There are many people, around Kansas and likely elsewhere, who would be entirely appreciative of any opportunity they might have to head to Lawrence to see the Kansas Jayhawks play a basketball game in person. Maybe they are a KU fan or alum, or someone who has adopted the Hawks as their team because they are perpetually in the top 25 and are in discussions most every year as being a national championship contender. That bandwagon always gets big when you seem to hang in that kind of stratosphere. But perhaps another reason is to see and experience the behemoth known as Allen Fieldhouse, also known as “The Phog”, the historic building of another era that the Jayhawks still call home court. A building that seems to come alive by itself to give the Hawks a little extra boost just when they might need it to pull out yet another improbable win.
This past Saturday, January 10, I had such an opportunity. Oh, of course you might say that I could go any time I wanted, being a long standing member of a well known sports radio outlet. On the surface that may be true, though the schedule I work does not allow for attending many events anywhere in person, sports or otherwise. But this worked out perfectly – a friend of mine has season tickets and invited me to go along with him to the Big 12 home opener against Texas Tech. It was a 2:00 start, which works well for me on Saturdays – when I don’t have to work, that is, and this was one of them – and I had not been to a game at AFH since the early 90’s. If you have not been so fortunate in the past, follow me for a few minutes on this printed page and I will do my best to give you an idea of what it’s like to sit in the hallowed stands that have seen so many historic moments over its nearly 60 year existence (with no end in sight, the mega-money of college athletics not withstanding).
Allen Fieldhouse was built in an era where major universities used their basketball facilities for many things, which is what a “fieldhouse” was designed to do. The main purpose outside of hoops was indoor track and field, and at one time Allen Fieldhouse had a track around its lower level. You just fold back the lower section of bleachers just like almost any high school gym, take up the basketball floor, and you had an instant track for meets and training. The basketball floor likely was also marked for volleyball, so they played at the Fieldhouse, too. Nowadays, though, it’s only a basketball arena, but it is still a product of the time it was built, the mid 1950’s. And when KU built it, they built it big. At one time they could get 17,500 to pushing 18,000 in it for basketball. With today’s modern fire codes and other building regulations, though, they settled in at 16, 300, and that is always the figure you see for attendance in every KU home game box score. It is a typical college arena from one standpoint – it’s not real large. It is intimate for being so big in attendance, not like modern arenas which are built more for fan comfort and eye catching views for the television cameras. Even the highest seats in two of the corners of the building are closer to the court than seats on the top row of the lower level at, say, the Sprint Center. The majority of seats are blue wooden bleachers, with red bleachers in the middle section and maybe a couple thousand gold chairback seats at mid court on both sides, more on the east than the west. That is about the only concession to modern amenities the Fieldhouse can offer – the top dollar contributors have to get at least some creature comforts for their money. Pretty much any seat in the place will give you a good vantage point for the game. The picture included with this article was taken from where I was sitting – right in the southeast corner, row 20 of the third level. If you were watching on television, it would be in the upper right hand corner from the center court camera, the position of which moved around the building for years before settling in where it is now. The Fieldhouse wasn’t built with that then-newfangled technology in mind.
