News Article – March 6, 2010

The soul of basketball can be found in the small towns of Kansas

By KENT BABB  The Kansas City Star

The Kansas City Star

They say the soul of basketball is out there in a place where grain elevators are skyscrapers and barbed wire gives an order to things.

The whispers of legends carry through the rustling Kansas prairie grass, along the pounding of freight trains that connect civilization with the nation’s outskirts, in dark gyms where boys and girls bounce basketballs because that’s what has been done for generations.

“We’re just basketball people,” says Mary Peterson, 82, who lives with her husband in McPherson, Kan.

The road and history connect small towns throughout rural Kansas — if not the birthplace of basketball then the place where the game took its first steps.

James Naismith brought his invention to the University of Kansas in 1898, and men from some of the state’s most isolated places came to learn and then share their education. Legendary coaches are from out there, and so are many others. Tough boys who were raised in roughneck communities; kids who grew up in places that even sound blue-collar: Halstead, Bucklin, Larned.

It is in those small towns that the seeds of a global phenomenon were first planted. Some have maintained their traditions. Others are trying to reclaim what has been lost.

Fifty years ago, the state of Kansas was the epicenter of basketball, the breeding ground for the sport’s genius. But with time that legacy has faded, and that’s what makes this season’s renaissance special. For the first time in a half century, the Sunflower State is home to two of the top five college basketball teams in the country. Kansas City is preparing for its biggest sports week of the year as host of the Big 12 tournaments. To others who are watching, the roots of the sport feel as strong as ever.

“You’re kind of born and raised on basketball in the state of Kansas, and that’s just the way it is,” says Texas A&M’s Mark Turgeon, a Topeka kid who played at Kansas and started his coaching career at Wichita State.

Yes, the soul of the game is out there, but you need to get on the road to find it.

McPHERSON, Kan. | It’s an hour before tipoff at McPherson High School, and the radio is on at the home of a couple in their 80s. While Linn Peterson waits for the boys varsity game to start, he studies three postcards sent a lifetime ago.

Peterson, 89, is one of the last links to McPherson’s basketball pioneers, the boys who won Olympic gold in 1936 and inspired a community to put basketball first. It’s only right that Peterson keeps his artifacts close.

“We sail tomorrow,” reads the one with New York’s Hotel Lincoln on the front.

Peterson doesn’t get around like he once did, and his wife, Mary, tells most of his stories. Her husband’s memory has begun to fade. She speaks over the radio, the McPherson High girls game coming through on KBBE-FM. Linn Peterson once occupied the same gym as that first Olympic basketball team, whose roster was made up of six workers at McPherson’s Globe oil refinery. The refinery recruited the area’s finest players and put together a group that could tangle with the best.

Peterson played in a preliminary game alongside McPherson’s Olympians, an unlikely product of a town of about 13,700 residents. Those six players joined others from California, and they were sent to Berlin.

Back home came the tales of the Americans defeating Canada 19-8 in the gold-medal game and how an adopted Kansan named James Naismith presented gold medals to boys from McPherson. The Globe Refiners might have come from everywhere, but they belonged to McPherson, and their gold medal added more legitimacy to a sport in its infancy.

Peterson grips the postcards. He never stopped loving basketball, the same as so many here. He and Mary traveled the world, but Mary says that no place felt as comfortable as a bleacher seat inside McPherson’s circular gymnasium. They had season tickets for years.

That’s why this year has been so difficult. Linn’s health is fading, and Mary won’t go to games without her husband. So they sit in their armchairs, listening to Nick Gosnell and Jerry Fithian tell a story on the radio.

“Makes you feel like you’re kind of there,” Mary Peterson says. “We do miss this.”

A mile away and inside the gymnasium, the student section is packed. There are families and singles here, the old and the young, men in farm hats and others in neckties. And when Christian Ulsaker drives through the lane for McPherson’s first basket, they all stand together and clap.

BUCKLIN, Kan. | A bitter wind whips through a speck on the prairie that Eddie Sutton once called home. A skunk lies dead on the shoulder of U.S. 54, not far from a sign that welcomes visitors to the hometown of Sutton, the longtime coach at Oklahoma State and Arkansas and other places that are easier to forget.

