There were a lot of signs at Saturday’s Kansas-Missouri basketball game, of course, but one sign in particular stood out. A college kid was holding it above his head throughout the game. I kept looking over at him. There was something that I really wanted to tell him.
But, of course, I didn’t get to tell him anything. There was no telling anybody anything after this game this crazy, magical, spectacular, infuriating and altogether wonderful game. In the moments after Kansas beat Missouri 87-86, Allen Fieldhouse was chaos, bedlam, a mess of hugs and tears and screams. Missouri fans were crisscrossing the state with blistering tweets and instant messages and outraged phone calls — from St. Joe to Cape Girardeau, Joplin to Hannibal.
To sum up: Missouri took a 19-point lead. Kansas came all the way back and tied it. Missouri’s Phil Pressey beat his man to the basket and took the potential game-winning shot. Kansas fans (and the officials) will say his final shot was blocked clean by Thomas Robinson. Missouri fans (and various replay angles) will say that Robinson fouled Pressey on the block follow-through. The game went into overtime. Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor pulled Kansas ahead. Missouri’s Marcus Denmon made huge shots that were like noise-canceling headphones to Allen Fieldhouse. Tyshawn Taylor made two free throws with 8 seconds left. Missouri couldn’t get off a shot before the buzzer. Anyway, that’s how the ending seemed. Nobody heard the buzzer because Allen Fieldhouse exploded into a million tiny pieces.
Only in the exhale did realization hit: The best rivalry in college basketball is over. The best. Oh sure, people will talk about how Missouri and Kansas could play each other in the Big 12 tournament so what? Maybe, at times, the slot machines will spin 7s and Missouri and Kansas will play each other in the NCAA Tournament — that will be nice. And yes, maybe someday Missouri and Kansas will work out some arrangement to play each other once a year in some nonconference carnival. But that won’t be the same.
Missouri and Kansas have played blood basketball for more than 100 years. That’s over now.
But, wow, what a way for it to end.
The first Missouri-Kansas basketball game I ever wrote about for The Kansas City Star happened 15 years ago in Columbia. I won’t lie: I was pretty arrogant about college basketball then. I had lived in North Carolina when Dean Smith reigned in Chapel Hill, when Jim Valvano raged on the sidelines for N.C. State, when Mike Krzyzewski was young and Duke was ascending. I felt pretty sure that was real college basketball and the rest of the country played a perfectly fine but inferior brand.
Here it is, all these years later, and I’ve been to North Carolina-Duke, I was courtside for Kentucky-Louisville, I’ve watched basketball in Pauley Pavilion and the Palestra and Assembly Hall, and was surrounded by orange in Stillwater and Syracuse. Those places are great. But I have never seen a college basketball game quite like that first Missouri-Kansas game. Until Saturday.
The first time was 1997 — Kansas was undefeated and seemingly untouchable. Four starters on that team had lengthy NBA careers, led by Paul Pierce, who will someday go to the Hall of Fame. That Jayhawks team could beat you any way you chose to be beaten — fast or plodding, offense or defense, rebounding or hustle, it didn’t matter.
And Missouri — well, it wasn’t one of Norm Stewart’s better teams, but it was certainly a Norm Stewart team. Those Tigers were intense and physical and had a bit of a mean streak. Jason Sutherland, who I have always thought was the prototypical Norm Stewart player, led that team. And man did they despise Kansas.
I don’t remember too many details of the game itself — I vaguely remember that Missouri made a bunch of free throws, that Kansas was without its center, Scot Pollard, that the game went into double overtime — but I clearly remember the way the air in the old Hearnes Center felt soaked with tension. Every possession felt like the most important thing in the world. I remember the heat of the celebration in Columbia. I remember the “Black Tuesday” headline in the Kansas student paper the next day.
It was simply a different kind of basketball than I had seen in North Carolina or Kentucky or Indiana or anywhere else. I know that everybody believes their personal rivalry is fiercer and tougher and more intense than any other. But when I saw Kansas play Missouri that day in 1997, I was convinced. This was the best college basketball rivalry going.
And every year, I would watch Kansas and Missouri play and feel the same way. The games weren’t always close. In Lawrence, to be honest, they were almost never close. Kansas won by 32 in 2002, by 33 in 2006, by double digits 12 times since 1995. It was usually more entertaining and tense in Columbia. But this was what made this rivalry so different — none of that really mattered. When I was in high school in North Carolina, nobody cared about Duke-North Carolina because Duke wasn’t any good (North Carolina-N.C. State was the big rivalry then). Kentucky-Louisville is spectacular, but it has nothing at all at stake except for fan pride. The other great rivalries ebb and flow based on the quality of the teams and the significance of the game.
