I recognized the cap immediately as I got into the shuttle van that takes us from the Sheraton hotel to the Sprint Center. White cap, with red lines and a red KC.
Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.
John, our shuttle driver, was wearing the cap Wednesday, and I told him I had a Monarchs cap, too. Turns out John, who volunteers for the KC organizing committee for the Big 12 Tournament, also is a volunteer at the Negro League Museum, down at 18th and Vine in Kansas City’s historic jazz district.
I’ve written about the Negro League Museum before, and I need to get back over there on this trip. Maybe Friday.
Anyway, I soon learned that John met his wife while ushering at Kemper Arena, which was home to the Big Eight/Big 12 Tournament from 1974 through 2002, then again in 2005.
And I uttered what I often utter in Kansas City, which draws sticks and stones that could break my bones. I miss Kemper Arena.
Kansas City is proud of the Sprint Center and it ought to be. It’s a great downtown arena, hard by the Power & Light District, which is sort of KC’s version of Bricktown. But despite the amenities of Sprint, I miss Kemper, the ’70s building down in the Kansas City stockyards. It had atmosphere and history and excitement. Kemper, to me, represents the best of conference basketball tournaments.
The Big 12 at Sprint is fine, and today shows why. We’re down to eight teams, and all of them are good. West Virginia is the worst of the bunch, and the Mountaineers are a load, with Bob Huggins and all-Big 12 point guard Juwan Staten. Kansas, OU, Texas, Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor and OSU all are considered locks for the NCAA Tournament. Seven for-sure March Madness teams playing in the Big 12 quarterfinals.
But that’s the way it used to be often in the old Big Eight days at Kemper. Great game after great game, with literally seven great fan bases. Kansas and K-State and Missouri, you knew all about. But Iowa State adopted Kemper as its home away from home. OSU, once Eddie Sutton arrived, turned Kemper into a Cowboy hotbed. OU had done the same with Billy Tubbs. Nebraskans drove down to support their always-entertaining teams. Only Colorado was a misfit.
Then came the Big 12, and four Texas schools, none of which added to the ambiance at Kemper, and the same is true now of the Sprint Center. Forty percent of the current 10-team Big 12 is from Texas. That’s great for football. Not so great for basketball.
The Sprint Center would have been fabulous in the old Big Eight days. But Kemper’s status is not a would-have-been. It was a was. Ticket hawkers everywhere and buyers even more plentiful. Gangs of fan bases trying to outdo each other in the arena that hosted all kinds of great teams and great players.
I’m not ashamed to say it. I miss Kemper. And John, the van driver with a personal connection to Kemper, lent a sympathetic ear.
Not a ton of off time in the Big 12 Tournament. I wake up, blog a time or three, then head to the arena if I’ve got a day game or grab a late lunch if I’ve got a night. Wednesday was a night game only — OSU-Tech.
So went to lunch at my favorite BBQ joint, JackStack downtown in the burgeoning Crossroads Art District. The restaurant is in the converted Freight House, the old KC railyard. Cool setting. Cool restaurant. Even better barberque.
Known for its burnt ends, which are the charred beef, ham, pork, sausage. Excellent all the way around. Plus immaculate side dishes, of which the cheesy corn bake is my favorite. My man Damon Fontenot says it’s too cheesy, to which I said that’s an impossibility.
JackStack is a regular Big 12 Tournament haunt for lots of fans. Usually Iowa Staters by the horde, though our waiter said that on Tuesday night it seemed to be West Virginia night.
Anyway, Kansas City is known for its barbeque. Gates. Arthur Bryant’s. Oklahoma Joe’s. I still haven’t made it to Oklahoma Joe’s, which I need to, but for me, JackStack is the best.
Better yet, we went with the Channel 4 duo of Dylan Buckingham and Bob Barry Jr. Damon is a Channel 4 alum — we hired him away about six years ago — and he’s still tight with those guys. Always said that Bobby, KFOR’s sports director, is a great guy to work for, and most Channel 4 people will tell you the same.
I don’t get to dine with Bobby much, but we had a great time. We’re both Norman High alums, he ’75 and me ’79. We’re part of the Norman sports media dynasty. Dean Blevins is a ’74 grad and Mike Steely is an ’81 grad. That’s four alums in a seven-year period who have been around the market a long time. Steely’s been a radio staple for two decades or longer, and Dean you know all about.
Bobby and I talked about old Norman days. He recently delivered one of the eulogies at the funeral of Max Marquardt, who coached us both in basketball decades ago at Norman. I didn’t attend the funeral — I filled in for Bobby on the radio, so he could go — but I heard rave reviews about Bobby’s job at the memorial. He always does a good job on stage, be it as emcee at banquets or whatever. I know it was good at the funeral.