Aaron Rodgers sat just behind the Kansas bench on Saturday. The Green Bay Packer quarterback said he long had a trip to Allen Fieldhouse on his bucket list.
“I’ve been able to go to Fenway Park in baseball, I play at probably the most famous stadium (Lambeau Field) in the (NFL), and I thought it’d be fun to go to an arena like this that has so much history, a great coach and great support,” Rodgers said.
The truth is, Phog Allen Fieldhouse should be on the bucket list of every sports fan.
I made it back to the Phog on Saturday for the first time in nine years. Hadn’t been since that great 2005 OSU-Kansas game, won by the Jayhawks, and I saw another classic this time, KU’s 80-78 survival of the Cowboys, who stormed back from a 19-point deficit.
My first trip to Allen Fieldhouse came in 1992, and after my trip there for the 1993 OSU-Kansas game, I wrote a tribute column, which you can read here. Allen Fieldhouse was 38 years old in 1993; now it’s 59 years old and better than ever.
Newsok videographer Damon Fontenot, one of my frequent travel partners, had never seen a game at Allen Fieldhouse. So I hit him up with a proposal: drive to Lawrence on Saturday morning, catch the game, do a little work in the press room and hit the road home, with one of us driving and the other working. Makes for an incredibly long day but completely worth it.
We both were covering the Friday night Thunder-Warriors game, and I like to be home Sunday morning, so an all-dayer was the only option. That’s too hard of a day for most events and venues. But Allen Fieldhouse is not most venues.
Allen Fieldhouse is a 16,300-seat coliseum with all bleacher seats. It’s got the old fieldhouse feel, complete with windows at the top on each end, which makes for a great setting on day games. It’s got the court named after James Naismith, who invented the game in 1891 and brought it to KU in 1898. It’s got the great sign, “Pay Heed, All Who Enter: Beware of the Phog.” It’s got the jerseys of Kansas greats hanging from the rafters. Names like Chamberlain and Lovellette and (JoJo) White and Valentine and Manning and Pierce and Hinrich and Collison.
The exterior of Allen Fieldhouse looks the same as always, but the bowels have been modernized. The KU athletics museum on the east side is much more extensive, though at a cost of some color. Doesn’t seem quite as quaint. But the old midcourt circle remains, the original wood with the K in a circle. When Roy Williams became KU’s coach 25 years ago, he had an outline of the state of Kansas, with a star where Lawrence is located, placed at Allen Fieldhouse’s midcourt. When Bill Self became coach 10 years ago, he replaced the map with the big Jayhawk bird you see now. But I’d love to see Allen Fieldhouse go back to that big K.
A Kansas basketball game is where you run into all kinds of dignitaries. In the press room, I chatted with Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, the pride of Marlow, who introduced me to Utah Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey. And in the press room before the game was the legendary Max Falkenstien, who retired in 2006 after 60 years as the radio voice of KU basketball.
I chatted with Bob Davis, who was Falkenstien’s radio partner for 22 years and has been calling the Jayhawks for 30 years, if he still gets a thrill every time he walks into the arena. “Every time,” Davis said.
But the real source of Allen Fieldhouse’s magic is the passion of the fans. Just driving around campus 2-3 hours before the game, you get the sense of a gameday. Like we experience with football in Norman and Stillwater and like most of America experiences. But in a few enclaves, basketball reigns supreme. Lawrence, Bloomington, Lexington, Durham, Chapel Hill. That’s about it.
I don’t know how else to describe it, but Damon felt it, too. Just the understanding that basketball matters. From the Rock Chalk Jayhawk chant to the ensemble of long trumpets that played the KU alma mater pregame and stayed to play the national anthem to the pregame video showing great moments in KU basketball history, you quickly remember that in Lawrence, basketball is more than a game. It’s in the culture. In Norman and Stillwater, basketball is a game and football is a way of life. It’s the opposite at KU, which has a living, breathing monument of a building that celebrates the sport.