Bob Lutz

Shocker basketball 2014-15: Shockers know their roles off court, too

WSU’s Ron Baker high-fives fans on the way to the Shockers’ charter to the 2013 Final Four.
WSU’s Ron Baker high-fives fans on the way to the Shockers’ charter to the 2013 Final Four. The Wichita Eagle

With success, a wise man once said, comes acknowledgment of success.

And Wichita State basketball fans love to acknowledge their Shockers, who keep getting better and better and better.

From an NIT championship to an NCAA appearance, to a Final Four to a 35-0 run – the hits just keep on coming from WSU.

And, not surprisingly, the fan base has exploded. Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton can’t go anywhere in Wichita without being asked to pose for a picture, sign an autograph or just sit there so adoring fans can gawk.

“Since I’ve been here, it’s really changed,” said junior Ron Baker, who arrived the season after the Shockers won the NIT championship in 2010-11. “People love Shocker basketball – I’d say a lot more than they did when I got here. Now we can’t go hardly anywhere without being noticed.”

Everybody in town wants a piece of these guys. Shocker basketball has never been more successful, or more fashionable.

Players who once elicited respect and admiration now encounter an adoring public. And the feeling is mutual.

“I’m gonna start wearing a hood when I’m out now because it’s getting colder,” Shocker junior point guard Fred VanVleet said.

He was kidding.

VanVleet, smart and savvy beyond his years, loves the attention because he knows fans enjoy being a part of the team’s success.

“This is part of what comes with being a player here,” VanVleet said. “It was like that for the guys when I first got here and now I think it’s just growing. For those of us who are in the main spotlight, it can get hectic at times. But you’ve got to accept it. The recognition has been like a snowball effect… the more TV games we’re having, the more times we’re on “SportsCenter” and in magazines, it just keeps growing.”

There are some Shockers who haven’t gotten a huge taste of the adulation. Yet.

Freshman forward Rashard Kelly, one of WSU’s top newcomers, realizes his time will come.

He’s 6-foot-7 and 232 pounds, so when people see him at a restaurant or inside a shop, they’re curious. But they don’t yet know Kelly.

“Not as much as some of these other guys, for sure,” said Kelly, who is from Fredericksburg, Va., and Hargrave Military Academy. “Some people ask me if I’m a basketball player, but when I’m around these other guys and see all the recognition and praise they get… they’ve worked hard and they deserve it.

“And I’m looking forward to getting the same type of recognition. It makes you feel like you did something, that all of your hard work is paying off and somebody else is noticing.”

Rauno Nurger is another Shocker newcomer and one whose size (6-10, 242) gives him away. Nurger, a freshman from Estonia who played at Sunrise Christian Academy, still doesn’t get the attention the Shocker veterans get, though.

“I can still be a little anonymous,” Nurger said. “When I’m at a mall or a fast-food restaurant, people come up to me and ask if I play basketball. When I say I play at WSU, they’re always excited and they want pictures. That’s new for me.”

It’d be tough to pick in a popularity contest between Cotton, VanVleet and Baker. They’re all so closely associated with the Shockers’ success and all really good players and people.

And they’re approachable. They don’t give off the vibe that the Shockers’ accomplishments have gone to their heads.

“People recognize us, which is one big difference from when I got here,” Cotton, a senior, said. “It’s something we realize comes along with it and we embrace it and appreciate it. We’ll always cherish these memories. Not everybody is able to be in situations where people recognize them. It’s a good feeling.”

Wichita has always embraced Shocker basketball players, even in lean years. The program’s history is rich and those who have played or coached here are met with a high regard.

But nothing like this. Nothing like now.

Social media plays an obvious role; it’s much easier to snap a quick picture now than it used to be.

“Besides all that, it’s just the relationships that you feel and develop with people,” VanVleet said. “We go out and actually have conversations with these fans and the stories we hear are amazing. You talk to people who tell you that they have a family member who is sick and the only thing that gets them through is Shocker basketball. It means a lot to me that we can actually reach out and touch people.

“We try not to become jaded or anything like that when people want to take our pictures and things like that. We take it in stride and appreciate everything that comes with this.”

It’s part of being a Shocker basketball player. And a part the players relish.

“When I’m out with Baker, it’s always amazing,” Nurger said. “I’ve never been around a guy who is so humble even when people are coming up to him and asking him for things. And then there are those people who just sit and stare at him.”

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

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