Like the Day after Christmas: The End of Basketball Season

For just a few teams, four to be exact, the season has not yet ended. But for me, the squeak of shoes on the court at Koch Arena has faded, the home/away schedule has been taken off the refrigerator, and the courtship of Coach Marshall by bigger, richer programs has begun. Shocker hoops season is officially closed.

I liken the end of the season to the day after Christmas. You are exhausted, but still euphoric from the time spent with family, friends, the parties, and the unexpected gifts but, you are also heavy with sadness, something you cannot quite shake, because it ended much too quickly. Just like that, it seems, it’s over. And now you have to wait a very long time to feel the anticipation, the excitement, and the delirious joy that comes with the season. You carefully tuck away the foam finger and the WuShock wig in the closet under the stairs, nestle numerous strands of yellow and black beads in your top dresser drawer along with leftover face tattoos and ticket stubs you were too superstitious to throw away, and with a tear in your eye, (which you explain to the neighbor was caused by those stinking, blooming Bradford pear trees), take down the gold and black flags that have flapped their loyalty through wind, rain, sleet and snow.

There is one saving grace which makes the end of basketball season easier to endure and that is the wearing of ones colors throughout the year. While you’d probably be ridiculed for wearing a red t-shirt of Santa’s jolly face in the middle of June, no one will blink if you wear your team colors every day of the week until November. If I had to stash away all of my Shocker gear until next season, fold it all neatly into black and yellow tubs and store them in the attic or basement, I’d lose my mind. Plus, we’d probably have to rent out a storage unit. I know wearing my Wu Shocked the Rock Chalk t-shirt in August will not only help me get through the hot summer days, it will bring to mind another incredible Shocker season.

Coming into the 2014-2015 season, we knew expectations would again be high, but we also knew we had a different team on the floor with many new, young faces. While we still had Van Vleet, Baker, Cotton, Wessel, and Carter, the thought of an inexperienced bench made everyone a little nervous, even my dad. The inconsistency of the bench and the obvious lack of trust in the bench from our veterans forced a few nail biters, but overall, they persevered and a few of those fresh faces emerged as our future stars. Shocker Nation, spoiled now by seasons of winning, grew restless after one loss, then critical after two. Personally, I figured this to be a five, possibly six-loss season, and was proud of our team for only one loss in conference play and a total of three losses during the entire season prior to the two tournament losses. So, let’s talk about those unexpected gifts.

Sure, having a starting five of Fred, Ron, Tekele, Evan and Darius is a gift in itself, but the emergence of our freshmen was the first gift under the black and gold tree. By the end of the season, Morris, Brown, and Bush had made their presence known and stepped up during some of the biggest games of the season.

The second? On February 28th, a date forever marked on the calendar as one of the biggest days in Shocker basketball history, the Shockers were crowned the season MVC Champs, back to back champions for the first time in 50 years. And, while the game against Northern Iowa was already significant with the winner the outright champ, ESPN’s College Game Day came to town to witness firsthand the electricity of Shocker Nation. Not even a late season snow storm would stop us from showing Bilas and the boys just what Wichita and Wichita State were made of. The energy from that morning spilled over into the game, igniting an already determined Shocker team to handily beat the Panthers. It was probably the loudest I have ever heard the fans in Koch Arena. Absolute delirium. I guess you could say this was one of those three-in-one gifts, where you have to open all three back-to-back-to-back to take in the full measure of just how awesome a gift you’ve just received.

Any other season that three-in-one would have been the grand finale gift, but not this year. Despite losing to Illinois State in the MVC tournament, which was disappointing but not life-ending, the Shockers were invited to the Big Dance for the fourth year in a row, a school record. And for the second year in a row, they had a tough road ahead of them to reach the Final Four: Indiana, Kansas, Notre Dame, and Kentucky. But, the only game able to distract all fans from the thought of a rematch against Kentucky was the possibility of finally playing Kansas. Yes, KU. The wait was over. No longer would Coach Self be able to ignore the media and fans and their constant badgering of why the Jayhawks would not schedule a game against the Shockers. For Shocker Nation, it was well worth the wait. Jim Rome described the outcome as “Kansas getting their nose broken by their so-called little brother,” but I see WSU and KU more like cousins. One, a working class kid with a chip on his shoulder and the other, a wealthy kid who knows he’ll get everything on his Christmas list. One kid works hard for everything he has earned. The other kid expects it and takes it for granted. This explains a lot of the bitterness following the game.

