What was it Dorothy said?
Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.
Surely Kansas wasn't even in Kansas. Nor in Kansas City, Mo. In toto, Kansas couldn't possibly have been in any here-and-now precinct Monday night, when all of those unknown, underrated but thoroughly unflappable Munchkins, uh. Jayhawks, followed their nearly mystical leader, Danny Manning, to the NCAA basketball title.
Who would have thought that an intramural squabble in that hoary football league, the Big Eight conference, would turn into Masterpiece Theatre! Or that Kansas, once 12-8 with its wounded players scattered along the plains like wheat husks, its spirits down and its wayfaring coach, Larry Brown, all but out, would shuck it up one more implausible time? Or that Manning—a Wizard of Oz not to mention oohs and ahhs—would curl in enough soft hooks, tear away enough rebounds, dribble and pass and defend enough to hold the Jayhawks together against Oklahoma, so that Kansas could escape with as perfectly executed an 83-79 upset victory as any scriptwriter could have imagined?
April 10, 1988
Except this wasn't fantasy. Auntie Em turned out to be Danny M, a real, live and thoroughly remarkable athlete who wired sufficiently elaborate numbers—31 points, 18 rebounds and 5 steals—that his opponents finally got the message: Sooners...later.
Not that Brown didn't believe in his charged-up charges all along. "Get 'em to the last five minutes," he kept exhorting the Jayhawks as the title game, only the third in history to match teams from the same conference, wound down. "They've never been there before." And indeed it wasn't Kansas that panicked when the Jayhawks fell behind 65-60 with 12:13 left in the game. It was the Sooners—those same marauders who had whomped through the season kicking innumerable butts, taking few prisoners and averaging 103.5 points a game—who made exactly two baskets in the next 11:13 and found themselves on the short end of a 78-73 score. Five up to five down with a minute to play.
It wasn't as if Oklahoma hadn't seen the warning signs, either. It wasn't as if Kansas's trip down its yellow-brick interstate hadn't been paved with good fortune. "Luck? This wasn't a gift. Luck comes when preparation meets opportunity," said Manning, sounding as if he had rehearsed his victory speech many times over. And maybe the Jayhawks were more ready for all of this than anybody knew.
"This team believed it could keep winning; we weren't afraid of anybody," said Brown, who also admitted that for the first time in his coaching life he was actually happy, able to enjoy events of the moment—and perhaps not even worried about searching out his next place of employ (see page 26).
Chris Piper, the blond, bony forward who combined with Manning to produce some industrial-strength interior defense, put it another way. "Coach is so happy." he said, "he's nervous."
But why? Kansas didn't have to play North Carolina State or Pittsburgh or Purdue—the top three seeds in the Midwest. It didn't have to play Temple, the No. 1-ranked team going into the tournament, in the semifinals. Those worthies were all upset before they could test the Jayhawks. And what team has ever had its motivational ducks lined up in a row the way Kansas did in these NCAAs? To win the thing, the Jayhawks merely had to stack "get backs" on Kansas State, Duke and Oklahoma—three teams they had already played this season and lost to in four of five games. The Sooners' three-point sniper, Dave Sieger, was well aware this wasn't the same Kansas whose athletic director at midseason was contemplating a printer's cheap rate for NTT tickets. "They might as well have another name," said Sieger.
How about Kansahoma? In Monday's first half the Jayhawks matched the Sooners basket for basket, sprint for spectacle. On the Oklahoma side, Sieger was nonchalantly lofting six three-point grenades, and guard Mookie Blaylock was stealing everything but Bob Dole's leftover farm vote. On the other side, Manning worked his wonders aided by the likes of Milt (Alfreaka) Newton, who scored two of his 15 points on a whirling, windmill, freako bucket, and Clint Normore, a volunteer Brown picked off the Kansas football team, whose three for three contributed to Kansas's 71% first-half shooting.
At intermission, the score was 50-50, and the pace had been so frenetic that gasping referee John Clougherty looked as if he needed an oxygen tank. Said Ed Steitz, progenitor of the college three-point shot, "I'm changing the rules tomorrow; the game's not exciting enough. We need six refs for this one."
For the Jayhawks, the problem with all this breathless fun was that they didn't really want to run. Brown knew they couldn't do it for another 20 minutes. "But it's hard not to run with them," said Kansas point guard Kevin Pritchard. "It's an ego thing. You feel like you're on the playground having a good time."
No one had a better time than Brown, whose coachly wanderings, elegant haberdashery and constant, cloying, Jerry Lewis-like references to his "kids" sometimes camouflages his sideline genius. In resurrecting the Jayhawks after the in-season losses to injury of their tragic tin man, forward Archie Marshall, and others. Brown had pulled off a work of art. And he knew it. During a Monday-afternoon stroll through Kansas City's Country Club Plaza, restaurants, shops and traffic all came to a worshipful standstill as he passed.
