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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Kansas' 150 greatest athletes: A history of excellence

By Kirk Seminoff
The Wichita Eagle

Not in one day over the past three months has the mental image of a golden delicious apple and juicy navel orange escaped me.

Determining Kansas' 150 greatest athletes has truly been an apples and oranges thing.

You might like the two-time All-America football player more than the two-time Olympian. Someone else might appreciate a two-sport high school star more than a football-only athlete who had a cup of coffee in the NFL.

Selecting 150 athletes for 150 years of statehood was a frenzied, yet fascinating, look back at Kansas sports. There were athletes we knew, athletes we didn't know, and athletes we'd forgotten.

But we're ready to reveal our top 150, beginning with 101 through 150 today on pages 6D-7D. Nos. 51-100 will appear July 31, then a ranking of 1 through 50 on Aug. 7.

Being a Kansan

One of the toughest aspects of this project was determining "Kansanship."

Born here? Not good enough. Sorry, Rick Mears, Johnny Damon and Will Shields.

Went to college here? Not enough, either. Xavier McDaniel, Raef LaFrentz and Michael Bishop need not apply.

For this list, we decided an athlete had to be raised in the state. More or less, they had to be able to say they were brought up a Kansan.

Danny Manning's one year at Lawrence High before college didn't make it. And, much as we'd like to call Gale Sayers a Wichitan and Kansan — born here, moved to Speed briefly before leaving for Omaha at 8 — we had to let Nebraska claim him.

Determining the best

It started with a huge list, culled from every sports hall of fame in Kansas, plus national halls of fame. We added All-Americans, national champions, professional athletes, high school sports champions and All-State selections.

Then, after searching still deeper into many sports — especially sports that aren't mainstream — we began eliminating and ordering.

Members of our Sports staff and others in the newsroom provided feedback. There were frequent "Athlete A vs. Athlete B" arguments.

That's where the apples and oranges come in.

The discussions and decisions that went into determining the top five were the same as choosing No. 150 over the half-dozen best of the rest: How do you select a top athlete in one sport over that same-caliber athlete in another sport?

We researched, we discussed, we chose. We second-guessed ourselves, we discussed again, and we chose again.

How tough was it to make this list? There are Olympians, All-Americans and longtime NBA, NFL and major-league veterans who didn't make the final cut.

I like the list's diversity: 19 sports are represented; there are 12 athletes born in the 1800s and 13 born in the 1980s; there are 20 women, which isn't bad considering high schools and colleges didn't offer interscholastic sports for females until the 1970s.

We decided early to rank the top 50, then present the second 50 and third 50 alphabetically. That's because it's important to nail down an order at the top, but less so after the first 50. At that point, being on the list is the accomplishment.

We sought outside help along the way.

Ted Hayes, president of the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, was an invaluable resource. Knowing the backgrounds of these athletes is his job and his life, and something tells me he's been playing this greatest athletes game in his head for years.

Special thanks also to Harold Bechard at the Kansas Sports Museum in Newton, Paul Savage at the Wichita Sports Hall of Fame, and media relations officials at all of Kansas' Division I and Division II athletic departments.

Hey, where's Perry?

If Perry Ellis never picked up a basketball again, he probably would still have a spot reserved in the Kansas 150. Three All-State seasons and three Heights state championships — with a senior year to go — are hard to overlook.

Same for Bubba Starling at Gardner-Edgerton. He's an All-State football player getting in summer work at Nebraska while waiting for an offer of $6 million or so from the Kansas City Royals as the June draft's No. 5 pick. An All-Class 5A basketball player, too.

But their careers are just beginning, and since we found that a career is best judged years after it's over, we created a separate list for them and a dozen other Kansas athletes — the next generation. In 2036, when it's time to make this a 175-athlete list, we think this group will be in the conversation.

Your turn

A project like this is as subjective as subjective can get. So let us know what you think. We're providing a couple ways.

* Go to Kansas.com to take our survey after all 150 have been revealed. You can come up with a top 10, let us know if we missed out on someone, and vote on which next-generation athlete is going to hit it big.

* Take our poll about which athletes in this first group had or is having the greatest career.

* You can offer your thoughts by e-mailing sportsdesk@wichitaeagle.com, or write to me in care of the Eagle, 825 E. Douglas, Wichita, 67202.

We'll publish some of the top reader thoughts throughout August online and in the Eagle. We hope you enjoy a piece of the state's sporting history.

Reach sports editor Kirk Seminoff at 316-268-6278 or kseminoff@wichitaeagle.com.

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