When the buzzer sounded and Wichita State was crowned the new “Kings of Kansas,” it was unknown territory for Jayhawk fans. When you are used to being on top, when you are hailed as a blue blood program, and you have numerous conference championships and a handful of National Championships, it hurts to be thought of as “second” in your home state, if even for a moment. But, for Shocker Nation, this may have been the biggest gift of the season. I don’t expect Jayhawk fans to truly understand or comprehend what this game meant to us, especially for fans like my father who’ve wanted to see a series between WSU, KU and K-State for years. And, as a true basketball fan, my father supports both programs of Kansas and Kansas State, but his heart and history belongs to WSU. The look on his face after the game was reminiscence of when we attended the Final Four in 2013. Sheer joy.

Many referred to this game as our Super Bowl, and maybe it was, which would explain why the Shockers just didn’t seem to have the energy to keep up with Notre Dame. They’d given everything they had on the court to ensure Shocker Nation was able to bask in a win against the blue and crimson team from Lawrence. Icing on the cake was a trip to the Sweet 16. Beating the University of Kansas for a trip to the Sweet 16 was like waking up on Christmas to find a black and yellow tandem Schwinn bicycle or Harley Davidson Sportster, depending on your preference of two-wheeled transportation, next to the tree.

Overall, it’s been a wonderful Christmas basketball season. The anticipation was immense, there were a lot of great parties and quality time spent with family and friends, and the gifts were bigger and better than were initially scribbled in letters to Santa WuShock. With that in mind, I will exercise great patience in waiting for November and enjoy the summer dreaming of another black and gold basketball season and many more unexpected gifts.

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MVP-Revisited

Today is my father’s 82nd birthday. In honor of this great man, a re-posting of MVP from 2010. Happy birthday, dad. –

Yesterday was my father’s birthday. He turned 78. There is so much I can say about my dad, he has been the true constant in my life. Yes, he instilled my love of sports, but more than that, he taught me to work hard, appreciate the results, be kind to everyone, place God and family first. And all by example. He is the quiet, gentle lead-by-example hero in my life. I consider myself more than lucky, more than blessed.

This is one of my favorite pictures of my father:

This is from his 1954-55 season with one of the city league teams. I’m not sure if it’s the church league, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, or the Naismith league with the VFW. But I love this picture. My dad was a player. He has a mustard-colored scrapbook filled with black and whites like this one, newspaper clippings, self-written or typed notecards with the team stats. He also has a shelf in the basement filled with trophies. They used to sit on the television console, then were moved to a long table in the living room. I used to glide my fingers across the shiny miniature basketball players, trace the engravings of his name, his team. There was even an ivory and gold trophy I swore was bigger than me, three-tiered and decorated with golden wreaths. I loved these trophies. They were a part of my father. A piece of him I only knew of. Never witnessed. Because by the time I was old enough to walk, he had retired from the game, except for the occasional pick-up game.

While many wouldn’t consider my father’s basketball career a success, in my eyes and the eyes of my siblings, there was no other player more successful than my father. And while I never got to see him play, I knew this by the stories my mother and older sister shared. The stories his friends shared. Their eyes would light up when they talked about my dad on the court. “Your dad could play…best hook shot I ever saw…greatest assist man…so smooth, he was down the court before you realized it…unselfish…cool.”

The first time I met local football icon, Linwood Sexton, a huge grin spread across his face as he commenced to tell me that if my father had been given the opportunity to play high school ball and come to WU, his jersey would be hanging in those rafters at Levitt Arena (now, Koch arena). “Your dad was the best basketball player I’d ever seen.” And he would know. As coach of the basketball team for St. Peter Claver, Sexton coached against my dad.

I remember gazing up at those jerseys, Littleton, Stallworth, and I wondered…what if. What if my dad had been given the opportunity? But life for a poor Mexican kid from Lyons, Kansas didn’t come with too many opportunities. Especially when my grandfather was killed in a grain elevator accident when my father was only twelve, leaving he and his seven siblings to care for their mother. They moved to Wichita to be closer to family. And those who were old enough to work, found jobs. My grandmother spoke little English and her husband’s death burdened her with an unshakable depression. The children took over the family. So at twelve, my father walked two miles to what was then Crestview Country Club near the University of Wichita, where he caddied for seventy-five cents for 18 holes. His first job. And it was there he fell in love with golf. And it was in Wichita he began to play basketball.

That’s him, second from the left. Not much of a team, but my dad loved playing. And he continued to play, even after he dropped out of high school to work full time he found city leagues, church leagues, and later the Mexican-American league. He just had to play.

One of the newspaper clippings from 1951, the Naismith league season, reads: “…with four minutes remaining, Oscar Castro, high-jumping VFW key man, dumped in two quick baskets to give VFW a 44-39 lead…”  My father averaged 9 points that season. Other clippings praise his coolness on the free throw line or how he made 5 of 6 shots in the waning minutes of a game. The clippings are many. The photos are fading. But the memories are alive every time someone recalls seeing my father play.