One thing hasn’t changed and that, of course, is the quality of the guys wearing the white uniforms with Kansas on the front. Of course when the Fieldhouse was built, KU was not far removed from back-t0-back Final Four appearances and a national championship (with another championship game appearance to follow just two years later). The opening of the Fieldhouse happened to coincide with the appearance on campus of a legendary high school player from Philadelphia named Wilt Chamberlain, whose legend only grew with his size (seven feet tall, huge for that time period) and continued to grow after he left KU one year early to turn professional, first with the Harlem Globetrotters and then in the NBA (and you thought kids coming out early was just a modern day trend). The Hawks continued to invade the Final Four regularly through the 60s and 70s, though it would be 1988 before another NCAA championship would be theirs. Still, you get the idea – the Jayhawks have always been good. When you enter the Fieldhouse, you are greeted warmly by the ticket takers. Everyone tells you to enjoy the game. Anticipation of yet another Jayhawk victory is in the air, everywhere. So is the history of the program itself, now on display in the Booth Athletic Hall of Fame on the east side, where nearly everyone comes in. You see the beautiful trophy from the most recent Jayhawk NCAA championship in 2008, along with the many other awards down through the years. And not just in basketball, but football, track, and many other sports, all enclosed in various cases. There is also a piece from the center of the original court at the Fieldhouse, a display piece where many fans have pictures taken. It is a beautiful addition to the building, and one available not just on game day, but most any day. Once you are past that, you go around to whatever staircase is needed to head to your seats. Unless you are lucky enough to have a ticket close to the floor, in which case you could enter at any of the corners and head up a few stairs in the arena itself. Everyone else goes up one, two, or in a few cases three, flights of stairs which have been added just outside the arena and connected to the concourses to make things about as easy as the building will allow. Of course the teams come out to warm up for a bit, but when they go back to the locker room, the tradition kicks in. The KU alma mater is played by the band and sung by all (the words appear on the video board if you don’t know or remember them), then the famous Rock Chalk chant, which doesn’t need words on the video board because everyone already knows them (“Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, K-U” sung twice very slowly, then three times very quickly with emphasis on the last “U”). The players come out again for about the final five minutes, then the coaches come out and Jayhawk head coach Bill Self’s every move is shown on the video board when he enters the tunnel leading to the court, always to major applause. Self has a superstition of blowing into his hands just before he enters the arena and, yes, the cameras pick that up, too. The band kicks it up again and as the clock winds down to zero, the band plays a familiar KU theme song and ends it just as the clock hits :00.0 with precision timing. Then the line-ups are introduced, including an extremely drawn-out video with some of the historic moments of Jayhawk basketball just before the KU starters are introduced – just to remind the opposing team of the whipping that is about to be laid on them (hopefully). And then it begins . . .
On this particular day at the Fieldhouse the atmosphere is dialed down a bit, mainly for two reasons. One is the opposition – Texas Tech is still a bottom feeder in the Big 12, one of two teams which have not been ranked in the top 25 this season (the Fieldhouse invariably saves its biggest moments for its most important games). The other is that the students are still on winter break – the well-heeled donors may supply the money but the kids are the ones who kick up the energy the most whenever it’s needed the most. On this particular day, though, the Fieldhouse crowd can save a lot of its energy. Even with turnovers on its first two possessions the Jayhawks are here to play on this day, and their defense is tenacious against the Red Raiders. Eventually KU’s scoring starts to kick in and they are up by 20+ points late in the first half. Tech eventually gets a small rally going and makes it 42-25 at the break. But if anyone thought Tech was coming back more than that, guess again – KU scores the first eight points of the second half, then quickly adding another burst to go up by 30 and Tech never really got closer than 30, with the final score being 86-54. A few fans started to leave at the second media time out of the second half, but a more major exodus started with the third time out with six and a half minutes remaining. It was all over but the final Rock Chalk chant – which by the way, didn’t really get going until about a half minute left in the game. That seemed kind of late to me – I guess that really was a sign that today’s atmosphere wasn’t dialed all the way up, or anywhere near it. But still, to experience all that stuff live right from the venerable building itself is a wonderful thing. And to watch the Jayhawks play basketball as well as they played it for much of the game today, that’s a wonderful thing too, even to the eyes of this Kansas State alum, although I have to say I would not have enjoyed it that much if it was the Wildcats absorbing this beatdown, which inevitably they will when they make their annual trip to the Fieldhouse on January 31st. But I am a basketball fan no matter who is wearing the uniforms, and the Jayhawks did a lot of things right. They got the ball inside for easy buckets and to kick it back outside for open three pointers – they hit 50% of those on this day. And they had assists on 24 of their 32 made field goals, an insane percentage that any coach at any level would drool over. Moreover, they looked like the team to beat yet again in the Big 12 Conference. Every year folks talk about someone challenging KU’s league dominance, whether it be Texas, Iowa State or maybe this year Oklahoma, off to a blazing fast start. And every year it’s always the same – Kansas winning the championship, at least in the regular season (the post-season tournament is more of a crap-shoot, but the regular season title assures the Hawks of making the NCAA field, which is where they officially deign to be anyway). Based on what I saw today at Allen Fieldhouse – in person with my own eyes – the more things change, the more they stay the same. And if you ever get a chance to get inside the Fieldhouse for a game, make it a point to do so. It’s always fun to be a small part of seeing history in the making at one of the most historic places to make it you can ever imagine.