But this Missouri-Kansas thing — as everyone around here knows — goes back to bloodshed, to war, to hard feelings that certainly soften but never quite go away. Those feelings spill out on the hardwood, no matter the situation, no matter how many games one team has won or how many the other has lost. Missouri fans love beating Kansas. And Kansas fans love beating Missouri. And vice versa. Every year.
Well, every year until now.
But, wow, what a way for it to end.
“We were awful,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of Kansas in the first half Saturday, and that was about right. Kansas had done just about everything it could to remind everybody just how big this game was — including sending Scot Pollard out to warm up the crowd before the game (“This goes back to bloodshed!” he said). They showed on the videoboard the scene in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” where the woman reminds everyone, “We’re from Kansas, Jayhawkers and proud of it.” They also showed the scene from the Simpsons where Grandpa explains why his flag only had 49 stars on it. “I’ll be deep in the cold, cold ground before I recognize Missourah,” he said.
The noise meter on the scoreboard suggested the decibel level of the crowd was at 121 — just four decibels short of where pain begins. It would get louder.
All of it seemed to intimidate the Kansas players. Well, who could blame them? Missouri had already beaten Kansas in Columbia — came back from eight points down in the final minutes — and if the Tigers won this game too, well, it would forever leave a mark on Kansas basketball fans not unlike the lightning scar on Harry Potter’s forehead.
“Missouri was playing with house money,” Self said. Kansas players, meanwhile, seemed to be playing with houses on their backs. The Jayhawks missed eight of 15 free throws, had as many turnovers as assists and trailed by 12. This should not take away just how well Missouri was playing, though. Those three guards — Denmon, Pressey and Michael Dixon — were pretty much unstoppable, and Ricardo Ratliffe dominated inside. That seems like a team that can beat anyone in March. When the second half began, Missouri kept dominating, and Missouri led by 19.
Kansas’ comeback moved in slow motion. There really wasn’t any one play that turned things around. Kansas just started chipping away a bit. Elijah Johnson made a couple of three-pointers. Conner Teahan made a couple of three-pointers. And with about 10 minutes left — with Missouri still up 11 — everyone in Allen Fieldhouse all at once seemed to realize that Kansas still had a chance to win this game. And that’s when the noise turned up. I’ve seen probably 75 or 100 games in Allen Fieldhouse over the years. Those last 15 minutes, well, I never heard it that loud.
(Interlude: I just got an email from the magnificent baseball writer Bill James. “It said this: (1) That was possibly the greatest live sporting event I’ve ever seen. (2) A phrase for your article: Hugging strangers. By the end of the game we were hugging strangers.”)
And those last 15 minutes — you know that great dream you have when you know you are dreaming and you’re just trying to stay asleep. It was something like that. Kansas played furious basketball in its comeback — especially defense — but you knew that. The amazing part was Missouri players, even with the roar of the crowd making it feel as though the floor was vibrating, making huge plays. Denmon — what a player — drove to the basket and gave Missouri a three-point lead. Ratliffe made two free throws with the students behind the glass bouncing like popcorn, giving Missouri another three-point lead.
Then Robinson drove hard to the basket, made his shot, and the referee called a foul. Missouri coach Frank Haith suspected it wasn’t a foul. In the last second, Pressey drove to the basket and Robinson blocked the shot — no foul was called. Missouri coach Frank Haith suspected that was a foul. Well, what would this wonderful game be without some controversy?
The overtime was even better, with the players pushing each other higher. “We played our hearts out,” Kim English said. “They played their hearts out.” And if this was any other game, you could leave it right there with that quote.
But this wasn’t any other game. This was the last time. Unlike many, I don’t really blame anyone for this ending. These are the times we live in. You can’t really blame Missouri for jumping into a great conference like the SEC. You can’t really blame Kansas for feeling a bit betrayed and for not wanting to play Missouri anymore (“We’re in Missouri’s past,” Self said. “They have to look to the future and so do we.”). You can’t stop progress or time. What is that line from the play “Inherit the Wind” about airplanes? “Mister you can conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.”
Mister, you can make college sports bigger and bigger, make more and more money, reach larger and larger audiences but the conferences will look like gibberish and Kansas won’t play basketball against Missouri anymore.
When it ended, sure, there was some emptiness. Which takes us back to that kid holding the sign. He was across the court, so it was difficult for me to see him, but from what I can tell he looked to be maybe 18 or 19, and he was decked out in Kansas colors. His sign said: “KU Won’t MIZZ-you.”
And you know, it was relatively clever, as far as signs go. But something about it bothered me. I did want to walk over to him and whisper in his ear: “Yeah, you will, kid. You will miss Missouri. You will miss all this more than you can ever know.”