I once asked him if he wished things had been different. If he’d been able to play at North High and at WSU. Did he wish he could change his path. And he simply answered, no. No hesitation, no thought, no regrets. Just, no. And in that simple answer I truly understood my father. And this recognition brought to mind a quote, “Each one of us will one day be judged by our standard of life-not by our standard of living; by our measure of giving-not by our measure of wealth; by our simple goodness-not by our seeming greatness.”

Because my father is more than “the greatest basketball player ever seen,” more than those now dust-ridden trophies in the basement, those yellowed clippings. He is respected for his honesty, his integrity, his kindness, his love of family. And for that, he is more than a most valuable player.

So last night, I decided if I couldn’t get my father’s jersey in the rafters at Koch, I could at least get his name in lights.

Even if for a brief moment. He was surprised. He said it made his day, that and the Shockers won their conference opener 91-57 (first conference opener win of Marshall’s WSU career). It was a good birthday. And when he asked for copies of the pictures, I knew they would find a place  in those few remaining pages of his scrapbook. A continuation of his success in life. And I couldn’t be more honored.

More Than a Season

When the season ends, it always hurts. From November until April, we immerse ourselves in college hoops, specifically Shocker basketball, and when the season ends, well, it’s painful. The oomph to the solar plexus, the slight confusion, the reality check of everyday life. During basketball season, we live game day to game day, with each moment in between filled with scouting reports, Sports Center, newspaper and magazine articles, the usual workplace pre-meeting chat of last night’s game or the upcoming contest this weekend. Then, it ends. And, it hurts.

Even more so, this season. Not because of the one loss, not because of that final shot, not because it was Kentucky, and not because we knew the Shockers had so much more in them, that this team could’ve won a National Championship, but because this incredible, thrilling, almost surreal ride has come to an end. Forget the oomph to the solar plexus, this is like a kick to the windpipe. And why is it so painful? Why do I and numerous other Shocker fans feel lethargic and sad? As I said, I’m used to dealing with the aftermath of the close of a season, I know what to expect, I know it will take me a week or two to get my bearings, to finally stop clinging to the remnants of the season by watching highlight reels, reading past articles, viewing Facebook photos of games.

But, this year is different and I’m starting to understand why the pain is so unique. The season never truly ended, last year. The euphoria that swept campus and the city during the 2013 run to the Final Four never subsided even after the Shockers loss to Louisville in the semi-final. The validation that came from that game, that run, only sustained the buzz of anticipation and expectation for the next season, like the drone of a million bees it kept us all suspended until November where it settled inside Koch Arena and hummed louder with each victory. Eventually, it seeped out to campus and throughout the city until you could almost feel the buzzing from within, or at least I could, like a warm vibration of the soul urging you to carry the team mantra into everyday life by working, playing and living a little angrier.

We knew the season would be good,  that what happened in Atlanta was only a glimpse of what was to come, but never did we expect our beloved Shockers to go undefeated, to stand upon the precipice of college basketball history. Even my father, whom I steadily rely upon for basketball guidance admitted he “never saw this coming.” Our expectation of a winning season, an MVC conference title, the hope of eliminating the St. Louis curse and an MVC tournament championship was not just realized, it was slammed home on a platter of perfection. The buzz had become deafening.

And yet, we could still hear the naysayers. Sure, they had to shout long and hard to be heard, but we could still hear their whining, their dismissals, their bullying and desperate responses after every win. Their battle cry against Wichita State became redundant and embarrassing, especially when it became apparent those who cried the loudest and longest knew nothing of college basketball. Nada. These were the ones I speculated as young kids had picked the teams they thought were safe bets. Picking a power house or blue blood team guarantees a happy March, right? What I figured was a lot of these people were actually more angry at themselves or their teams mediocre seasons than they were at the Shockers.  It was just easier to take it out on the Shockers and their schedule rather than admit after all these years they’d possibly picked the wrong school. Ironically, their mean-spirited attacks only stirred the nest, increasing and uniting the hum of Shocker Nation.

From Selection Sunday to Sunday afternoons showdown with Kentucky, the excitement and pride of Wichita and Shocker Nation was near crescendo. I could feel it like a hundred cold and prickly goose bumps across my flesh every time a complete stranger said “Go Shox” to me in response to my ever-present Shocker gear. I could hear it in the flapping of a Wushock flag outside a business or earnestly from the window of a passing car. I could see it in the eyes of my father every time he shared a newspaper article or I brought him the latest Sports Illustrated featuring the Shockers or printed online article. And call me crazy, I could even taste it, like that first sip of a beer snatched from the bottom of an icy cooler after a long, hot day.

But as with any deafening roar, there is always imminent silence. I wasn’t there in the Scottrade Center or the local Emerson Biggins, but when the final buzzer sounded and our boys walked off the court, the silence fell upon our city like an invisible snowfall. It wasn’t that the world actually fell silent, but the buzz that had carried us for an entire year had suddenly stopped. And with the quiet came the pain.

