J. Brady McCollough
J. Brady McCollough - Courtside Allen Field House


Monday, March 17, 2008

Anatomy of a miracle

The 1987-88 Kansas Jayhawks were having a season far below their expectations. Three weeks and six NCAA Tournament games would change all that.

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star

 

Some players will tell you that the 1987-88 Kansas Jayhawks had confidence going into the NCAA Tournament, that they believed anything could happen because of Danny Manning, that they had finally seen the light after making it through four dark months.

 

That’s not how Bill Pope remembers it at all.

 

Pope, the team manager, was viewed by the players as one of their own. So he was at Mark Randall and Jeff Gueldner’s place the night after the regular-season finale against Oklahoma State. Most of the guys were there, and to Pope, it felt more like an end-of-the-year gathering.

 

"We knew there wasn’t a whole lot of hope at that stage," Pope says. "Nobody within the group foresaw us winning the championship."

 

Pope was also there the night before KU’s first-round NCAA Tournament game against Xavier at the team hotel in Lincoln, Neb. He was rooming with assistant coach Alvin Gentry, and he overheard Gentry planning a recruiting trip with fellow assistant R.C. Buford for the day after the Xavier game.

 

"They were making plan B’s already," Pope says.

 

It made sense.

 

Even Pope, a KU student, threw in the towel midway through the season. The Jayhawks were 12-8, for crying out loud, and oh, was there ever crying. Fans were so fed up, the buzz around Lawrence was that KU would be lucky to be host to an NIT game. Yet, there they were, a No. 6 seed, getting ready to play Xavier.

 

"I remember the last six games pretty well," Manning says. "But anything before that time, I struggle with remembering."

 

Selective amnesia like Manning’s should be the goal of every team that enters the Big Dance with double-digit losses.

 

Six games were all the Jayhawks needed to change everything.

 

Three golden weeks.

 

OCTOBER

 

Bill Pope’s friends convinced him to write a book. You see, in telling the story of the 1987-88 Kansas team, it’s easy to forget that the Jayhawks were a consensus preseason top-five team, picked by The Sporting News to win the whole thing.

 

Pope, a bright-eyed senior from Rose Hill, Kan., bought in. How could he not? He was on the bench in 1986 when the Jayhawks went to the Final Four and were widely considered the best team in the country. He saw how good a team the genius of Larry Brown and the talent of Danny Manning could be. When they both put off their respective NBA suitors for one more year, Pope was sold, and his book highlighting their run to the championship would be next.

 

It wasn’t just Manning either. Archie Marshall, the team’s sixth man in ’86, had fought his way back from a knee injury that he suffered against Duke in the Final Four defeat. He missed the ’87 season, but Marshall was ready to go. Then there was the addition of talented junior-college point guard Otis Livingston in the backcourt to go along with gutsy sophomore Kevin Pritchard.

 

Inside, 6-foot-10 giants Marvin Branch and Mike Masucci would provide enough backup for Manning that Brown could redshirt big men Sean Alvarado and Randall.

 

So once things got rolling in the fall of 1987, Pope was staying up late at night, scribbling down notes from each day’s events, using candles to keep himself awake.

 

CHRISTMAS

 

The holidays had arrived, and all was well for the Jayhawks as they traveled to New York City for a four-team tournament at Madison Square Garden. After they beat Memphis State in the first game, KU was 8-2.

 

But in the second game against St. John’s, Archie Marshall fell to the floor in pain halfway through the first half. Marshall knew immediately that he had torn up his knee, this time his other knee, for the second time in two years. The players and coaches were in shock. They’d watched Marshall will himself back to the court for his senior year. Now, his Kansas career was over. The Jayhawks lost 70-56, and their long winter had just begun.

 

"Everybody cared a great deal about Archie," Brown says. "When we started the season, I looked at Archie as one of the people that gave us a chance to win the national championship."

 

That goal would seem further away the longer January went on. Before the Jan. 13 game at Iowa State, Brown was informed that Branch was academically ineligible and would miss the rest of the season. Without one of its top guards and one of its best post players, KU dropped five of its next six games. The worst came on Jan. 30, when the Jayhawks lost to Kansas State in Lawrence and blew their 55-game home winning streak.

 

"There’s a lot of pride at KU about carrying the banner," Chris Piper says. "For us to lose the 55-game winning streak, we were just devastated."

 

It didn’t help when KU lost four days later at home to Oklahoma. The Jayhawks had hit rock bottom at 12-8. All the losing meant more of Larry Brown’s patented four-hour practices. One thing they all understood about Brown: The guy hated to lose, probably more than he loved to win.

