It would not be totally accurate to say that the current Kansas basketball team—the one that has created excitement in Lawrence, produced fascination in Topeka and, naturally, made everything up to date in Kansas City—does everything wrong. But it would be close. For, among the affronts to their glorious tradition and storied history in the game, the Jayhawks start a center at forward, a forward at guard and a guard at the other forward. They also play two 6'10" men who, forgetting their size and limited mobility, are ordered to press all over on defense. And, in a final, blatant rejection of all Kansas shibboleths, they run. Get it? A team that in the past always featured those big, slow, ploddy people who had been rescued off the hay wagons and coaxed out of the silos, Kansas now actually runs.
This in itself might have been enough to force the school's first coach to send down a decree from his peach basket in the sky, disowning Kansas and the game, since, after all, his name was Naismith and he invented it. But there is much more.
Kansas is led by a left-handed baseball pitcher, a trumpet player and a guy discovered by a stranger on a train; the team is captained by a foot-stompin', finger-poppin' soul brother named Pierre; and it is coached by a self-confessed "very conservative, very religious, staid person," who nevertheless has a long history of ulcers plus a spouse who says she is "the only coach's wife in the United States who paints nudes."
This is a team for Middle America? Well, yes. Despite all of their transgressions against everything held dear by culturists of the sport, the Jayhawks have put their sundry parts together and somehow come up with a record through last weekend of 20-1. They are also undefeated in the Big Eight Conference, an achievement of unspectacular note to those who do not realize that road trips to Big Eight country are just that, six-hour busrides. Moreover, only one Big Eight team has ever gone through a conference season unbeaten—possibly because most everybody in sight holds the ball. Or, in the words of one native of the area, "They possess it long enough to make you want to eat nails."
The tendency toward possession basketball is a legacy of Oklahoma State's Henry Iba, who, through all his years of establishing another legend in the Midlands, enjoyed only shared glory because of the domination of Kansas. That supremacy had its beginnings with a man named Forrest Allen.
Among his accomplishments during his 39 years at Lawrence, Phog Allen listed all or part of 24 conference titles, three NCAA finalists, an NCAA championship and the extraordinary feat of winning 71 games in one season (while coaching Kansas and two other college teams simultaneously). Long before anyone figured out what generation gap meant, Allen had—32 years apart—coached Adolph Rupp and recruited Wilt Chamberlain. By 1956, when Allen was forced to retire at 70, he had ramrodded the conference into its finest decade.
In the 1950s the league (then known as the Big Seven) sent six representatives to the NCAA championship round, four of them making the final game. In the past 10 years, however, the Big Eight has had only one team in the final playoffs—true grist for those detractors of Kansas' record so far this season. Except for Kansas and Kansas State, all Big Eight teams play in antiquated and cramped arenas where it is impossible to show a profit after sandwiching in burgeoning student bodies at cut rates. This has been a low blow to recruiting.
Still, as a measure of Kansas' improvement in the Big Eight over last season—when the Jayhawks lost six of their seven road games and finished second to K-State—the team's victory margin is 14 points better. Moreover, though certain reviewers judge Kansas' schedule to be suspect, the Jayhawks have beaten three well-considered teams decisively (Houston, Long Beach and Georgia Tech) and their only loss came on the road against Louisville, which has turned out to be a major power in its own right.
"Kansas is better disciplined and a better team than most," says Oklahoma City's Abe Lemons, "but their league will destroy them. Everybody stalls and packs around. Kansas is not free and easy like you have to be."
This comes as no surprise to Ted Owens, the Jayhawks' bright young coach, who, nonetheless, would opt for mean and brutal over free and easy. While Owens has built his team in the image of those past Kansas aggregations whose every effort was concerned with getting the ball inside and jamming it down people's throats (the current starters all weigh over 200 pounds and average 6'6"), he also has taught them a clawing, full-court zone-and-man press that gets opponents out of the delay game in a hurry. The Jayhawk frontcourt of Dave Robisch, Roger Brown and Pierre Russell has played together, on and off, for three years and is one of the most fearsome physical trios on any campus. Since Russell is only 6'4" and a natural guard, Owens has 6'5" Bud Stall-worth around to shoot outside and crash the boards himself when needed.
