not literally but you know what I mean.   The band played "We ain’t gonna take it, oh no, we’re not gonna take it, we’re not gonna take it, any-more."      Selden sat down for just a minute but then came back in.  

               By this point we had realized that the Oklahoma team was every bit as good as advertised, or better, and that they weren’t going to go away like most opponents do on this floor.    I could stop calculating when the lead was safe; it was not going to be safe.  Buddy Hield may be the best player in the country, unoriginal observation that, but there were four other things that struck me about the team, one of those equally unoriginal:  Lon Krueger can really coach.   His team is very disciplined, plays as a unit, plays extremely hard, and every player has a clear idea of what the team is trying to do on every possession.  

               They must have run a curl/pick play 30 times in the game.   A player, usually a guard, has the ball ten to fifteen feet to the right of the basket and out near the top of the lane.   He drives to his right toward the top of the key, and as he reaches the lane a teammate sets a pick on his defender.    At that moment he turns to the basket and goes to the basket on the opposite side of the basket from where he started.   The other defender—the man who was guarding the teammate who set the pick—has to come off of his man and defend the man who is driving to the basket, which usually puts a big man guarding a small man, in this game usually 6-foot-10 inch Landon Lucas guarding 6-foot guard Jordan Woodard.   If Lucas doesn’t switch in time, Woodard has an unguarded layup.   If he does switch in time, Woodard goes down instead of up, and flips a low pass—a bounce pass or a pass at knee level—behind himself to the man who has set the pick, who has now stepped back to his left, back to the right side of the basket near where the play started.   He is now a big man being guarded by a small man—if he is being guarded at all.   It is almost a blind pass, but the guard knows where the trailer will be.    

               Oklahoma must have run that play 30 times in the game, and KU did not defend it well.   When we play again (February 13) KU should be a lot better prepared to defend that play.   Another thing Oklahoma did really well was, anytime KU threw anything like a sloppy pass, not really a sloppy pass but a vulnerable pass, the Oklahoma defender would come off his man and jump the passing lane.   Officially KU was only charged with 14 turnovers, and Oklahoma credited with only 8 steals, but it seemed like more; it seemed like a lot more.  

               You can beat that, too; first, you need to remember who you are playing, and be more crisp with your passing, but when the defender leaves his man to jump the passing lane, you have to make him pay for that.    When the Oklahoma defender jumps out to try to steal the pass, whoever he is guarding has to sprint in the opposite direction, go to the opposite side of the court, and create a mismatch; then you have to get the ball to that side of the court and get up a shot before the defender can recover.   And you have to hit the shot.  It’s not easy, but it can be done. 

               The other thing Oklahoma did really, really well was exactly that; when they could get an open man at the three-point lane, they would find him and get the ball to him in a quarter of a second, and he would hit the shot.   And I don’t know what you can do about that; they’re just really good.   You minimize the number of times a player gets open, of course, but it’s basketball; players like Buddy Hield and Jordan Woodard are going to get away from you sometimes.   They are trying just as hard to get away from you as you are to not let them get away from you, and sometimes they’re going to win.

               Perry Ellis, not my favorite player.   Perry Ellis, who the national media thinks is KU’s best player because he is our leading scorer, is kind of an irritating player to have on your side.   He doesn’t have good hands, isn’t the best natural athlete on the floor, and he virtually never goes hard to the basket.   Most of his shots are from 18 to 36 inches, but he almost always shoots moving his hands away from the basket, trying to elude the defender by adjusting the position of the ball just before he shoots.   This tends to drive you crazy; he’s not a bad shooter, certainly; he’s a good shooter.   He has a variety of 40 shots that he can put up, all of them with this last-second decoy attached, and he hits an OK percentage of them but it drives you crazy; will you, for God’s sake, go right AT the basket once in a while? 

               But Ellis in this game was really good—not Buddy Hield good, not crazy good, but very good; he is hitting his shots and getting rebounds.   KU has no dominant big man; our big guys are Hunter Mickelson, Landon Lucas, Jamari Traylor, Carlton Bragg and Chieck Dialo.   They’re all pretty good, but none of them is really good.    Bragg and Dialo are NBA players but freshmen.   Traylor is a high-energy senior and a fan favorite, but at 6-8 he is undersized for the position he has to play.   Lucas is 6-10 and has an NBA body, but plays defense with his elbows and leads the world in ticky-tack fouls, and Mickelson is your basic 7-foot white guy; maybe he is not quite 7 foot.  

            &​nbsp;  Anyway, Mickelson plays much of the first half but doesn’t do anything and gets beat several times by the curl play, then the coach tries Jamari Traylor, who gets into foul trouble, so he settles on Landon Lucas.   Lucas, who is my favorite of the group, has a good night, staying out of foul trouble and pulling down some rebounds.  Oklahoma leads most of the second half, and Oklahoma still leads by eight, 68-60, with 7:54 to go in the second half.   Carlton Bragg throws the ball out of bounds, so Oklahoma has an eight-point lead and the ball.  

