My mom taught me the Rock Chalk Chant when I was 3. She had decided to start school at KU and only recently learned the chant herself. My parents were never sports fans, but we lived in Lawrence. All of my earliest sports memories centered on Kansas basketball. The Jayhawks were the first team I ever loved and the first to break my heart.
I still can’t talk about the 2003 national championship game without getting upset. I was 15. It was the first time I’d ever watched the NCAA tournament (I told you, my parents weren’t sports fans). Days later, Roy Williams left and I felt like it was my fault, the way children sometimes blame themselves for their parents’ divorce. This was my introduction to March Madness.
Self respect. Self confidence. Self assured. Self love. The next year was a wild blur of puns. Anyone remember “To Galindo, to the wall”? I could give a shit about North Carolina, too, Mr. Benedict Williams.
My first year at the University of Kansas included an Orange Bowl victory, which was pretty neat. But it was nothing compared to this:
That was 2008. It was Kansas’ second national championship in my lifetime. No experience has ever measured up to the excitement of watching my team win a national championship. Getting engaged came close, but it still comes up short compared to the roller coaster of hearing my friends say “It’s over,” and then watching Mario Chalmers hit The Shot and send it into overtime. Kansas fans will spend the rest of their lives chasing that high.
My generation is particularly spoiled, and I’m even more spoiled than most: In the 3.5 years I was enrolled at KU, the men’s basketball team did not lose in Allen Fieldhouse. At all.
I didn’t realize how different life was in Kansas until I moved to College Station. On my first day in town, my boss gave me tickets to the Texas A&M-Oklahoma game at Reed Arena. I went with my friend Carl, a Kansas alumnus and A&M grad student who was the only person I knew in town. At one point, I innocently asked, “Why do they hang their NIT banners here?” I had never seen college basketball outside Allen Fieldhouse, so I had never seen an NIT banner. Carl’s friends snickered a little as he explained that most basketball programs are proud of their success in the NIT — and A&M has certainly had success in the NIT.
Sure, I knew not all schools had Final Four and national championship banners. Even Kentucky and North Carolina failed to make the NCAA tournament in the last decade. I just honestly didn’t know that teams hung NIT banners. That’s how it feels to be a Jayhawk. You’re a snob and you don’t even know it.
Here’s what you have to understand about Kansas fans: We are sick individuals. We take everything personally. We expect a national championship every year. When our team loses, we blame ourselves. We hold a grudge like nobody’s business. Not only do I still hate Carmelo Anthony, but I hate the Knicks and the Nuggets just for associating with him. I hate Fab Melo because he plays at Syracuse and has a similar name. I hate Syracuse. It’s been nine years. I can’t help it. I’m a Jayhawk.
When you’re as good as Kansas is for as long as Kansas has been good, every loss feels like the end of the world. Kansas fans aren’t used to losing, but we’re veterans when it comes to heartbreak. We’ve been Farokhmanesh’d and Shaka Smarted too many times. We don’t trust mid-majors. We really don’t trust mid-majors with names beginning with B. To the outside world, these upsets are what make March Madness so much fun. To us, they’re personal tragedies.
The lede to Tim Dwyer’s wrap-up of last year’s loss to VCU sticks out in my mind almost a year later:
Want to know how much it hurts?
How about this: Thomas Robinson, jersey rumpled on his lap, with the “LR” patch commemorating his late mother staring back at him like an unblinking eye.
Or Tyshawn Taylor, doubled up, face buried in his hands, muffling his sobs as a lone photographer offered a sympathetic pat on the shoulder.
Or the sobs that interrupted Conner Teahan’s answer to a question about Tyrel Reed. Or Reed, the winningest Jayhawk ever, with red-rimmed eyes as he fielded questions after one of the worst shooting days of his career. Or Brady Morningstar, next to him, so choked up that he could barely speak.
Or Marcus Morris, bent double with his head resting on arms folded across his knees and media standing around, waiting for minutes before bothering him with a question.
Or Markieff Morris, sitting next to his brother, staring at a box score with a blank expression on his face, as if looking at the numbers long enough could change the fact that Kansas lost, again, to a team that nobody gave a shot.
Know what I forgot about that game? Kansas lost in the Elite Eight. Finishing among the eight best teams in the nation was a deep disappointment for this fan base. I told you, we’re sick individuals.
So now, just hours away from Kansas’ tournament opener against Detroit, I’m a mess, vacillating between ridiculous overconfidence and extreme anxiety. March Madness is my favorite time of the year. It’s every Kansas fan’s favorite time of the year. Yet I’m so nervous I can’t eat. The tournament means everything.
This season will (probably) end in disappointment for Kansas fans because we set ourselves up for it. We do it every year. But I still picked Kansas to win it all in both of my brackets because I believe in miracles. I can’t help it. I’m a Jayhawk.
For more March Madness reading, you really must read this Grantland gem from one of my j-school classmates, Jayson Jenks: Dr. James Naismith, Bill Self, and the history of basketball in Kansas.