That’s why this one hurts so differently. This pain is not from a five-month season, but a twelve-month season, a season that began when the Shockers defeated Ohio State to head to the Final Four. So, I’m preparing myself for a lengthy recovery, one that may take a month or two. I’ll reread the articles, watch the videos, view the photos, and know much of our patio and deck conversations over beer this summer will be spent reminiscing the season.

I’ll continue to follow the journeys of these incredible young men, those whose paths are changing, those who will stay to carry the weighty torch of what is now Shocker basketball, and the new  players just arriving to become one of the family. Shaq Morris recently tweeted, “The red shirt is off,” to which many followers responded with their hopes and urgings for the next season and his successful beginnings.

Wait, there it is. That sound. Can you hear it? I feel better already.

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Our Bags are Packed: Still Representing

It’s the day after the semi-finals and if one more person approaches us and asks if we have tickets to sell for the championship game, someone might get hurt, either their feelings or physically makes no difference to me. Nothing worse than ticket vultures.

They were descending upon us while we stood near our seats after our game. Class act. They were waiting in the lobby of our hotel this morning. Either these people are incredibly ignorant, financially desperate, stupidly brave or all of the above. Apparently, some Shocker fans decided it was better to sell their tickets, thinking a little warm cash in their pockets would negate the sense of loss they were feeling. I don’t pretend to understand those fans, because for us it was a no-brainer as a) we want to attend the championship game because as college hoops fans this is the Motherland b) we want to experience it all, the entire weekend. As one women bejeweled in black and gold said to us in the elevator, “it would be like to going to the Super Bowl and leaving at halftime.” c) We are proud fans who want to represent our team and Shocker Nation. Not attending is akin to being a sore loser, in my opinion, a “we lost, I’m outta here” mentality. That’s not how I was raised. Showing up in our colors makes the statement that we back our team, we love this game, we still belong.

So, how do we put distance between us, the ticket vultures and those who traded their championship tickets for an expensive meal and a bottle of wine? Head to major league ballpark, Turner Field, to watch the Braves versus Cubs. First, let’s send off our team.

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The players and especially Coach Marshall were very appreciative of the sendoff, thanking us as they worked their way to the bus. While they were exhausted physically and mentally, Hall, Williams and Wiggins stopped to take photos with fans. Marshall walked through the crowd slowly, acknowledging each one of us with a nod and a  thank you. My wish as their bus pulled out of the drive was that a huge group of fans would be awaiting them at Koch Arena.

We watched as their police escorted buses turned the corner to head to the airport, then made our way to the trains. Apparently, most Final Four fans had the same idea to take in a baseball game, so instead of eating a hot dog and drinking a cold beer while soaking in the early April sun in the outfield, we settled for the dog and beer while sitting in the upper level along third base in the shade. And, I mean upper level. We had a great view of the city, but I forgot my dad does not like  heights.Oops. He’s such a good sport and said he would get used to being in the “nosebleed seats” and he did, although we moved down to the concourse after the seventh inning stretch for him to partake in the ballpark dog tradition.

The Braves won 4-1, but we did get to see Mike Bowden pitch an inning for the Cubs. Mike was a teammate of my nephew, Jeff, while at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Il., and was initially drafted by the Boston Red Sox. Because it was so crowded, we didn’t get to really see the entire park or the museum, which was disappointing, but not as disappointing as the trash. Possibly due to the large crowds, there were empty beer cans, food wrappers, flyers and other trash items in the street as you approached the park, but most horrifying were the cans and water bottles scattered at the base and actually on a few of the large sculptures of the retired numbers of former players. It was very disrespectful to see these monuments in Monument Grove treated in such fashion. But, if we ever get the chance to visit Atlanta in the future, I would definitely take in another game as it is extremely easy to get to the stadium on the MARTA and the free Braves shuttles, and I want to get the whole experience minus the crazy crowds.

After the game, we took the MARTA back to downtown Atlanta where our group split up. Brad, Josh and Bill decided to fight more crowds and attempt to get inside Centennial Park to see Sting and Dave Matthews Band as part of the NCAA festivities, but dad and I had enough of being shoulder to shoulder with strangers and headed to the hotel for a nice meal and to watch the women’s basketball semi-finals. We can never get enough basketball.

The third day of our Atlanta trip was topped by all of the respect given to us by strangers, either Atlanta natives, or fans of the Blue, the Orange or Cards. Again, all impressed with our team and our fans, quite a few stating we received two unfair calls in few minutes of the game with the double foul and the jump ball, and praising Coach Marshall and his staff. Plus, I spent a lot of the day educating people about Wichita State, answering questions about our school, where we were located, size of enrollment, and just what is a Shocker? An Atlanta woman told me I should put in for work hours as I was marketing the university as an alumna, staff member and devoted fan. I laughed.