Sutton was born here in 1936, and so was his love of basketball. He used to tell a story about having no plumbing or electricity inside his home, but he had a radio that would pick up college basketball games. He would listen and think about what it would be like to play ball at a big school someday. He couldn’t have known he would later play under Hank Iba and win more than 800 games as a coach himself.

Bucklin hasn’t changed much in the time since Sutton left 50 years ago. There is one filling station in this town of about 725 people, and it’s one of two eating places, too, the other being a bar on Main Street. Inside the gas station is a handwritten sign near the toilets that reminds customers how far away they are from somewhere else: nine hours to St. Louis, 14 to Phoenix, 7 1/2 to Dallas.

Boys become farmers here, unless something takes them to one of those places on the sign in the restroom. In Sutton’s day, basketball was the way out, the great liberator. One of those men he listened to on the radio was Wichita State coach Ralph Miller, who went from Chanute, Kan., to the Hall of Fame.

But that was years ago. Now kids in what used to be a dedicated basketball town aren’t as interested.

“They used to want to be part of something,” says Rob Scott, the high school’s basketball coach. “Now it’s not like that.”

Scott has seen enthusiasm recede. If Bucklin High is winning, the town is jubilant. If it’s not, Bucklin is apathetic. It has mostly been apathetic these last few years, and the current excitement for KU and Kansas State is split by a large group of Oklahoma fans so close to the state line.

“You’d think this town would be red hot for basketball,” he says. “But it runs hot and cold.”

Even Sutton rarely comes back these days. He visited when the signs bearing his name were unveiled, one at each edge of town and another in front of the high school. That, too, was years ago. The one on Bucklin’s east side, faded and crooked, looks like a relic, older than it is.

HALSTEAD, Kan. | They pulled their socks high and parted their hair in the middle. Then the lights were lowered. Players ran in during halftime of a varsity game, wearing jerseys that were decades old, and for a few minutes, it was 1908 again.

That was during the 2008 season, and Halstead was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the school’s first basketball state championship. Coach Joe Gerber studied a century-old photograph and the players’ bios, matching several of his current players with the roles of players on the 1908 team, lining up their appearances and personalities as best he could. Then the coach approached his players with a proposition.

“What do you think about very short shorts?” sophomore Devon Bibb, 17, recalls Gerber asking.

They called it “1908 Night,” and a year later, Halstead did it again to celebrate the 1909 state title.

There’s a century of tradition here, and it hasn’t been forgotten. The 1909 trophy sits in a sprawling case, and it’s believed to be the oldest basketball trophy ever awarded to a Kansas high school team. Not only that, Adolph Rupp, the toughest and scariest coach of the 20th century, was born here. He went to Halstead High before his 41-year tenure as Kentucky coach that included 876 wins and four national titles.

“We’ve got something significant here,” Gerber says.

The school wasn’t always so nostalgic. Until a few years ago, that trophy sat in a bus barn, tarnished and caked with grime. It wasn’t until school officials found it and started cleaning that they realized its significance.

Places like Bucklin have become distanced from their past, but Halstead is trying to find ways to connect its history with the future. If Gerber’s players weren’t inspired by the school’s first championship teams, then nothing could motivate them. After all, it was those Halstead teams that compelled Rupp to stuff rags into a feedbag and practice shots against the wall of a cattle barn.

Gerber likes to tell his players things like that.

“If you don’t continue to tell those stories,” he says, “you’re going to lose them.”

MANHATTAN, Kan. | It’s cold and early, but they’re here anyway.

“You can feel the energy,” says Brad Gober, a 22-year-old junior at Kansas State.

A few dozen students are outside Bramlage Coliseum, waiting for that evening’s game, a big matchup against the University of Missouri. The doors don’t open for eight hours. It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday, and 21-year-old Drew Ball forgot his gloves. He keeps his hands inside his coat pockets, but his fingers are red from the cold.

“Totally worth it,” he says.

For many years, this town was the home of one of the country’s most successful basketball programs. The Wildcats played for the national championship in 1951, finished the 1959 season at the top of the polls, won 17 conference championships and reached the Final Four four times.

