Wichita State junior Aaron Ellis grew up in Germany and wasn't born until 1987, a year after the MTXE era ended in Levitt Arena.
He didn't grow up following the NBA exploits of former Shockers such as Xavier McDaniel or Antoine Carr. Ellis will be paying attention today, however, when some of the stars of that generation talk to the Shockers before today's game against Bradley. While they are old hoopsters now — all of them 10 or more years removed from their NBA careers and 20-plus from college — their example is worth following to Ellis.
"They have all the experience and a lot of knowledge," he said. "You can definitely learn a lot. They had professional careers."
WSU is recognizing the "Mental Toughness Xtra Effort" days under coach Gene Smithson with a reunion and throwback jerseys today. McDaniel, Carr, Cliff Levingston, Cheese Johnson, Aubrey Sherrod and Smithson are among those expected to be on hand for the festivities. Smithson coached WSU from 1978-1986 and took the Shockers to two NITs and two NCAA Tournaments.
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It's impossible to walk around Koch Arena without feeling the influence of that era in pictures and video. Carr, Levingston and McDaniel are among five Shockers whose number is retired. Ellis and the current Shockers hear about McDaniel regularly from conditioning coach Kerry Rosenboom.
"Kerry talks about him every day — how hard he worked and his intensity and athleticism," Ellis said.
Randy Smithson, who played for his father and then coached WSU from 1996-2000, sees many similarities between his father's teams and the Shockers under coach Gregg Marshall. Both teams highlighted athletic ability and physical play. His father and Marshall both cut striking figures on the sidelines — Smithson with his MTXE towel and Marshall with his sharp suits and facial expressions.
"There are a lot of right things in this," Randy Smithson said. "Both my father and Coach Marshall are open with the fans, charismatic, dynamic, not afraid to speak their mind. There's a certain brashness."
While WSU has honored its past greats numerous times, this is its first recognition of the MTXE era. Time healed any issues from past turmoil. Athletic director Jim Schaus, who fired Randy, is no longer at WSU. There is enough space between the tenures that Marshall can embrace the past comfortably. Gene Smithson, fired in 1986, has attended games at Koch Arena in recent years.
"The timing is right," Randy Smithson said. "As a group, as a whole, we've never had a chance to get together for something like this."
Marshall remembers WSU's 1981 NCAA Tournament game against LSU as his first exposure to the Shockers. He was in high school. From there, he recognized names such as Carr and McDaniel during their NBA careers. If people think his teams play with MTXE, he's happy with the association. He's talked with Gene Smithson and mused about adding MTXE to the uniforms permanently.
"I think that's the way the game should be played," he said. "I think you should be mentally tough, physically tough. It's a great acronym and I'd love to have my teams symbolize or embody that, and hopefully they do."
Fans will no doubt get the biggest charge out of seeing the past players. That's the way it should be, in the mind of athletic director Eric Sexton. Today isn't about reexamining the NCAA probation that marred the early 1980s, or coaching changes. It's about giving fans a chance to cheer some of the old guys again.
"Any time we can find ways to bring Shocker Hall of Famers back it's a fun thing," Sexton said.