I guess there are still memories to be had, even for somebody who has been writing about sports for as long as I have.
And this week is one of those times as Wichita State approaches its first Final Four in 48 years. It’s a privilege for me to be writing about the Shockers on this big stage and to represent the Wichita Eagle in Atlanta and during WSU’s previous stops in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.
This is history and that’s not lost on me. In fact, I would go so far as to say getting to cover this Final Four run is the highlight of my professional career. I might as well just go ahead and retire after this is over. But don’t get your hopes up because I have bills to pay.
I was a 10-year-old rabid Shocker fan in 1965, when WSU was beaten in the national semifinals by UCLA, then dropped a third-place game (thank goodness they don’t have those anymore) to Princeton and Bill Bradley.
My father and I, I’m sure, went to every home game that season. As I’ve written about before, I was a huge Wichita State basketball fan as a kid and getting to talk this week to former Shockers Kelly Pete (now Mohamed Sharif), Dave Leach and Vernon Smith has been a surreal experience. It always is. I’ve interviewed WSU players from that era numerous times in my journalism career and it’s always such a strange experience because these were my sports heroes growing up.
My favorite athlete of all-time is former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson. He’s followed closely, though, by former Shocker All-America basketball player Dave Stallworth, who unfortunately missed out on being a member of the ’65 Final Four team because of eligibility issues. His ran out in late January of that season in one of the strangest twists in college basketball history. I don’t know who was in charge of eligibility in those days, but whoever it was really dropped the ball.
As we’ve covered this team more and more, deeper and deeper into the tournament, it’s been impressive to see how the players and coaching staff has handled the deluge of media publicity. This is a good group that, as far as I can tell, hasn’t let any of this go to their heads. They have remained down to earth, humble and proud of what they have accomplished but not changed by those accomplishments.
If there’s a commonality between the teams of previous coach Mark Turgeon and those of current coach Greg Marshall, it’s that they recruit good players and good people. The 2006 team of Turgeon’s that made a run to the Sweet 16 was filled with exemplary guys and this team is, too.
What happens in Atlanta?
To no one’s surprise, the Shockers are an underdog to Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed when the 68 tournament teams were announced a few weeks ago. They’re a big underdog, 10 1/2 points last I checked.
But Wichita State has been an underdog to Pittsburgh, Gonzaga and Ohio State in this tournament. And the Shockers survived and advanced. They built double-digit leads against all three and had the Buckeyes down 20 points in the second half before a late comeback.
Louisville deserves all of its accolades. The Cardinals have everything, including a stifling defense – full- and half-court – that is sure to cause Wichita State problems.
But the Shockers have counter punchers. Their guards match up reasonably well, I believe. Maybe I’m delusional, who knows?
As you know, I’m jaded, curmudgeonly, sarcastic and rude. Well, I try not to be rude. I do try. But I’m glad I’m getting to experience this incredible moment in Wichita State basketball history. It stems mostly back to my youth and memories of my father. Much of my sports world circles around my dad, Ray, who I have been fortunate enough to get to write about over the years.
He took me to so many games when I was a kid. And it was through that experience that everything I’ve gotten to do in my life as it relates to sports has come about.
My dad was a huge Shocker fan, too. When we weren’t at a home game, we were listening to road games on the radio. The Shockers and Cardinals were our bond. I’m glad I was able to work for eight years at the newspaper before my father passed away in 1982. Moments like this always make me think about him and how proud he was of me and the Shockers.
We’re both doing something pretty cool this week.