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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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: 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 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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It’s April? Time to play catch-up.

March always gets the best of me. No matter how I try not to succumb to hours and days and weeks of college basketball, I usually fail. From St. Patrick’s Day until the first full week of April, I get lost in the brackets, checking CBS Sportsline, flipping channels, and my mental calendar becomes a blur of NIT, NCAA men and NCAA women’s games. It’s surprising I can utter a complete sentence by the time the championship buzzer sounds.

In a nutshell, here was my March:

It always begins with the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Delano. Some might not agree this is a sport, but you try surviving an early morning of Bloody Mary and Mimosa’s and attempt to ride a bicycle down a very narrow street with a hundred other incapacitated loons wearing green. The goal is always A) don’t crash, B) don’t run over any small children innocently watching the parade, C) if you do crash, wait until we’ve at least made it through a pint or two of Guinness at the Shamrock. Trust me, this is a marathon of sorts. And it gets tougher every year.

These are my two 2011 brackets. One with UConn going all the way and the other with my sentimental favorite, San Diego State. Note I picked two teams who the Shockers played, two games in which I paid serious attention to the opponent. I figured it was Steve Fisher’s time to win with his own recruits and have always cheered the Aztecs, so picking SDSU made sense to me. As for UConn, I witnessed the talent that is Kemba Walker, plus I watched Lamb and Napier bloom. Anyone who watched them win the Big East tournament in five games knew they could continue the run. And they did. While the championship game was a definite struggle to watch and enjoy, our annual Bracket Weekend in Overland Park, Kans., with my family did not disappoint.

We took over the Buffalo Wild Wings for the fifth year in a row, arriving at 10:00 am to find tables reserved for us. The management can’t resist a family who spends 10-12 hours in a bar to watch basketball, especially when that family includes the 78-year-old parents.

Yes, that’s my mother drinking a beer. Dr. Oz says she can have one beer a day, but since she rarely drinks, we figured Dr. Oz would be okay with her having two. She also dominated the BWW brackets with the most wins up until Duke lost. Our Bracket Weekend has replaced our long trips to NCAA Midwest Regionals and includes many cousins and friends who couldn’t make the tournament trips. There’s lots of trash-talking, bracket burning, beer drinking, walks to Wal-Mart for snacks or just to awaken our bar stool numb butts, sleeping bags strewn about my brother’s house, and a whole lot of fun.

So, while I picked UConn to win the whole thing, my bracket pretty much blew up when VCU and Butler entered the mix. I wasn’t alone. As for the women’s Final Four, it was awesome. How could it not be with the Lady Volunteers and the Huskies tossed out of the championship game? I have great respect for both programs, but it was great for women’s college basketball to have two different teams battling for the title. Four schools have dominated the women’s Final Four: Connecticut, Stanford, Tennessee and Louisiana Tech. These four schools have won 19 of the 30 women’s championships. So it was exciting and refreshing to watch Texas A&M,  standing on the very broad shoulders of Danielle Adams, versus  Notre Dame, steered by the talented Skylar Diggins. It also helped my dad and I were able to attend the first rounds at Intrust Bank arena, the game between the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and Michigan State (by the way, Mike R., I cheered for your Spartans to no avail).

Of course, there was the NIT and my Wichita State Shockers. Oh, and the celebration…

 

One of my favorite things about the NIT celebration at Koch was “The Dude” shirt worn by Garrett Stutz. Someone hand me a White Russian.  

All in all, it was another memorable March. Very memorable. I will now catch my breath as the Bulls have reached 60 wins, are top of the central standings and headed to the playoffs. And baseball season has opened, complete with questionable starts by the Cubs, Giants, and Shockers. But as I’ve learned to say since Opening Day, we have a long way to go.

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Making school history: 29-win season and NIT championship

I’m extremely superstitious. Since March 16, I’ve worn the same outfit for every Shocker NIT game,  right down to my socks and shoes.

And I swore I would not post one word about the tournament. Not one. After the awful loss in the MVC, I decided not writing about the tournament run would be best. Save it all for last.

The Shockers are the 2011 NIT Champions. And for those pooh-poohing the NIT, especially the bitter fan who asked if a NIT championship meant WSU was the 69th best team in the nation, I have a few questions. Where’s your team? Are they still in post-season play? Are they making the Top 10 plays on Sportscenter? Are the cutting down any nets? Is your office closing early so it’s employees can make it to the arena to welcome home their championship team?

I didn’t think so.

Personally, the Shockers winning a national tournament on the hallowed ground of Madison Square Garden beats a final four run in Houston by a long shot. And what I love about the NIT is the chance for these teams to play at home to a boisterous, game-ready crowd. I’ve been to NCAA tournaments where barely half the arena is filled and the sounds from the pep band and cheer squads echo down deserted concourses. There was definitely none of that at Koch Arena on March 23.

And what about those Shocker fans? I admit I was pretty down after losing in the MVC and I even still held a tiny glimmer of hope the selection committee would reevaluate our season and give us a chance. With teams like UAB and Michigan State getting in the NCAA tournament, surely they could see WSU in the first four. So the NIT it was and I was okay with that, and apparently, so were the Shockers.

They dismantled Nebraska, played smart and tough against Virginia Tech, were loose but focused against College of Charleston, destroyed Washington State, and held more than their own against Alabama. And while other teams in Kansas beat WAC, Big 10, AEC, and Atlantic 10 teams only to be sent home much earlier than anticipated, the Shox checked off their own list: Big 12, ACC, Pac-10, SEC.  But unlike the others, there was no early plane ride home. The Shox will come home today to an arena filled with giddy Shocker fans, me and my father included.

What looked like a season ending on a note just slightly out of tune, not sour because how could it be sour with 25 wins, but just a little off-key without a conference title or MVC championship, has ended loud and long. These boys have made Shocker basketball history with a 29-win season and the school’s first NIT Championship. Their names will go down in the Shocker record books.

And they still got to dance. Maybe not at the “big dance,” but how many young men can say they threw down their own style of victory dance on the floor of the Garden. Not many.

Congratulations,  Wichita State Shockers! You have made us all very proud.