By Jay Mason
“To me, teamwork is the beauty of our sport, where you have five acting as one. You become selfless.”
– Mike Krzyzewski, coached at Army (1975-1980); Duke (1980-present)
The madness that is college basketball begins this month. I used to believe that God cared about college basketball, especially my team, but I gave that theological principle up for Lent several years ago. I ran track at the University of Kansas, and since they don’t have much of a track team these days, I am a Kansas basketball fan.
Last year the University of New Mexico (where I attended law school) and the University of Kansas played each other in basketball. Several local Lobos (two former Mayors of Gallup among them) and a few Jayhawks, including me, agreed to travel to the game together in Kansas City. We managed to remain dignified until we reached the arena. Then everyone became a fan, and the game was on. Luckily, the Jayhawks won, and I was able to travel home in peace, but the experience was great fun.
Every college team wants to make it to the NCAA tournament in March. What makes it so exciting is the fact that some teams start the season on fire and fizzle by the time March comes around. I know Kansas has done just that on several occasions. The fact that young college men can play like NBA players one night and look like they are not sure how the game of basketball is played the next night makes the game unpredictable.
I have been to the Final Four twice in my lifetime, once in San Antonio and once in New Orleans. On both occasions the Jayhawks played for the national championship. In 2008 they beat Memphis to win and in 2012 they lost to Kentucky. My basketball travel planner is my daughter Kathleen who loves the Jayhawks. When Kansas made the Final Four, she called and insisted that we go to San Antonio in 2008. The game was 5 days away, and I said we couldn’t possibly get a room. I told her Kansas would lose, and that it would be a very expensive and depressing experience. She insisted that was not true, and I should try to get a room. By some divine intervention, I got one of the last rooms in San Antonio, and the trip was on.
We arrived and rode a taxi to our hotel. The NCAA does not allow consumption of alcohol at their events, but they designated a different bar for each of the four teams in San Antonio. Ours was Rita’s on the River, and it was hopping when we got there Friday night. They ran out of adult beverages at midnight, and we walked back to our room for much needed rest.
The next day we went to the pep rally. Many famous Kansans were there, including the Governor. The band played, the coach talked and the crowd was ready for the first game with North Carolina, another basketball powerhouse. I sat next to a Carolina fan that had been to every North Carolina Final Four appearance. He was in his eighties. That day Kansas could not miss, and by halftime, Kansas was leading by 24 points. I thought the guy next to me was going to have a stroke. I consoled him and told him I was sure the Tar Heels would do better in the second half. They did play better, but Kansas won. We watched the next game, which was Memphis against UCLA. Memphis won, and the final stage was set for Monday night.
That Saturday night we went out to dinner on the Riverwalk, and the pep bands of Memphis and Kansas in different boats were traveling up and down the river playing the school fight songs. It was crazy and fun. The next day my daughter and I went to church and prayed that we would survive the Final Four. I already knew that God did not care who won.
On the day before the Final Four, an amazing thing happens. The fans of the teams that have lost try to sell their tickets to the final game at bargain prices. In addition, more fans from the two final teams pour into town looking for tickets. Several old friends of mine (one a former principal at Gallup Catholic School) did just that. We couldn’t even get into Rita’s on the River that night because so many new people had arrived.
Just in case there was not enough excitement, there was another pep rally and then the march to the Alamo Dome. When we took our seats behind one goal, I was surrounded by 15,000 Kansas fans, just on that side of the arena. The game began, and reality set in. The Memphis coach was John Calipari who now coaches for Kentucky. His team had three players, including Derrick Rose, that have now played in the NBA, and they showed their skills immediately. Kansas kept up, but I thought my prediction would come true. I think we trailed most of the game, and the NCAA had delivered championship hats and T-shirts to the Memphis bench right at the end to begin the celebration. Amazingly with 2.1 seconds left, Mario Chalmers of Kansas hit a three-point shot to tie the game. At the time I had my hands over my head lamenting the imminent loss, but suddenly my daughter started screaming and leapt into the air. I tried to stand to see what had happened, but in her excitement she knocked me to the ground. The game was not over, but Memphis never recovered. They missed five free throws in a row, and Kansas won 75-68.
As we walked out of the arena with 15,000 to 20,000 Jayhawk fans chanting “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, KU,” I looked at my daughter Kathleen and thanked her for being so persistent. It is very difficult to win a national championship, and I doubt I will get to see my team win again in person. Remember that North Carolina fan who was eighty years old; he has only seen North Carolina win 5 times in his lifetime.
So pace yourself. It is not over until April. Enjoy the ride. The favorites may or may not win it all. It is always fun to watch. Everyone is a Lobo. Woof, Woof, Woof. Rock Chalk!