It’s easy to be popular when you’re 34-0. And Wichita State’s basketball team is definitely popular, as the 7,500 or so Shocker fans who made the trek over to St. Louis for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament this weekend prove.
This is a fun team to watch. Wichita State is talented and focused. The Shockers are fundamentally sound
and balanced. They have all the things outstanding sports team possess.
But beyond that, this is just a good group of guys. There’s not one sourpuss in the group and if anything can bring the sour out in a puss, it’s the media with our endless and repetitive questions.
Like everyone who saw it and has since heard about it, I was so impressed with the Shockers’ treatment of Indiana State senior guard Jake Odum on Sunday during the tournament championship game at the Scottrade Center.
Odum left the game late, when the outcome had been decided, to the cheers of the 1,000 or so Indiana State fans in the venue. It was a nice moment that was about to get nicer because of the Shockers.
Sophomores Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet began to applaud for Odum. Baker took it a step farther, following the Sycamores guard toward the Indiana State bench and raising his arms as a signal to the throng of Shocker fans that they should be applauding and cheering for Odum, too.
And that’s what happened. Odum left not only to an ovation from the home fans who have been following him for four years, but also to appreciative Wichita State fans who were reminded by young people just beyond their teenage years what sportsmanship is all about.
It was a fantastic moment and the Shocker players deserve credit for making it special. Not that they would want the attention because that’s not what this team is all about.
Baker and VanVleet are simply good people who happen to be outstanding basketball players. Without basketball, they would go far in life. With it, who knows their limit.
After the game, Baker was asked about his salute to Odum and his answer was genuine.
“That kid right there is a very special kid,” Baker said. “He’s had a really strong four years at his university. He’s put up very special numbers. He’s made history there. I’m just sad for his fans to see him not accomplish what he was trying to accomplish, but right there, I was just trying to give him some love because he deserved it. He played a hard game.”
I’m always willing to learn from people, even people who are three years out of high school. How many adults in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s would have had to wherewithal in that moment, when your team is about to go to 34-0 and win a tournament the Shockers hadn’t won in 27 years, to show that kind of respect for an opposing player.
And it wasn’t just Baker. VanVleet was doing the same thing. So were other Wichita State players. And they weren’t prompted by Shocker coach Gregg Marshall or any of his assistants. It came directly from their understanding of what it takes to be a competitor and having respect for the guy you competed against.
Beyond the game and the victory and the championship, the sportsmanship stood out most. It was one of the best moments of an incredible season. And it, like all of the wins and celebrations, should be remembered.