The game hasn't even begun, yet, but already the locals are feeling like big winners.
As the starting lineup of the visiting Oklahoma State Cowboys is introduced, the Jayhawks student body feigns disinterest, burying their noses in copies of the school newspaper, The Daily Kansan. Eventually, those newspapers will end up as confetti, showering the student section when each Jayhawks starter is introduced.
While the student body bounces up and down, Kansas wins the opening tip. A few seconds later, Cole Aldrich hits a short jumper to give the Jayhawks a 2-0 lead and the crowd explodes.
Windows -- three panes along the sidelines, nine along the baselines -- line the top of Allen Fieldhouse and the roar after Aldrich's basket is so loud, you find yourself compelled to see if the glass has shattered. Figuratively speaking, they've blown the roof off the joint, but, remarkably, none of the windows lining the place has been literally blown out.
A similar roar will follow virtually every KU basket. Occasionally the fans will let out a collective "KU" chant, extending each syllable to impressive lengths.
Kansans seem to have an easygoing nature about them, but they're not passive. Not during basketball games at Allen Fieldhouse.
Students rise to their feet and stay there for the entire game. Fans behind the basket roll their hands together, mimicking a referee's traveling signal in an effort to distract opponents' free throws. All arms in the house reach to the skies when a Jayhawk unleashes a 3-point attempt. Successful free throws draw a collective "whoosh"; the sound will be heard frequently on this afternoon, as the Jayhawks will hit 11 of 15 free throw attempts.
In the first half, Kansas shoots 50 percent from the 3-point line and takes a 37-24 lead to the locker room.
Six minutes into the second half, Tyrel Reed's hustle play leads to a layup that makes the score 53-35 and the din reaches a new decibel level. Fans here seem to prefer substance to style.
It's a savvy crowd, too. Late in the game, the home team loses track of the shot clock, so the fans help out by counting down the last thee seconds. With an assist from the crowd, Tyshawn Taylor buries a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that makes the score 73-57. It's a dagger.
Poor clock management is the only thing that can beat the Jayhawks now, so Self has his team milk the clock; the KU fans respond to a simple slowdown as if they've just seen Wilt Chamberlain himself return from the great beyond for one last rim-rattling dunk. The crowd is at a fever pitch.
Late in the game the crowd begins singing "Living on a Prayer." Then with just over a minute on the clock and Kansas up 75-62, the game is on ice and the KU faithful busts out "Rock Chalk, Jayhawk."
This time it's the equivalent of Red Auerbach going to the victory cigar and it's haunting, as if the ghosts of Allen and Naismith are chanting right along.
The chant dates back to 1866, when KU chemistry professor E.H.S. Bailey and his associates decided to create a cheer for KU while returning to Lawrence from Wichita on a train. The sound of the train's wheel on the rails had a rhythm and cadence that apparently inspired the cheer, according to the university Web site. It began as, "Rah, Rah, Jayhawk, KU," repeated three times.
Eventually, a KU English professor suggested "Rock Chalk" replace "Rah, Rah," because it rhymed with Jayhawk and also was symbolic of the limestone -- or chalk rock -- surrounding the Lawrence campus. By 1897, "Rock Chalk, Jayhawk" had become KU's official cheer.
Given the back story, Allen Fieldhouse's limestone exterior no longer seems so wan. Nor does the flat surrounding farmland. Not when the KU students bust out the waving of the wheat, another audience participation ritual that has the locals sending Oklahoma State home by using their arms to replicate stalks of straw blowing in the breeze.
The Jayhawks lock up a 78-67 win, extending their home winning streak to 37 games, the longest active streak in the nation.
Sure as a Masters champion makes his way to Butler Cabin, a victorious KU fan heads to The Wagon Wheel, a cozy bar located in the middle of a prototypical college-town neighborhood, just a block off campus. Instead of slipping into a green blazer, fans slide into cramped booths or onto bar stools and down cheap beer. The Wagon Wheel seems somewhat like a renovated residence, which helps explain its house party vibe. Walls at "The Wheel" are lined by flat screen TVs playing out-of-town games, along with lots of Kansas memorabilia and the signatures of most everyone who has set foot in the joint. Roy Williams and Larry Brown were regulars when they coached here.
A banner over the bar welcomes KU alumni, who have turned out at The Wheel in big numbers. Games here are family affairs. Dads who still tuck coach's shirts into faded Levi's 501s and mothers who still drape cable-knit sweaters over their shoulders share a postgame toast with the T-shirt-clad scions who follow in their footsteps.
Garth Brooks croons "Friends in Low Places" from the jukebox, but fans here actually are on top of both the world and Mount Oread, the hill on which KU is located. That's right, a hill in Kansas. That unlikely combination inspired Kansas State students to dub the place "Snob Hill"; but only a rival from a nearby state school could find much fault with Lawrence.
If Allen Fieldhouse were a ballpark, it would be Wrigley Field. If it were a museum, it would be the Smithsonian. As it stands, it feels like a little of both, and it just might be the best college basketball experience anywhere.
Brown, the vagabond coach who has been everywhere, had it right all along.
Kansas is special.
Doug Ward is a Southern California-based freelance writer.
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