Wichita, you’re a basketball town. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
You proved it Wednesday at the NCAA Tournament open practice day. By the time the Penn Quakers left the Intrust Bank Arena court as the first team to work out, there were roughly the same number of fans watching as can fit in Penn’s home arena, the historic Palestra in Philadelphia: 8,722.
You were sitting for glorified practices. Half-court shots, shooting drills, top-this dunks. Stuff that gets old quickly.
Yet there you were, reppin’ the 316 (which is what I’m somewhat confident the 4,000 schoolkids brought in on buses would say), leaving no doubt about the city’s interest in its first NCAA Tournament in 24 years. The arena said more than 13,000 fans entered by 12:45 p.m.
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OK, critics note, the Kansas Jayhawks’ workout was up third. True, there was a lot of blue around a filled-up lower bowl of the arena halfway through North Carolina State’s workout.
But if there can be any analysis of Wichita’s daily work productivity in 2018, Wednesday will be one of the worst.
It’s because you want to support a big-time event that rarely makes its way here. The Jayhawks are a draw, sure, but even after KU fans left, there were still more fans watching Seton Hall and other teams than you’ll find in most cities.
Be proud of that. Be proud of yourself.
Look, you’ve done everything you can to be ready for this week. Downtown and Old Town are spotless. Heck, city crews cleaned up months of pigeon poop from a parking garage’s second-floor staircase five blocks from the arena — my personal barometer for city cleanliness.
You have over-informed visitors on things to see, places to eat and drink, and where to shop when basketballs aren’t dribbling. Arena WiFi worked well Wednesday and the media have plenty of workspace (we’ll have to find something else to grumble about), so Intrust is set, too.
And, as a couple of Wichita sports media types pointed out before me: The weather’s going to be nice, the food’s hot, the beer’s cold and all TVs will be tuned to games in other cities. Visitors don’t need much more.
So you can’t be concerned about social-media criticism. Fans at this regional won’t be watching the sun set over the Pacific, and our mountain scenery is the 75 feet up Douglas Avenue into the College Hill neighborhoods.
And all this about expensive airfare to Wichita? Let’s just say our boss isn’t looking forward to seeing the airfares for Eagle reporters and photographers heading to San Diego with the Shockers. Flights in 48 hours are expensive anywhere.
Besides, this week’s about basketball.
There are moments in every regional. They may be forgotten a week later and may not make the “One Shining Moment” video on championship night, but the fans sitting in their $100 seats will remember forever.
In the 1981 regional at then-Levitt Arena, it was Iowa coach Lute Olson calling a time-out he didn’t have in the final seconds, resulting in a technical foul and sending a blood-thirsty Wichita State crowd into a frenzy after willing their Shockers to a second-half comeback. Two Randy Smithson free throws from the technical put WSU ahead for good.
In the 1994 regional at the Kansas Coliseum, 5-foot-9 guard Damin Lopez made five second-half three-pointers to keep 14-seed Pepperdine close to 3-seed Michigan, which had future NBA stars Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard.
Howard, at 6-foot-9, bumped Lopez in the second half, and boos rained from the Coliseum crowd, which chose David over Goliath. Michigan won in overtime, but mention the 1994 regional to someone who was there and the first word is likely “Pepperdine.”
There will be a moment in this regional, too. Penn is regarded by some as the best 16-seed in tournament history, and 16s are 0 for 132 against No. 1 seeds. A Kansas loss, however unlikely, would certainly be a moment.
But so would a victory by 14-seed Montana over 3-seed Michigan. Will Wichita and its Shocker fans adopt Houston after the Cougars beat Wichita State twice this season? Or will you root for San Diego State, an 11-seed?
Sit back in your arena seat and make noise. Watch from home or work. Wichita became a host by working hard to impress the NCAA and with its reputation as a basketball-crazed population. No game has been played this week and you’ve already cemented that reputation.
You’ve earned this, Wichita. Enjoy it.