The Jayhawks run the break whenever possible, too. "You get a reputation and it's hard to live down," says Owens, bristling at criticism that Kansas has always done its scoring in Mack truck fashion. "We've never been as deliberate as people say. We just don't give up the ball cheaply."
Robisch, who is being courted avidly by pro baseball scouts because he "fires smoke," averaged 26.5 points a game last season in the pivot as the Big Eight player of the year, but he did nothing on defense and could not pass.
Most of that time, also, the 6'10" Brown—whom Owens found through a railroad steward—sat on the bench; Russell and Stallworth tried to figure out what position they were playing; and Aubrey Nash, the fifth starter, missed free throws (five one-and-ones in a row against Oklahoma). "It is fairly correct to say that we were confused," says Owens of last year's team.
On the surface Kansas' turnabout is a tribute to the coach's ability to patch and mend—a pin here, a needle there—and to come up with some kind of alignment from the considerable talent he knew was all around him. Brown's improvement at the end of last season was convincing enough; Kansas had to have its two big men in the game at the same time. Stallworth's natural flair for shooting and Russell's battling work underneath and on loose balls established their positions. Finally, Owens decided the Jayhawks must press and run to open up the court and take advantage of their superior athletes. "Sometimes you're too negative about the abilities of your players," he says. "I gambled our tall guys, Robisch and Brown, could do it and they've responded."
"I thought it would kill me," says Robisch. "He ought to be 6'10" and try all this running around."
Because of their press, the Jayhawks have become one of the leading defensive teams in the land, limiting opponents to a sickly 38% shooting average. The press has created many more opportunities for the offense, and Kansas is averaging 82 points a game, easily a school record.
Only against Louisville, a much quicker team, has Kansas faltered—and Lawrence people swear it was only because the Jayhawks were playing their third game in four nights and had not yet perfected the press. Conversely, a Missouri Valley partisan says, "We have three Valley teams that would beat them anywhere they want to play." The truth lies somewhere between the conflicting views, but even Valley crowds recognize Stallworth's worth to the Jayhawks. He scored 22 points and had 14 rebounds in the 87-75 loss at Louisville. Last Saturday night, with Brown hospitalized by flu, Stallworth scored a career-high 30 points and had 14 more rebounds as Kansas beat Missouri 85-66.
Stallworth is the catalyst; his shooting makes it impossible for the enemy to sag inside on the bigger Jayhawks. Like Brown, he may be at Lawrence by accident. Nobody at Kansas knew about him until he came from Alabama with a trumpet on his knee to a summer music camp. Jo Jo White, Kansas' superb backcourt man, saw him play pickup and alerted Owens.
"All he can play on the trumpet is taps," says Russell.
"I can play the scales," says Stall-worth. "I can also play defense."
"That's the big improvement," says Gale Catlett, an assistant coach. "Bud used to play defense like he was shaving points."
Kansas' other guard position is shared by Nash, Bob Kivisto and sophomore Mark Williams. Though they come under criticism around the league, the three are averaging together 16 points, and last week Nash saved the Jayhawks with 12 second-half points in a 71-68 victory at Oklahoma."
"The inside men are our strength." says Kivisto, "but our guards play good defense. The coaches know it, but they have to keep on us. Boy. To hear the things they scream around here, you'd think we were 1 and 20."
No one connected with Kansas basketball can forget what the slightest slip might mean. The last time the school had a team this good, in 1966, the Jayhawks were beaten in the NCAA Midwest Regional final by eventual champion Texas Western, 81-80 in two overtimes, when Jo Jo White stepped out of bounds as he threw in what would have been the winning basket. To this day many people think Kansas was the best in the country that year.
As he mused over past disaster last week Owens suddenly remembered Valentine's Day. He was four days late.
"It's O.K.," said his wife, Nana. "He's looking into the future and wondering about playoffs. I wonder, too."
Mrs. Owens sounds suspiciously like the last girl from Kansas who thought about destiny. Her name was Dorothy, she had a dog, Toto, and she went somewhere over the rainbow.