I like to think that every day I represent the institution I dearly love, whether it be in the way I carry myself while wearing the black and gold or explaining what it means to shock wheat, I am more than glad to carry the torch of WSU. I’m thankful our team has quadrupled my opportunities to share with the world how outstanding life can be in Wichita and Wichita State. My father and I have known it all along. Marshall is right when he says, “We belong,” but I wonder if he knows it extends beyond our men’s basketball program.

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Our Bags are Packed: Our Ticket Validated

Posting daily is much tougher than I imagined, so I apologize for the delay.

Game day began at 7:30 am and ended at 3:00 am. Saturday was dubbed Shocker Saturday and it included sunflowers, the Shocker Sound, 4,000+ fans decked in their finest black and gold, former Shocker players from basketball, baseball and football, one of the largest pep rallies, the semi-finals and Shocker Nation on the verge of hysteria. You could feel it building within, ready to erupt.

The WSU Alumni Association stoked the fan fires by handing out these t-shirts first thing that morning.

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The word of the day on Saturday: validation. The mantra: We Belong. The goal: make our mark.

After picking up our shirts, we headed to breakfast at The Flying Biscuit. Seated at a table next to a wall painted in sunflowers (a noted omen), we grubbed on creamy grits, homemade biscuits, turkey bacon, organic oat pancakes and fresh eggs. Fueled and ready to go.

First up, get to the Congress Center to cheer on the Shocker Sound in the Battle of the Bands, a competition between all four bands representing in the Final Four. I’ve always said our pep band is the best in the Valley and could give the bigger schools a run for their money. Apparently, the judges felt the same as the Shocker Sound won the trophy for Best Pep Band 2013. We were there to cheer them on and sing our war song, which a couple of Louisville fans said was the “coolest thing they’d ever heard.” Another omen?

Following our win of the Battle of the Bands, we headed to one of the exhibition halls for the two-hour tailgate/pep rally. We knew it would be a big event, but we were wrong. It was huge. More than 4,000 Shocker fans, free food, open bars throughout the hall, guests included two players from the 1965 Final Four team, players from the 80s, 90s and three from the 2006 Sweet Sixteen team, as well as players from baseball and football. Shocker family united to support this incredible run.

Plus, Debbie Kennedy, president of the WSU Alumni Association, spoke of presenting a gift basket and card to Kevin Ware, the Louisville Cardinal who went down in the Elite 8 with the broken leg. All of Shocker Nation was given the opportunity to sign a large banner/card to present to Ware’s mother. Debbie and Mike “Voice of the Shockers” Kennedy delivered it directly to Kevin’s mother who burst into tears, stating she was overwhelmed by the compassion of Shocker Nation, thinking of her son during this crucial game time. What can I say, Shox fans rule.

After photo ops with former players, attempting to recharge my dead phone, and talking with other friends and alumni, it was time to walk over to the Georgia Dome.

And then, it became very real. While our seats were not great, it was so emotional just to be there, not only at a Final Four semi-final, but with the Shockers. Shocker fans filled two sections, including the entire student section. We came to play. So did our team.

I could write an entire post about the game, how we dominated Louisville at times, took them out of their mental game, had their fans quiet and nervously seated in their section. I could voice my wishes that Armstead had not gone 0-6 during the first half, how Louisville seemed to turn up the pressure in the last 6 minutes of the game, and don’t get me started on the controversial jump ball. Instead, I will focus on the best moments of the experience.

How our fans stood prior to the inspiring National Anthem until the buzzer sounded. The building of emotion I felt in my chest all day, that subtle grin on my father’s face all afternoon, led to a culmination of emotions that erupted in hoarse voices cheering, screaming and yelling for our boys. When we took the lead, I suddenly realized I’d been jumping up and down along with the young woman next to me and that most of our section had been caught up in a euphoric dance of jumping in circles and not-quite-high-fiving-more-like-high-pawing-hugging of fellow Shockers. More than once, I found myself trying to double high-five my dad and the young woman next to me only to find in our excitement we couldn’t quite connect, almost slapping each other many times in the face, but didn’t care. What we were feeling was beyond description and more than once I wondered what it was like back home.

And our state of euphoria reached new heights when Cleanthony Early did this: http://www.heavy.com/news/2013/04/cleanthony-earlys-dunk-wichita-final-four-gif/

I cannot describe the rush, cannot pretend to convey what was happening in Shocker Nation. My father was yelling and trying to high-five everyone, I was practically jumping over my seat, all I could see was a sea of black and gold in motion, hear the roar, and for an instant thought “This is it.”  But, I have spent too many years sitting beside my father whose knowledge of the game has been handed down to me and my siblings. This was Louisville. This was Rick Pitino. The run will come. Can we withstand it and all that it brings both mentally and physically.