               But KU gets some defensive stops, and KU’s guards score the next eight points, tying the game at 68-68, the first time KU has been even in the second half.    It isn’t quick or pretty; it is a slog.   I high-five my wife when we tie it up, and the lawyer to my left high-fives me as well.   The rest of the night—and there is a long time to go in this game—she high-fives me (rather than her husband, sitting on her left) whenever we do well; seems a little odd, but I guess he just doesn’t do that.  

               Sitting behind us is big fat guy. . ..understand; I’m not down on big fat guys; I’m a big fat guy myself. . .but sitting behind us and to the left of my friends is a big fat guy who has been a high school coach or something, and who is loudly lecturing the crowd on all the subtleties of the game, Perry Ellis has bad hands, and Ryan Spangler is fantastic at getting in position for a rebound, etc., etc.   He’s pretty annoying.   The guy in front of us has snuck in a flask and is enjoying his alcoholism, which you almost never see in Allen fieldhouse.   To his right is an old fat guy who yells constantly at the people in front of him to sit down so he can see the game; they ignore him and at one point he comes out of his seat, intending to pummel them into submission.  His wife and his neighbors pull him back into his seat.   I have seen hundreds of games in Allen fieldhouse and I have never seen a fight in the crowd; this is the closest I have ever seen. 

               But gradually, as the game goes on, we settle in to the communal fan madness of a great game; the fat coach stops delivering his homilies or at least makes them less frequent, the alcoholic finishes his bottle or put it away, the angry old man accepts that people in Allen sometimes stand up in front of you unnecessarily and if you are too old to scramble to your feet you have to watch the game on the TV monitor over the scoreboard.   The game is back and forth over the last five minutes.   Oklahoma goes back in front 72-68, then KU scores a couple of times to make it 73-72, then Oklahoma 75-73, then Kansas 77-75.   With 22 seconds left Buddy Hield puts up a jumper, blocked by Frank Mason.   From my perspective it is a clean block; Mason is going straight up in the air, minimal body contact, his hand on the ball, but the referee calls it a foul on Mason, sending Hield to the line.   Hield hits his free throws, tying the game at 77, but it’s OK; KU has the last possession.  

               We all know what is going to happen; Frank Mason is going to dribble around out front until there are eight seconds left, then he will drive the lane and draw a foul, hit his free throws and put KU ahead with three seconds left.   We have seen him do this many times.   I whisper. . .well, I shout into my wife’s ear, but you have to shout at someone from a distance of inches to make yourself heard. . .I shout "that little short referee’s going to screw us again; he’ll call it against Mason."   Oklahoma also knows exactly what KU is going to do, and they defend the play well.   Mason wants to drive the right side of the lane and shoot right-handed, but the defender forces him to go left and drive the left side of the lane, into a crowd of opponents.  Mason drives the lane with eight seconds left.   An Oklahoma player clotheslines him, reaches across his body, grabs his far shoulder, arm around the neck, and throws him to the ground as he is trying to shoot.   No call.  

               As the rebound comes down Landon Lucas grabs the ball but Khadeem Lattin (Oklahoma) grabs the bottom of the ball and has inside position.   As he comes down he pulls the ball down; Lucas doesn’t release and his arms go over Lattin’s back and shoulders.   The referee calls the foul on Lucas.

               Look, that IS a foul on Lucas, and I understand saying to yourself, if you are a referee, "I don’t want to decide the game here.   I’m not going to give somebody a foul call on a close play with three seconds to go in the game."  Mason was clearly TRYING to draw a foul when he drove the lane, and if I was a referee, I’d be none too willing to co-operate in any player’s effort to win the game on a foul call.  I get that.

               But (a) it wasn’t a close play; it was an obvious foul, and (b) if you’re not going to call THAT play, why do you call the rebound foul with 0:00 on the game clock that lets the other team do what they cannot do in any other way, other than your foul call:  go the length of the court and get the last shot?  

               But Lattin misses the free throw, and the game slides into overtime.   High fives all around in the crowd.    And then it goes into another overtime.   And then it goes into another overtime.    The game is played with great skill and intensity; both teams have had games since then in which they did not play well, but in this game there is no sense in any possible way that these teams are NOT the best in the country, or very close to it.   Sitting next to Susie on the other side is an Iowa State fan; he has come to see the game, not to see either team win.   As we head into the third overtime he says "I don’t think I want to play either one of these teams."   My friends’ wife who sits behind me. . .because I am a sportswriter I am presumed to know these things. . .taps me on the shoulder at the start of the third overtime and asks "How many of these things can they do?"   I think she is sincere, not certain, but the question seems so odd.   She is sweet lady.   I tell her that the most I have ever seen is six.   Didn’t see it in person, of course, but I was watching, sitting stretched out on a day bed in a hotel in Florida with my 14-year-old son, well past midnight; we still talk about that game. 

