I was fortunate as a kid to have an aunt. Phyllis Burgess, who was a professor at Wichita State in the Education department.
She enjoyed sports and every year she purchased two season tickets to Shocker basketball games. But she knew my father, Ray, was a huge sports fan and that I, just a child at the time, was very much into basketball.
So she gave us the tickets. And we rarely missed a game for more than 10 years, into my high school years.
We first started going to Shocker games during the 1961-62 season, when I was six. Needless to say, I have memories – vivid memories – of Dave Stallworth’s greatness.
I watched him play every game in which he played at the Roundhouse during his career and became a huge Wichita State basketball fan. The atmosphere was always electric, the games bigger than life. These were my impressionable years, remember, and it’s safe to say I was impressed.
Pre-game warm-ups were huge for me. When the Shockers came out of the tunnel, I felt like I was coming out of the tunnel with them.
My father was a calm, reserved man. But I was not. I screamed and yelled and probably embarrassed him. We were seated around other college professors whose dignity was apparent. I don’t remember any other kids sitting around us, so I’m sure the ruckuses I created weren’t always welcome.
But I couldn’t help myself.
I’m writing about this today for a couple of reasons.
First, one of the bonuses of a successful team is all of the interest it creates from young people. I see a lot of kids at Shocker games these days and they’re undoubtedly swept up in the team’s glory. They’ll be WSU fans forever because of it.
Second, I believe my passionate reaction to Shocker basketball as a kid led me to do everything I could to find a profession that dealt with sports. I wanted to be a professional athletic, of course, but that was unrealistic. Then I wanted to be a play-by-play broadcaster, which led me into taking journalism classes in high school.
Instead of broadcasting, though, I became a sportswriter, a great career that has afforded me great opportunities to be around the games I’ve loved since I was a tyke.
And, interestingly, it’s allowed me to conduct a bunch of interviews with those Shockers I idolized, including Stallworth. I’m currently working on a series of columns about the 1964-65 Shockers, which reached the Final Four in Portland, Ore., and lost in the semifinals to UCLA.
It was a fantastic team, although Stallworth wasn’t around for the Final Four, having used up his college eligibility at the semester break. I’m writing about that for Sunday’s paper.
I talked to Stallworth about that, as well as other players from that team including Dave Leach, Kelly Pete (now Mohamed Sharif) and John Criss.
Fifty years later, as I approach my 60th birthday, I’m still interviewing and writing about the players who had sound a profound influence on my life. These guys helped make me the sports nut I would become.
I spent countless hours playing basketball in my backyard in Derby, emulating the Shockers I had grown to love. I wanted to shoot like Leach and Jamie Thompson. I often “announced” the games as I played, pretending I was former WSU broadcaster Gus Grebe.
My dad accommodated better than any father should have. He often took me to Mid-Continent Airport in those days to greet the Wichita State basketball team when the Shockers returned from a road game.
To this day, Stallworth is my second-favorite athlete in history, behind only former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson. And my affinity for a bunch of old-school Shockers runs deep.
Last week, I wrote about Thompson, one of the finest shooters in WSU history. He died nine years ago and I wanted to tell his story so people will always know what a special team the 1964-65 Shockers were.
And what a pleasure and honor it is for me to write about them.