Downtown Kansas City swells and shifts with the passing of conventions. Last fall it was the Shriners riding motorcycles through the go-go parlors on 12th Street. In February it was the 8,000 chicken pluckers of the American Poultry Association attending lectures on the latest methods of butchering and packaging fowl. Last week representatives from 200 Indian tribes gathered at the Continental Hotel to hear a speech by Spiro Agnew, and just a block away, at the Muehlebach Hotel, Minnesota Fats shot pool and Rona Barrett spread Hollywood gossip before a group of movie-theater owners. But attracting far greater interest than any of these was a week-long program at the Municipal Auditorium. It was a frantic happening, college basketball's oldest, most grueling event—the NAIA tournament. For six days 72,500 people watched a field of 32 district winners eliminate each other until there was one. The process consumed some 50 hours of playing time and included three days when it was possible to watch games, nonstop, from 9:30 a.m. to midnight.
A parade of teams suited up in seven hotels surrounding the auditorium and walked through a network of tunnels and an underground garage to the basketball floor. Among them was Ohio Dominican, a school of 750 students located in Columbus, Ohio. Just six years ago OD was called St. Mary of the Springs and had no basketball team. SMOTS had only girls. On Tuesday afternoon Ohio Dominican was roughed out of the tournament by huge (18,000) Eastern Michigan 119-81. In the crowd that watched was a high school freshman from Pittsburg, Kans. named Danny Barone. He arrived early in the morning with his lunch wrapped in a paper bag, and he said, "We're just going to sit, eat and go to the rest room." Which is the only way at the NAIA.
By midnight the field had been reduced to 16 teams, and an announcer, who had spent the winter working hockey games, began referring to games as matches and fouls as penalties. By midnight the wife of a Kansas City landscape gardener looked at her watch and said, "They're still playing. We should all be arrested for loitering."
The late hours have always provided the tournament with entertaining characters. Two years ago there was Ernie Fortney of northern Montana. Just discharged from the Army, Fortney weighed 230 pounds, including a prominent belly. He plodded his way around the floor and was so exhausted by the second half of one game that he rested against the backboard support during foul shots. Somehow, though, he managed to score 30 points and win a standing ovation.
March 22, 1971
This year the character was Coach Robert Wachs of Northern State (Aberdeen, S. Dak.). Minutes into the game against Stephen F. Austin, Wachs established himself as the most frantic coach in basketball. He swayed in his chair; he pulled at the sleeves of warm-up jackets; he clubbed an adjoining seat with a knotted towel; he slapped his hands together with exaggerated flourishes; and he called time-outs by flapping his arms bird-fashion. All while State was beaten soundly 99-62.
The NAIA tournament was created in 1937 by Emil Liston, athletic director of Baker University in Baldwin, Kans., and Dr. James Naismith, the game's inventor. They wanted to determine which of the Midwest's small colleges played basketball best. Eight teams showed up for the first tournament. There are 558 member schools now and conference and district championships to determine the 32 finalists.
The early tournaments were always fun, which accounts for the event's staying power. The big jump in attendance, however, came with the admission of black schools. Jim Walker broke the NAIA color barrier and led Indiana State, coached by Johnny Wooden, to the championship in 1950. Three years later Tennessee State became the first black school in the tournament, and the next year it went all the way—from a hotel in the Negro section of the city in 1953 to a downtown hotel in 1954. It was not long before names like Dick Barnett, who led State (then called A&I) to three straight titles, Willis Reed from Grambling and Pan America's Lucious Jackson attracted national attention.
By the late '50s and early '60s the KC Junior Chamber of Commerce was able to sell out half the auditorium before the field of teams had been determined. Hundreds of tickets went to farmers from hamlets like Bonner Springs, Kans. and Keytesville, Mo. who planned to spend a one-week vacation watching basketball. Local people were as enthusiastic. Businesses closed down during tournament week, office pools were created and the Jaycees exchanged as much as $100 for the privilege of sitting on the bench with a seeded team. "The tournament became a status symbol," said Mike Kleinman, a Kansas City lawyer. "People went around boasting that they had watched all 32 games."
The importance of the NAIA to professional teams has skyrocketed. There was a time when only three or four scouts attended the tournament. One of them once made short work of the affair. He watched as two teams removed their sweat suits and said, "No bodies here, let's eat."
By last Wednesday 35 scouts, coaches and general managers had visited this year's tournament. They were drawn by the presence of eight bodies: Mike Ratliff, Eau Claire State; Kennedy McIntosh, Eastern Michigan; Mike Gale, Elizabeth City (N.C.) State; Fred Hilton, Grambling; James Silas, Stephen F. Austin; and Elmore Smith, Travis Grant and William Graham, all of Kentucky State. "Yesterday four of them stunk the place up," said one NBA scout. "But the beauty of this tournament is that these guys play four or five games in a row so I can get a long look and see how they recover."
Pete Newell, the San Diego general manager, watched the constant flow of players during the opening two rounds. "After a couple of days it begins to look like the same two teams leave, change uniforms and come back," Newell said. "I'm starting to go stir crazy." On Thursday, when Kentucky State beat Grambling 93-81, the tournament sorted itself out. It was apparent that the Thorobreds would repeat as NAIA champions. "Nobody can touch us," Coach Lucias Mitchell said after the game. "We've got Elmore Smith, and all the scouts know how fantastic he is. Travis Grant has to be the best shooter in college. Has to be. And then there's Graham who's sooo quick, and sooo underrated. They are the best frontcourt in college basketball. When we finish we're hoping for a bid from the NIT." The bid, alas, never came.
Early in the week Kentucky State players, along with most of the others in the tournament, spent their free time socializing at the Bellerive Hotel with 1,700 students from Eau Claire State. The Wisconsin students established themselves as the most enthusiastic group to arrive in town since 20 hitchhikers from Cedarville College in Ohio marched off to a commercial blood bank in 1964 to give enough pints to pay for their tickets. Eau Claire's partisans just drank beer, enough to fill the Bellerive to the scuppers with beer cans. "After a while the hotel manager gave up on us," said head cheerleader Bill Bolden. "The athletic director won't admit it, but we're a party school. That's why the other teams here hate to see us lose."
On Friday night, with beaten Eau Claire departed, Travis (Machine) Grant scored 39 points and Smith blocked seven shots to send the Thorobreds past Elizabeth City 104-91 and into the finals. The auditorium turned soul on Saturday. As 200 State enthusiasts sang spirituals laced with chants ("Don't be so mean, Machine" and "Big E, bad as you want to be") Grant responded with 43 more points and Smith managed 15 rebounds. When the 'Breds put Eastern Michigan and the tournament away 102-82 their followers danced on the court.
And then it was time for another Kansas City show. Out went the basketball players, out went the Indians and theater owners. And in came the dogs. Lots of them. They were already barking at the Municipal Auditorium. Heart of America Dog Show, you know.