             &nbs​p; Normally Bill Self substitutes aggressively, rotating the big men in and out and stealing a few moments on the bench for the guards, but now he stops substituting, letting Lucas play the 5 spot.   I think I understand; the game is being played at such a high level that it would seem to be impossible for anybody to come off the bench and go immediately to that energy level.  If he put in a sub, although the subs are really about as good as the starters, the sub would be behind the flow for a few seconds, and that would be all that it would take for Oklahoma to get the jump on us.  Wayne Selden plays probably 30 minutes with three fouls, and never gets his fourth.  In the third overtime all the foul calls go our way.    There are nine fouls called in the third overtime, all nine of them against Oklahoma.     It evens the foul calls for the game at 22 each, not counting the technicals.   With 12 seconds left KU has a one point lead, but Oklahoma has an inbounds play on their own end of the court; if they get the ball in and hit a shot they will win.   Buddy Hield tries to inbounds the ball but he is in front of the scorer’s table, where there isn’t room for him to back away from the defender.   The defender, Frank Mason, is in Hield’s face and waving his arms.   The referee moves Mason away; Mason backs off a step but then comes right back where he was.   By rule Hield COULD ask the referee to move Mason back; I think he is supposed to have 24 inches to work with or something; he could ask, but it would be risky.   If the referee thought he was just stalling he could lose the ball on a five-second call.   Hield tries to throw the ball over Mason; Mason’s finger tips the ball away and Mason recovers it.   KU wins.  

               The experience seems somehow profound, although I cannot say how it is profound or why it is profound.   At the end of the game we hug the people sitting next to us in joy, including some of the strangers.   We are delirious; we are as relieved if we had each been told that it is not malignant.  We are bound together by the extraordinary thing that we have shared.  We have experienced anger and frustration, hope and joy, excitement piled upon excitement, despair on the heels of wonder; we have felt everything you can feel at a sporting event.   Buddy Hield, who has scored 46 points in the game, takes responsibility for letting his teammates down on the inbounds play; he is given a standing ovation as he leaves the court, although I didn’t actually know that until I read it in the paper.   I guess I was hugging strangers at the time.   As she was leaving the lawyer who was seeing her only KU game of the year said to me "I will never forget this."  None of us will. 

               On the way out I ran into a poker buddy who was there with his five-year old son.  He offered for the first time the joke I would hear repeatedly over the next week:  the little boy was one of the 50,000 who saw the game.   Of course the house only seats 16,000 and some; that’s the joke.   We were not spectators; we were witnesses.  We walk a little bit with an Oklahoma fan who says that he has been waiting for years to come see a game in Allen fieldhouse; he was waiting for a year when he thought they could actually win, and, he says, he was almost right.   We don’t hug him, but in a sense we have.  There are just moments in life when everything is what it can be, when the energies of nearly violent opposing forces align by accident with the balance and precision of a symphony.    We were there to see one of them.   There may be better moments, but there are no better moments which are shared by the whole community. 


COMMENTS (10 Comments, most recent shown first)

How much of the gate receipts did the players get that night?
7:47 PM Jan 19th
TJ Nawrocmi took the words out of my mouth. I'll go further: Bill, you are simply one hell of a writer. As you may bave heard, David Bowie died this week. Though I am a musician and love David Bowie, you, Bill, have added more to my life - to my mind and my heart - than even he did. Thank you for the things you do, sir.
2:38 AM Jan 16th
I have no interest in college basketball whatsoever, and I still enjoyed every word of this piece.
9:51 AM Jan 15th
Good piece, Bill.
1:32 PM Jan 14th
Great write-up Bill. Thanks!
12:38 PM Jan 14th
Enjoyed this story, Bill...Thanks for writing it up. (Glad to learn I'm not the only person who gets EXTREMELY exasperated with referees at times.)
Good luck to the Jayhawks the rest of the season.​
12:26 PM Jan 14th
That was fantastic. One of the best accounts of a basketball game I've ever read. Thanks for sharing it.
12:21 PM Jan 14th
Thanks Bill that was a nice story.
11:59 AM Jan 14th
Wonderful, and beautifully written. The game's intensity reminds me of a couple of NCAA tourney hockey games I attended while in college. Thanks, Bill.
9:51 AM Jan 14th
"Low energy. No focus"--you saying that OU is the Jeb! of college hoops?
9:44 AM Jan 14th
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