 

"He had his way of motivating people," KU strength and conditioning coach Roger Finkemeier says. "He was a little more old-school, negative. He chewed guys’ butts."

 

During one of those infamous postloss practices, Brown told his team, "You would all be playing in the YMCA if Danny wasn’t on the team."

 

Bill Pope was there for all of it. It’s no wonder that he stopped thinking about writing a bestseller on this group.

 

"When Archie got hurt and Marvin Branch became ineligible, I quit writing notes," Pope says. "That’s how improbable I thought it was."

 

FEBRUARY

 

The fans at Allen Fieldhouse had become restless. Many of the players on the 1987-88 team had helped bring them 55 home wins in a row, but that didn’t stop the KU fans from voicing their displeasure.

 

"I remember games specifically when we ran off the court to boos," Mike Maddox says. "And it’s probably hard for most people to believe that would happen in Allen Fieldhouse, but it happened."

 

The sky was falling outside, but Brown wasn’t about to give up on a team that had the best player in the country. After the streak-breaking loss to K-State, the Jayhawks waited in the locker room for Brown, expecting to get reamed. Brown did the opposite.

 

"Guys," Brown said, "we’re getting better. I can see us turning the corner."

 

Piper, a senior, sensed that Brown was simply trying to boost the team’s spirits.

 

"It was how I felt," Brown says. "They weren’t used to me saying that in the midst of a losing streak."

 

Pritchard says: "Coach Brown has a wonderful pulse on the team in that he has the ability to be tough on you when you win, and when you lose, he knows when he needs to put his arm around you."

 

Brown wasn’t just changing his tone. He started tinkering with different lineups, trying to find the right chemistry. Livingston wasn’t working out at the point, so Brown decided to move Pritchard to the point. It was a bold move -- Pritchard had never played point before -- but it allowed Brown to move sharp-shooting Jeff Gueldner into the starting lineup along side Milt Newton, who played small forward.

 

The first night Gueldner started, the Jayhawks won at Oklahoma State. Brown wouldn’t touch the lineup again.

 

KU was finally starting to resemble the team that it would be in March. The Jayhawks were getting contributions from Clint Normore and Marvin Mattox, the two football safeties that Brown added to make up for the losses of Marshall and Branch.

 

"We brought a physical toughness that they didn’t have," Normore says.

 

Other contributions were less obvious. Mattox decided that the basketball players were too serious. Mattox, of course, wasn’t carrying the baggage of a 12-8 start.

 

Mattox lightened the mood by joking with his teammates, reminding them that this was supposed to be fun. In warm-ups before games, he would put on a dunk show. He also turned the normally quiet bus rides to and from games into his own personal dance party with his boombox, which usually blared rap music.

 

"The basketball players didn’t do any of that stuff," Mattox says.

 

The Jayhawks did, however, start winning games. KU went 8-2 and finished the regular season 20-10. Still, before the Jayhawks could take their shot at the ultimate prize, Brown would have to clean house again. He suspended Livingston and Masucci for disciplinary reasons before the tournament began.

 

"We had several guys on our team that, for lack of a better way of putting it, weren’t really committed to being on the team," Gueldner says. "Coach Brown kind of cycled through them, and they were no longer on the team eventually."

 

KU would have to win six games in a row with nine basketball players and two safeties.

 

NCAA TOURNAMENT, WEEK ONE

 

Kansas trainer Mark Cairns and Kevin Pritchard went to the Devaney Center early on the day of KU’s first-round game against Xavier. Pritchard had sprained his knee in the first round of the Big Eight tournament, and the Jayhawks needed him badly.

 

Cairns and Pritchard went through a shootaround to test his knee, and Cairns worried that Pritchard wouldn’t be himself. Sure enough, Pritchard took the opening tip down the floor and dunked. So much for concern. The Jayhawks ran Xavier out of the building 85-72.

 

Things were shaping up nicely for KU. No. 3 seed North Carolina State, its likely opponent, was upset by No. 14 seed Murray State. Only, the Racers were hungry for more. They played with KU’s emotions all game long, and came within three points of another major upset, losing 61-58. Manning hit two clutch free throws down the stretch to clinch it.

 

"One shot against Murray State," Pritchard says, "and we’re out of it."

 

Scooter Barry says: "That was the heartbeat game, the one that really got me nervous."

 

The Jayhawks’ hearts were beating all right. They left Lincoln with a feeling of, "Well, why the hell not?" If only their fans had felt the same way. As KU’s team bus pulled up at Allen Fieldhouse late that night, nobody was waiting to congratulate them.

 

"Somebody on the bus made the point to tell everyone, ‘Hey look, nobody still believes in us,’ " Pope says. "Two years before, they’d been to the Final Four and saw the way the fans can be on your side."