And, my father was already thinking this. He turned to me and said, “Even if we should lose, it will be worth it to experience this, to feel this right now.” It was at that moment, Shocker Nation burst into song, “You don’t want to go to war with the Shockers. Don’t start no stuff, won’t be no stuff,” and it was then that the Syracuse fans turned to us and smiled, nodding their heads, giving us the thumbs up and clapping along with us.

We all know the outcome of the game, we all felt the loss, but it was different this time. We didn’t hang our heads, we didn’t cry, were not overcome with sadness. As my father said, sitting in our chairs absorbing the evening, we have made it known who we are, as a team and as a fan base. In one evening, things changed for WSU.

Did we stay for the Michigan/Syracuse game? Being college hoops fans, yes, we did. And I’m glad we did, not just to see another exciting game, but to be present for the accolades poured upon us by other fans, including Louisville. They congratulated us on an inspiring game, they thanked us for being such gracious fans and were impressed by not only our team, underrated all season, but by Shocker Nation and its boisterous presence. Michigan fans told us they were pulling for us, but in the end were relieved not to have to play us, as we a team like no other.

My father’s response to all of this? A calm smile and a shake of the head. That night I realized my father was waiting not only to experience the Final Four, but to experience something else, something more important. The validation of a program. He’s been a WSU fan for so long, he still at times refers to them as WU. And through all those ups and downs, he has always felt WSU has never received the respect it deserved, not just the program, but its fans, too. It was on the tips of the tongues of all who follow and love Shocker basketball, we have been validated. This team has done more for our program and university than any before in the school’s history. I hope they know this.

Our night ended at 3:00 am, after celebratory beers at Taco Macs, one of two Atlanta establishments who’d “adopted” WSU as place for its fans to meet, as well as back at our hotel with band members and longtime season ticket holders and former players. This was not a time to be sad or depressed, this was a time to celebrate a season and to begin the Road to the Final Four 2014.

In one night, despite the outcome, this trip became more than a check mark on a bucket list, it launched a new beginning for a program and its fans, and for my father, a sense of long overdue relief. We may have packed our bags for Atlanta, but Atlanta is sending us home with our tickets validated for a future none can imagine.

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Our Bags are Packed: Word of the Day

We arrived at the airport around 5:40 am (our cab driver got lost in our neighborhood and was late picking us up) and were greeted by very awake, very enthusiastic AirTran/Southwest employees and a line of black and gold.

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The lines moved quickly and even if they hadn’t, the overall mood was something I’ve never experienced in an airport terminal. Joy. This was apparent by smiles, gestures and the obvious word of the day, Shockers.

At times, I felt I was watching an episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Anytime someone said Shockers out loud to or near our patiently waiting group of  Wichita State travelers, the group would erupt into cheers.

From “Our flight to Atlanta will be boarding soon for the Shockers” (roar) to “Welcome aboard, Shockers” (Roar) and “Good luck, Shockers” (ROAR).

And the adrenaline rush continued as we landed in Atlanta and exited our plane on the tarmac to three awaiting motorcoaches who escorted us, correction police escorted us to the Georgia Dome for open practice. Dad decided this is the only way to travel. I agree.

After we got over the initial awe regarding the size of the Georgia Dome (it holds 78,000+ for football games and 56,000+ for basketball), we settled in to watch the open practice of the Shox. Even with WuShock plastered all over the big screens inside the dome, Wichita State on the marquee, and our boys in black and yellow running the floor, it still felt surreal. We were at the Final Four. Wichita State is in the Final Four. At one point, I leaned close to dad and said, “Dad, can you believe we’re here?” He held up his hand for a high-five. Enough said.

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After Marshall interviewed with Jim Nance and addressed Shocker Nation, we headed out to see the immediate sites around the dome, plus grab a bite and a few beers. We toasted to “Playing on Monday.”

Back at the hotel, we finally checked in, received our game tickets, and visited the hospitality room for Shocker fans. Comfortably sitting in the Onyx bar, we Shocker watched, waving at people we knew, hugging old friends, and enjoying the continued ambiance of Shocker joy. Our favorite couple from previous NCAA tournament trips, Scott and Vicki Brooks, joined us, both ecstatic to be reunited for a tournament, especially this tournament. Over dinner at Brick Top, we again toasted “Playing on Monday,” which seems to have taken over the “Our bags are packed” mantra.

One thing is for sure, we are running on the last drops of adrenaline, taking time to read through our programs, check the itinerary, and as dad catches up with the Golf Channel, I revisit our first day in Atlanta. Quite amazing. So amazing I’m not sure how to write about all the days events. There were omens, such as the gentleman who is an usher one section over from us at Koch and who always looks for dad and I and waves (it’s become part of our pre-game tradition) appeared suddenly just a few rows away from us during the practice. I noticed him just as he turned to see us and immediately we waved.