If the fans were ready for Brown to divine something, it was expected to come in the form of a slow-down game. But Brown didn't rein in his Jayhawks in the title game until midway through the second half when Kansas spread out, worked the clock and cut off Oklahoma's speed game. Brown ordered the Jayhawks' big men to handle the ball so that the Sooners' thieving guards, Blaylock (seven steals) and Ricky (Amazing) Grace couldn't get to it. And all that running? "They were just teasing us," said Sooner center Stacey King.
Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs also sensed exhaustion in his team. Although he refused to rest either King or forward Harvey Grant by calling on his fearsome pinch hitter, Andre (The Creator) Wiley, he did switch the Sooners into a zone. Nonetheless, King and Grant, who combined for 29 points in the first 28 minutes, got two in the last 12 and might as well have been sitting up in the stands with Barry Switzer for all the notice their teammates gave them down the stretch.
Meanwhile, the 6'10" Manning hit a couple of astounding baskets—a flat-footed hook over two defenders and a lefthanded squeaker across the lane—in addition to doing a ferocious watch-me-block-and-catch-your-shot-chump! number on one of King's last jumpers. "[Danny] wanted this one bad," said King. "He went an extra level higher."
After Pritchard nailed a little leaner, Kansas had the lead for good, 73-71, with 5:35 remaining. Four Munchkins—Newton, Normore, Piper and Pritchard—wound up making a combined 19 of 22 as the Jayhawks shot 63.3% for the game. With 3:05 left, Piper swished a fallaway, which just beat the shot clock for Kansas's biggest lead, 77-71. "I didn't think anybody really had control of this thing until then." said Tubbs.
Still, Manning suddenly threw up some horridly forced, glass-crashing stuff. "T was so excited," he said. "I looked over at the bench and coach was jumping up and down." Blaylock's turnaround cut the margin to 78-77 with 41 seconds left: Jayhawk Scooter Barry made the first free throw of a one-and-one, and when he missed the second, Manning rebounded, was fouled and made both his foul shots: 81-77 with 14 seconds left. Grace drove for a layin, but two more Manning free throws with five seconds iced the game.
What were you thinking on those last free throws, Danny Manning? "I was thinking, It's over," he said. "Before I shot them." With his 31 points for the night, Manning had merely passed Bill Bradley, Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson on the NCAA tournament career scoring charts; his 328 points are second only to Elvin Hayes's 358.
While the jubilant Jayhawks cut down the nets. Scooter turned to a fellow in a Kansas baseball cap who was going fairly bonkers and said, "I played lousy, Dad."
"So what?" said Rick Barry. "You won."
The Jayhawks' unlikely journey began only 40 miles from Kansas City. But while the players took a bus from their Lawrence campus to the Final Four, their bus driver had to fly in. The ever-superstitious Brown wanted his team chauffeured in K.C. by the same Greyhound employee who had driven them around the week before at the Midwest Regional in Pontiac, Mich.
"It's baffling to me," Jimmy Dunlap of Detroit—Driver Jimmy to the Jayhawks—told The Kansas City Star. Nevertheless, on Thursday night Driver Jimmy steered the Jayhawks downtown to venerable Municipal Auditorium so that they could catch some of the coaches' All-America game.
The outing was a nifty motivational trick by Brown. The Jayhawks got to soak up some history—nine NCAA title games had been played in the old building—and to enjoy some crowd adulation as the local favorite. They were accompanied by what may be sport's only team bodyguard, Fernando de San Miguel, a rather enormous fellow from Mexico City and Hollywood who was once the stuntman for TV's Tarzan. San Miguel says that he met Brown while "doing Larry's lawn."
On Friday, Driver Jimmy, Fernando the Landscaper, Brown, Manning and the other beloved Jayhawks attracted some 17,000 to Kemper Arena, believed to be the largest practice-day crowd in tournament history. The crush was such that the fire marshal closed the doors, thereby barring thousands of other people from the workouts, including Bobbi Olson, wife of Arizona coach Lute.
That sound heard in Kemper that afternoon was not the crowd calling for Luuuuuute to rescue Bobbi. Rather it was the locals boooooing the Duke players. The next day the Blue Devils earned additional razzing as they plunged to a two-touchdown deficit (14-0) in the first semifinal, which Kansas won 66-59. Six weeks earlier, Duke had fallen behind Kansas 23-8 at Lawrence, only to snap back with a smothering defense and win in overtime. But now, dèjà P-U. On their first 10 possessions, the Dookies missed five shots and turned the ball over five times.