But the 1990s saw Kansas State’s stature drop just as Kansas had cemented itself as an annual national power. The Wildcats went 12 years without an NCAA Tournament appearance. The Little Apple grew accustomed to living in the shadow of Lawrence, always considered the “other place” for college basketball in the state. Fans’ interests shifted to the gridiron.

This season, with the Wildcats rising as high as No. 5 in the country, the hoops tradition is back with a vengeance. The students here are so fired up, they call themselves “the angriest fans in America.” They refer to Bramlage as the Octagon of Doom. The sports world got a purple-tinged glimpse of the Wildcat nation when ESPN’s “Game Day” program spent a Saturday in January at Manhattan for the huge matchup against Kansas.

For good seats in Bramlage for the MU game, Ball says that he, Gober and sophomore Jeris Broadbent are standing in four-hour shifts. After 1 p.m., another group will relieve them and hold their place in line. At 5:30 p.m., they’ll go in together.

In recent seasons, students wouldn’t have to inconvenience themselves this way. Tickets were readily available, and the Wildcats were average. Not this year. Kansas State could easily win the Big 12 tournament this week at the Sprint Center, with dreams of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the Final Four berth that often comes along with it.

“We definitely don’t want it to end,” Gober says through chattering teeth.


HIAWATHA, Kan. | There have been books written and movies made about John McLendon, nicknames assigned to the games he coached, and history dog-eared to remember the way he introduced color to an all-white game.

Too bad so few in his hometown even know his name.

“You could probably go up and down the street today and ask if anybody has heard of him,” says Larry Kneisel, 69, a lifelong Hiawatha resident. “And you’d get 10 out of 10 no’s.”

Before he became a pioneer, McLendon left Hiawatha and became one of Naismith’s favorite pupils at KU. Naismith taught his protégé the game the way its inventor saw it, and McLendon became a coach for five colleges and the ABA’s Denver Rockets. He fine-tuned the fast-break offense and, in 1944, coached the first college game between whites and blacks. They called it the “Secret Game.”

Kneisel and David Fitz, the athletic director at Hiawatha High, nurse beers on a Saturday afternoon. They say that Hiawatha’s residents are forgetful, that those who should have remembered McLendon never went to the trouble.

The men sit across from each other, and a long time passes.

“You know,” Kneisel says, breaking the silence. “We ought to dedicate our gymnasium to him.”

They nod and then change the subject. They tell the story of a man from Hiawatha named John Davis, who spent his family’s fortune — said to be upward of $200,000 in the 1930s — on an enormous memorial for himself and his wife. The town was enraged at his vanity, particularly during the Great Depression.

Fitz and Kneisel laugh as they tell the story. Davis sacrificed most of what he had in life. But no one forgot his name.

CLAFLIN, Kan. | The horizon gives it away first. If there’s a grain elevator in the distance, a town is near. The one in Claflin has a barn at its foot, and the purple logo on the roof is unmistakable. It’s a Kansas State Wildcat, and it’s as common here as tilled fields.

Mailboxes, flags and front doors are painted purple and white. Across town, J.D. Klima, 25, washes his pickup by hand, stopping every few minutes to wring out a purple rag. This is a K-State town. Even Claflin High School goes by the name Wildcats. That’s where Jackie Stiles shot baskets for hours every night before she set the NCAA women’s career scoring record at Southwest Missouri State.

About 700 people live in Claflin, and most work on farms or oil fields. Klima runs a well service and has three children. Long hours don’t leave time for much else.

“TV ain’t much of an option,” he says.

Basketball needed places like Claflin during the sport’s infancy. It was a country game that was well-suited for the wide-open spaces of the state. It fit the seasonal routine of farming in the fall and then finding other activities during harsh winters. Small schools that couldn’t field a whole football team could usually find five to play on the hardwoods.

The games keep life moving, and they give people more to talk about than the frozen fields or the oil wells sitting dead in a junkyard. K-State is having its best season in decades, and that has people stopping in to stoke the fire with employees at Miller’s furniture store, the town’s largest collection of KU fans.

Barbara Musgrove, a saleswoman at Miller’s, says basketball is taken seriously in places like Claflin — even if you’re outnumbered.

“We just have to talk it,” she says, leaning against a counter in the store’s rear. “Our kids grow up knowing sports.