And, I met and took a photo with Cliff Levingston, one of our Shocker legends and a man whom I watched play with the Chicago Bulls. Another omen.

So, I end this post exhausted, but elated and hoping for a good nights sleep as we have a long but exciting day ahead of us on Saturday. But again, even as I sign off, I have to remind myself we’re here at the Final Four and not just any Final Four. Wichita State is playing in the Final Four for a chance to advance to the championship game. Our bags are unpacked in Atlanta, spilling black and gold all over our hotel room, in anticipation of playing on Monday.

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Our Bags are Packed: The Night Before

4:00 am will come very quickly, too quickly. We need to be at the airport around 5:30 and I have a feeling I won’t be getting a lot of sleep. My dad has already confessed as much. We’ll be like kids on Christmas Eve, tossing in our beds in anticipation for the next morning and what we will find under the tree. In this case, a whole lot of fun wrapped in black and gold.

While painstakingly folding my clothes and placing them in my suitcase, I came to the realization this would be an entire weekend of firsts. First trip on a charter, especially a charter filled with Shocker fans, first time in Atlanta, first time attending the Final Four…many firsts. But, first would be packing for a Final Four.

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Yes, all black, yellow and gold. Dad packed his Shocker gear, too. Since we have to be at the airport so early, dad is staying with me, a kind of pre-flight slumber party that will include a cold beer, watching the NIT Championship game, and reading the itinerary over and over. We should arrive in Atlanta around 11:20 am, just in time for the open practice at the Georgia Dome.

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We are officially Wichita State Travelers, another first. It will be tough getting a good nights sleep, especially the deep refueling sleep we will need for this busy weekend. I know I will find myself squinting at the clock well before the alarm sounds at 4:00, knowing my dad has spent a restless night in the guest room, both of us trying to imagine what awaits us in Atlanta.

It’s official, the bags are packed.

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Our Bags Are Packed: The Road to the Final Four with my Dad.

It’s been a while since my last post, but those who know me and my family know that March is a month-long religious holiday of madness.

Thus, the hiatus. Plus, I’m highly superstitious. Once my Shockers went on a tear through the NCAA tournament, I knew I could not post one thing about the team. Not one. So, this is not a post about the team (although I never doubted the talents or tenacity of this remarkable team throughout the season), it is about a relationship between a girl and her father and a promise she made to him a long time ago.

We’re a sports loving family. In 2008, I crossed “Walk the grounds of Augusta National with my dad” off my Sports Bucket List. You see, we don’t even have regular bucket lists, we have sports-related bucket lists. It’s a sickness, I know. But there we were, in Augusta during the practice rounds of the Masters. Check.

Dad and John and me

When we’d finished following Woods, Singh, and Player, we decided to sit at a picnic table in one of the beer gardens. Over a few cold beers served in plastic cups, we talked about many things, one being the major sporting events we’d like to see in our lifetime. I recall Super Bowl being mentioned, the NBA Playoffs, even the Olympics, summer or winter, but what remains most vivid is my dad saying he really wanted to go to the Final Four, no matter who was playing, he just wanted to see the championship game. At that moment, I promised him if the Shockers ever made it, I’d take him. No matter what.

Now, I would be lying if I said I was absolutely certain I would keep this promise. I honestly thought I might have to edit my promise in taking my dad to see the Shox in the Final Four to any Final Four. But, I remained hopeful. Every year, I thought this might be the one, the one where I could call my dad and tell him to pack his bags.

It’s funny or ironic that just before this years tournament I  watched 30 for 30s: Survive and Advance, the story about the North Carolina State team who beat all the odds to win the National Championship. Their coach was Jim Valvano,  a man I absolutely loved, and my father did, too. In the documentary there was a segment of a speech I’d forgotten with Jimmy V talking about his father and explaining the one gift his father gave him, his father believed in him. No matter what. He explained this by sharing that when he would tell his father he was going to get his NC State team to the Final Four, his father would answer “My bags are packed.” Even when Jim went to visit his father, again reiterating how he would get his team to the National Championship but that it would be a hard road, his father would show him his suitcase, at the ready. “My bags are packed.”

Whether this story is true or somewhat embellished does not matter, what stands out is the act of belief, that small act of hope in a packed suitcase. I’m ready. Let’s go. I believe.

So, when the Shox beat Gonzaga I told my father “Get your suitcase ready, dad. My bags are packed.” He laughed, but then answered, “Okay.”

When the Shox beat La Salle in the Sweet Sixteen, I asked him, “Mine is ready, got your suitcase ready?” Again, he laughed, “Almost.”

