The businesses vary, but the electronic signs towering above them are trending in the same direction.
“Go, Shockers! 28-0”
An auto dealer on west Kellogg, a hotel downtown, even a church in southwest Wichita strike a variation on that theme as their signs brightly blink the record of Wichita State’s undefeated men’s basketball team into the sky.
The team will try to bump those signs to “29-0”, as well as clinch the Missouri Valley Conference title outright, when it plays Drake on Saturday night in Wichita.
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Bethel Life Center started posting the Shocker record on its sign on the I-235 bypass near Meridian when the team was 25-0. It has happily upped the count after each game.
“We’re just excited for the city and excited for the team,” said Danice Squires, wife of Bethel Life pastor Ken Squires. “We have a bunch of Shocker fans at our church. They wear their T-shirts proudly on Sunday.”
All over town, Shocker pride is showing. Even on non-game days, drivers fly Shocker pennants from their vehicles’ antennae, homeowners raise Shocker flags on their front-yard flag poles and people wear Shocker apparel to work.
The Shockers’ soaring win record is a boost to the city’s psyche.
“It gives us something in common. It gives us something that everybody can rally around,” said Greg Meissen, a professor of psychology at Wichita State who is coordinator of its community psychology doctoral program.
“I can’t tell you the number of stories where somebody will say, ‘Oh, I hear you’re from Wichita. Your basketball team is doing great.’ It just becomes part of a random conversation that would never have come up. I’m seeing that all the time, and hearing it all the time. People have something to say about us, and it’s positive.”
And we needed it. The loss of Boeing, continuing news about aircraft layoffs and an ongoing concern about jobs and the economy have wounded the city’s psyche.
As the home of the nation’s last Division I unbeaten team, whose starters this week graced the cover of a regional edition of Sports Illustrated magazine, Wichita has been able to bask in some reflected glory.
It doesn’t fix the economy, but it helps us deal with it by lending the community a sense of pride, Meissen said.
“Humans are naturally prone to gravitate to the negative and talk about what’s wrong,” Meissen said. “This gives us something right to talk about. I think it provides some balance to some of the tough issues we’re having to deal with around the economy.”
“Sometimes you look at the doom and gloom, but here’s something that puts Wichita on the map,” said Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton, a longtime Shocker fan who wore a black-and yellow striped tie to Wednesday’s commission meeting and ended the meeting by declaring “Go, Shocks!” from the bench.
Wearing Shocker colors is an automatic conversation starter these days.
“I get on elevators, or I go out to eat, and people who might never have engaged me say ‘hi’ to me or make eye contact and say, ‘Go, Shockers,’” Norton said. “Everybody can wrap around that and have something in common.”
“We’re the only unbeaten team, so I’m sure even marginal sports fans probably know by now Wichita State is undefeated,” he said.
People are having fun with it. A Twitter account called “Has WSU Lost Yet?” is updated after each game, usually with a single, simple phrase, such as “No,” “Nope,” “Nerp,” “Absolutely not” and “Haha ... no.”
It started Jan. 19 and has more than 600 followers.
Hoping for a repeat
Meissen said being the only unbeaten team in the country is very special for the community because of the buzz it has created.
Which raises this question: How will we deal with a loss?
Depends on when it happens, Meissen said.
WSU has three games left in the regular season after Saturday’s game.
“I don’t think it’ll be too hard if we lose before the (NCAA) tournament,” he said. “I think it will be tougher if we lose early in the NCAAs. It’ll scare us as a community because last year was a magical year, and we’re all hoping for a repeat of that.”
Last year ended at the Final Four, the mecca of college basketball.
For now, even people in Wichita who don’t follow basketball and don’t care about sports are using the communal “we” when talking about the Shockers.
Meissen said another element has added to the city’s glow over Shocker basketball.
The players on the men’s team and on the 21-3 women’s team have drawn attention to the university and the community not just for winning, but for the way they’ve carried themselves on the court, he said. It has created an opportunity to talk about young people in a positive way.
“They don’t argue with referees, they don’t trash talk, they maintain their composure,” he said.
“I think that not only helps them win, I think it contributes to this community’s pride in them.”