“That’s what keeps us going.”

TOPEKA | This is no small town, with interstates and tall buildings tattooing the landscape. But this is the place where basketball influenced history and contributed to Kansas’ coaching bloodline.

Topeka High’s basketball team was desegregated in 1950, four years before Brown v. Board of Education. Before blacks and whites could learn together, they were playing together.

It’s also where Dean Smith went to high school, and if Naismith was the father of basketball and Phog Allen the father of basketball coaching, Smith was their ambitious grandson. He took the game to North Carolina and influenced a new generation, winning 879 games and producing a long list of coach and player success stories.

A half-century ago, Kansas-born coaches were dominating the game. Rupp had won four national titles. McClendon was winning NAIA titles at Tennessee A&I. Smith was just beginning his Hall of Fame coaching career. Miller was doing the same at Wichita State. Sutton was learning at the feet of Iba.

Back then, basketball wasn’t just played in Kansas, it was taught. Everyone had a connection, in one way or the other, to the inventor.

Rupp and Miller played under Allen at KU while Naismith was still teaching. Later, Smith played on the Jayhawks’ 1952 NCAA championship team.

But that great crop hasn’t been replanted. In its place today are Kansans who understand their state’s coaching legacy but have a long way to go before reaching the glory of their descendants.

About 14 miles west of here, former K-State coach Lon Kruger, now at University of Nevada at Las Vegas, grew up in the community of Silver Lake. Kruger became a hometown hero playing for the Wildcats in the 1970s under coach Jack Hartman, who, like Sutton, learned from Iba.

Mark Turgeon didn’t play for Smith, but he grew up in Topeka and studied the paths of the men who came before him. He later played point guard at KU — for Larry Brown, a member of Smith’s coaching tree — before coaching Wichita State seven years and moving to Texas A&M in 2007.

“Being around great basketball kind of spurs people to be coaches,” Turgeon says.

Turgeon and Kruger may not reach the Hall of Fame, but they’ve never forgotten where they came from and what that meant.

“You just learn to have more drive,” says Gene Keady, a Larned native who was a coaching icon at Purdue for 26 seasons and national coach of the year six times. “You’re taught how to work. You’re taught how to respect people. You’re disciplined. You have a tendency to want to go to church every Sunday. You try to live the right type of life.

“It’s in the way you’re brought up. You’re hungry. There’s a dream out there that you want to fulfill.”

LAWRENCE | The road flattens, and buildings appear in the distance. Lecture halls and libraries, buildings that use the past to teach the future.

East of KU’s campus, a man and woman step out of an SUV at Memorial Park Cemetery. Renee Wiesner has lived in Lawrence for 20 years, and this is her first visit to James Naismith’s grave. Wiesner stands next to the huge granite monument, with its engraving of Naismith holding a basketball with his right hand. Ron Williford snaps a picture.

Three miles west of Memorial Park, a 94-year-old sits in his den and recalls his final semester at KU. Jim Owens was one of a handful of students in a class whose instructor was James Naismith. It was 1937, the final year Naismith taught classes, and Owens remembers that it centered on “clean living” and keeping out of trouble.

“Kind of philosophy, you might say,” Owens says.

He says that the stocky instructor rarely mentioned basketball and that he didn’t push students toward the game. He didn’t need to.

“There wasn’t a heck of a lot going on in the state of Kansas,” Owens says. “We just kind of grabbed onto basketball.”

It has a way of grabbing back and never turning loose.

Owens’ son persuaded him to attend a KU game this season, his first in about 10 years. Owens doesn’t remember the Jayhawks’ opponent, only that they won. He took extra time to soak in his surroundings, to take a mental photograph of the spectacle his old instructor’s invention has become. He saw the product of those rural Kansas boys who had found their way up the road and went about building a game that now transcends race, economics and hardship. The soul of basketball was in there, and it’s an image that Owens won’t forget.

“I see a wonderful crowd, a full house and lots of screaming and hollering,” he says. “Just a great time for everybody. That’s what it’s about. I felt like I was in some hallowed place.”

Owens takes a deep breath. It’s also an image that won’t need to be replaced.

“That’s my last one,” he says. “I’m OK with that. It’s been wonderful.”

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