As his team self-immolated, the smoke began to rise from coach Mike Krzyzewski's ears—"Take care of the——ing ball," he shouted. Though Duke made a valiant recovery—after Piper drove through the team's embarrassed middle to give Kansas a 24-6 lead with 10:54 left to the half, the Blue Devils out-scored the Jayhawks 53-42—they were never able to get over the hump of that terrible start.
The famous defenders simply got out-defended. The scrambling Jayhawks narrowed the passing lanes, choked off the inside and harassed Duke's marksmen into 34.3% shooting. In addition, Manning avenged his four-point, five-foul performance in Kansas's 1986 NCAA semifinal loss to Duke—"I'll never forget that game," he said on Saturday—with 25 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and a Final Four-record six blocked shots. Still, this wasn't a one-Dan offensive operation.
Newton burned the Blue Devils' esteemed defenseman, Billy King, for eight baskets. "If I'm supposed to be a gunslinger, I guess I got shot down," said King afterward. And Pritchard made the key basket of the game.
Duke had narrowed Kansas's lead to three points with less than four minutes to go when Pritchard went backdoor on Kevin Strickland, jump-turned on the baseline, double pumped and flipped the ball ceilingward "just to get a foul." When the ball fell through the hoop, Pritchard was flat on his back. After Pritchard missed a wide-open chippie with 2:08 left and Manning circled inside and put in the rebound to give the Jayhawks a 59-54 lead, the Blue Devils were flat on theirs as well.
"Just average Danny stuff," said Piper. "He's always held his game down for us. He's still hiding his talents."
In the other semifinal, Oklahoma's athletic skills proved to be too much for Arizona, those western Wildcats of the 35-2 record, the exquisite-passing teamwork, the dancing Gumbies on the bench and the versatile forward. Sean Elliott, in the headlines. Elliott may be the only Wildcat who could make the Sooners' first eight. "He's a wild-butt player," said Oklahoma's Blaylock, "but the others would get too tired running with us." Even Elliott raised his hand early to come out for a rest in the Sooners' surprisingly routine 86-78 victory.
With the score only 20-19 in favor of Oklahoma with 8:31 to go in the first half, Arizona seemed to be doing fine. Precisely 170 seconds later the Wildcats were behind 31-19 and gasping. Yoo-hah, it was another Tubbs-thumping "crush 'n' kill" roundup, with King (21 points) scoring at will on turnarounds and Blaylock's quick-as-a-wink hands disrupting everything Arizona tried on the perimeter. "It's tough to be an inspiration when you're 2 for 13," said Steve Kerr, who was shooting an NCAA-record 59.9% in treys before being muted by the Mookster.
Olson's stylish composure was early knocked out of sync by the Sooners' speed and fierce pressure. Cool Hand Lute even railed at his own Gumbies—whom Wiley called "Gooeys"—ordering them to shut up and sit still. "Oklahoma had tremendous endurance," Olson said admiringly.
"I think that we flat wore them out," said the Sooners" Sieger. "After a while when they caught the ball, they stopped trying moves. They just looked at us and passed it."
All except Elliott, who finished with 31 points despite playing one-on-five at times. In one stretch, during which King went to the bench with his fourth foul, Elliott got seven of eight Wildcat points to bring his team to within four points with 8:08 left. Tubbs merely turned up the heater on the Sooners' zone traps and ordered Grant (21 points, 10 rebounds) to go to work. "They're obviously the horses," said Elliott. Moreover, Wiley, a shaved-head transfer from Compton (Calif.) J.C., replaced King sc efficiently (11 points, four rebounds and a humongous blocked shot) that King never got his rattail haircut back in the game.
Wiley was even more spectacular in the Sooners' wild-and-woolly Friday practice. Long after all those Kansas fanatics had gone home, Wiley put on a slam exhibition that included some vintage Jordanesque stuff, plus a two-ball dunk and a jump-over-three-ballkids routine. Tubbs said, "I told Andre I'd put a quarter on top of the backboard, and if he could touch it, he could have it. He said, 'What about a hundred dollar bill?' I said, 'All I got is Grovers [as in Grover Cleveland, a.k.a. $1,000 bills].' "
Wiley knew what that meant, even if his teammates weren't so sure about the significance of two Big Eight teams making it to the national championship game. Grace: "The Big Eight doesn't gel as much credit as those other...uh...those other.... What is it? Big Eight...uh...what?
Grant and King, in unison, setting Amazing straight: "Conference. The Big Eight conference"
Tubbs, later: "Shoot, I didn't even think my guys knew Kansas was in our conference."
And, for a shining few weeks, in the land of Oz as well.