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Bob Lutz: KU basketball’s title run still a miracle 25 years later

  • Published Thursday, March 14, 2013, at 9:14 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, March 15, 2013, at 1:20 p.m.

If Kansas wins a national championship in basketball this season it will be considered a surprise, perhaps. But not a miracle season. There has only been one of those for the Jayhawks.

And a documentary recounting KU’s incredible run to the 1988 national championship, in a season that started with little promise and went downhill from there, is currently showing on the CBS Sports Network (Ch. 260 on Cox cable). The next showing is scheduled for Sunday at noon with four more to follow, including the last on April 4, the 25th anniversary of the national title.

I watched “The Miracles” this week and two things stood out: Just how great a basketball player Danny Manning was and how much his unsung supporting cast contributed to KU’s run.

After a four-game losing streak in late January/early February, Kansas’ record dipped to 12-8. The Jayhawks weren’t ranked. The decision Manning made to return for his senior season, when he could have been perhaps the top pick in the 1987 NBA Draft, was looking worse by the day.

That something happened.

The KU team, coached by Larry Brown, started coming together. Hurt by player defections and injuries, chemistry started to form. Players like Kevin Prichard, Jeff Gueldner, Milt Newton, Chris Piper and the most unlikely of all, Clint Normore, a former Wichita State football player who forged an amazing path to scoring seven points and dishing out four assists in KU’s 83-79 win over Oklahoma inside Kansas City’s Kemper Arena.

The documentary includes interviews with all of the key KU players and a couple from Oklahoma, former Sooners standout center Stacey King and Billy Tubbs, the colorful and controversial coach whose run-and-gun team looked like a lock to beat Kansas as it had done twice previously that season. King and Tubbs added greatly to the story-telling.

Three former Wichitans — creator and executive producer Kurt Messersmith, videographer-editor Erik Ashel and producer Tamiko Bullock — were instrumental in creating “The Miracles” documentary.

Bullock, an East graduate, and Ashel, who went to Curtis Middle School before moving with his family to Illinois when he was 14, currently work for Metro Sports in Kansas City.

Messersmith, a 1985 North graduate who went on to get a degree from Kansas, lives in Seattle. “The Miracles” is the first project of his new production company, Sportshistory.com, after spending 18 years in the IT industry with Microsoft and Amazon.

“About a year and a half ago I was on a road trip with my niece to visit my sister in Hays and I told her I would really like to work on a project on the 25th anniversary of Danny and the Miracles,” Messersmith said.

His niece, a KU student at the time, knew of a videographer who did some work for the athletic department. And the ball started rolling.

The documentary’s opening is set in Dallas, where Tulsa (coached by Manning) and SMU (coached by Brown) met in a game earlier this season. A group of players from the 1988 national championship team, including Gueldner, Newton, Normore, Lincoln Minor and Archie Marshall, whose season was cut short by a knee injury, gathered.

“A lot of the interviews with former players was done there,” said Ashel, a 2001 KU grad.

But the stories told around the dinner table the night before the game with no cameras around, Bullock said, might have been the best.

“Story after story after story,” said Bullock, who also graduated from Kansas. “Lots of laughter. You could really get a sense for how close all of those guys were.”

Normore, a standout all-around athlete at East in the mid-1980s, first attended Wichita State, where he played football and basketball. But Normore left WSU when the Shockers dropped football following the 1986 season.

He had finished his senior season of football at Kansas when Brown, whose team had been ravaged by departures and the knee injury to Marshall, went looking for players in some strange places. He enticed Normore and fellow football player Marvin Mattox to help fill out his basketball roster.

Normore, whose first love is basketball, was a revelation. His toughness and energy, as referenced in the documentary, was instrumental in the Jayhawks being able to find a chemistry that had been lacking.

“Just re-visiting those times brought back so many memories that I had long since forgotten about,” said Normore, an administrator at Oklahoma City University. “Having all of the conversations with those guys reminded me of everything that transpired, the scope of what we accomplished. And it all just kind of fell into my lap.”

Manning, the key figure in the documentary, has been media shy throughout his playing and coaching career. But because of the subject matter, Bullock said, he was eager to cooperate. And so was Brown, who also has been known to shield his face from cameras and microphones.

“Danny never wanted the attention, even back then,” Bullock said. “And he doesn’t want it now; he wants the focus to be on everyone else. But a lot of this documentary happened because of him

“And Coach Brown just wanted to get it over with. He didn’t want to play that game against Danny and Tulsa. He loves all those guys who were on the ’88 team. Those are his kids and he’d do anything for them.”

Read Bob Lutz’s blog at blogs.kansas.com/lutz. Reach him at 316-268-6597.

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