When I climbed down from the ceiling after the Shockers beat Ohio State, I called my father who after the first ring yelled into the receiver,”My bags are packed!”

Belief.  That’s all it takes. So now, a daughter gets to take her father on a long ago promised trip to the NCAA Final Four. But it’s better than that, as the two season ticket holders and die-hard Shocker fans take the trip to Atlanta to follow their beloved Wichita State Shockers.

It’s going to be a remarkable journey for the two of us, something I will remember the rest of my days on this planet. If you’re interested, follow it here as I plan to post daily on our road to Atlanta, a road paved in promise, a journey of belief.

Our bags are packed.

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The Faithful

Wichita State athletics recently posted this on their Facebook page:

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Leaving a game early is one of my greatest pet peeves and something I cannot comprehend. But, it happens consistently at Charles Koch Arena, too consistently. I don’t get it.

My father taught me that a fan never leaves until the final buzzer sounds, no matter if the team is up by 20 or down by 30. You don’t leave. The players need to see their fans in the stands when they leave the floor, as a mutual sign of respect. He’s right. By showing the players we believe in them, have faith, care, they in turn will give their all, play harder, do their best. It’s a win-win, even if the result is not a championship. It’s an ongoing relationship, a marriage between a team and its fans, it is the creation of Grateful Red, The Barnyard and Orange Krush.

Shocker Nation could be added to the list, if not for one pesky thing: Shocker fans leave early. About the three-minute mark, you’ll see them begin their exodus to the parking lot. It’s shameful. Especially when a Shocker player is on the free throw line and just behind the basket, in his line of vision, are his “fans” hustling down the exit ramps. Ugh.

Okay, so I can forgive the very elderly fans who need a little extra time to get down the stairs, who are possibly a little fearful of being mowed down by exuberant Shockers. Yet, the people who earn my glare are of all ages, types, and sizes. It drives me nuts and yes, distracts me from the final moments of the game.

I once asked someone if they left games early and why. The reason? Parking and traffic. Parking and traffic? Really? Obviously, this person has never attended a professional game in a big city, say Chicago or even Kansas City, where a sporting event takes half to a full day.

Let’s compare. A Shocker men’s basketball evening game starts at 7:05, so allowing for parking, which is on or near campus, and depending on how early one likes to arrive at Charles Koch Arena (we get there an hour before tipoff),  include the length of regulation and  time allowance for exiting amidst 10,000-plus fans, game day takes about three hours of time. Three hours. That’s it. For some of us, we wish it were longer.

Now, let’s attend an NFL game, a Chicago Bears game in Soldier Field in one of the greatest cities in the world, Chicago. I realize there is no comparison between the two cities, not really, with one city’s population just over the 400,000 mark and the other in the millions, but I’m trying to make a point. To attend a Bears game is an all-day event. You cannot schedule anything else on game day, it’s impossible. As for parking, there is no such thing. You take a train to the city, or a shuttle from a nearby suburb, but you definitely do not drive to the stadium. Same thing goes for a Cubs, Bulls or Blackhawks game. And, you allow three full hours just for the sporting event, which does not include the drive, parking, walking, etc., just the game.

If I could, I would make the comparison against another college basketball team and arena, but I’m not able. The only other college basketball team I’ve seen on their home court during the regular season is Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse and it was more of a historical tour for me than it was a game. I am not a fan of the Jayhawks, only college basketball, but one cannot be a true enthusiast of college hoops and not visit Allen Fieldhouse. So, we were there early, toured the storied concourse, took pictures of the Gale Sayer’s memorabilia and took our time leaving at the end of regulation. But, I do know I did not see one crimson and blue clad fan heading for the exits at the three-minute mark. And trust me, it is not a simple task to get to and from campus and Allen Fieldhouse, but that’s part of the fun, a piece of the memory puzzle of the event.

So, spare me the excuse of parking and traffic at CKA. It is the easiest venue to drive to, to enter, to park and to exit. It shouldn’t take you more than five to ten minutes to walk to your car and there are policemen stationed at the exits to guide you out, so if you are getting home after ten o’clock, you’re doing it wrong.  If you are incapable of getting to and from a Shocker game without mishap, without having to rush to the exits with three minutes in regulation still to play because you’re afraid you might get stuck in traffic on a school night, then you should obviously stay home and allow a true fan to utilize your tickets.

Please, save me and the rest of the fans and the players the distraction of your exodus and give your seats to someone who appreciates being there and experiencing all that Shocker Nation has to offer,  someone who stays rooted in place to watch the team exit down the tunnel, not wanting to leave, not wanting for it to be over, someone who casually exits the main doors, still smiling, still talking about the game, whether the outcome was good or bad, because to stop recounting, to drive away, means that the moment is gone. That’s what it feels like to be a fan. That’s what it means to be faithful.