 

NCAA TOURNAMENT, WEEK TWO

 

The doubters would say the Jayhawks were lucky in their draw at the Midwest Regional in Pontiac, Mich. Even KU couldn’t deny its good fortune in facing No. 7 seed Vanderbilt, which knocked off No. 2 seed Pittsburgh in the second round.

 

The Jayhawks certainly didn’t apologize when Manning poured in 38 points in a 77-64 victory over the Commodores in the Sweet 16. And the Jayhawks didn’t apologize when No. 4 seed K-State beat No. 1 seed Purdue the same day.

 

"They said, ‘Pitt fell right in front of you, Purdue fell right in front of you,’ " Barry recalls. "I say that means nothing. In the tournament, when it’s one loss, all or nothing, you still have to beat the team that won."

 

The only thing standing in the way of the Jayhawks and the Final Four in Kansas City was rival K-State, which had beaten KU in two of three contests already that season. By tipoff, the Palace at Auburn Hills had become the site of an intrastate feud. KU would settle the score with an all-too-easy 71-58 win over the Wildcats.

 

That night, as the Jayhawks’ team bus drove toward Lawrence on Interstate 70, a funny thing happened. When KU players looked out the window on either side, they saw thousands of their fans lined up along the highway, welcoming them home.

 

NCAA TOURNAMENT, WEEK THREE

 

On the day before Kansas would play Duke in a national semifinal, the Jayhawks held an open practice at Kemper Arena. There were so many KU fans streaming into the building, the fire marshal had to bar the doors to the arena.

 

Yes, the underdog Jayhawks had captured their fans’ imagination once again.

 

On Saturday night, Kansas put aside any doubts about whether it could hang with the Blue Devils when it jumped out to a 14-0 lead, which would balloon to 24-6. Manning finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and six blocked shots as KU advanced 66-59. The weird thing was, the Jayhawks barely even celebrated in the postgame locker room. While some players did interviews, the rest sat in their chairs and read magazines.

 

"That was the freaky part," Mattox says. "No hollering, no cheering."

 

For three weeks, the Jayhawks had lived in the moment. While they stayed grounded, their coach agonized over everything. Brown, known for his superstitions, had actually flown in the same bus driver from KU’s Sweet 16 and Elite Eight victories in Detroit to drive the bus in Kansas City.

 

Detail-minded? Yes.

 

Crazy? Perhaps.

 

But it would take something crazy for the Jayhawks to beat Billy Tubbs’ big-talking Oklahoma Sooners. At least, it seemed that way.

 

"Oklahoma was cocky, they were flamboyant, they were loud," Barry says. "We were kind of a testament to Larry Brown. We were more controlled and dignified. It was kind of like the rebels against the clean-cut guys."

 

Oklahoma’s trio of Stacey King, Mookie Blaylock and Harvey Grant all had NBA careers. Of the Jayhawks who played that night, only Manning and Pritchard had NBA careers. That was why KU legend Wilt Chamberlain picked the Sooners in that morning’s USA Today. That was why CBS commentator Billy Packer, who announced the game, was convinced that KU could not run with the Sooners.

 

Fittingly, the Jayhawks decided that was exactly what they’d do. Punch the Sooners in the mouth. Show that they weren’t intimidated like everyone else. The Jayhawks turned the ball over often, but it didn’t matter because they made 17 of their first 20 shots.

 

KU went to the half tied 50-50. While the Sooners used only six players, Brown subbed more than he had all season.

 

"He was shuffling guys in and out like a Vegas card dealer," Barry says.

 

Brown pulled the team together at halftime.

 

"We proved we can play their game," Brown said. "Now let’s make them prove they can play our game."

 

KU’s game, at least the KU that magically appeared in the national title game, was to win with smarts. As Piper put it, the Jayhawks were "cerebral." The group that Brown brought to Kansas City knew its roles, played tight defense and had long possessions.

 

"We got down to the heart of the team at the end," Barry says. "We were a tight unit."

 

Barry was on the floor at the end of the game. Once a walk-on with seemingly little potential, he had to make a free throw to boost KU’s lead to 79-77 with 16 seconds left. Manning would ice the game with four freebies, and the Jayhawks won 83-79. The players all ran to Manning, who finished with 31 points and 18 rebounds.

 

In the afterglow, Gentry, the assistant, looked at Brown.

 

"We won the national championship with Scooter Barry," Gentry said.

 

It wasn’t a slam at Barry. It was reality. The Jayhawks had made history, becoming the first team to win a title with as many as 11 losses.

 

The celebration would rage into the night. Kansas was told it may not be safe to return to Lawrence that night. It wasn’t much safer as the Jayhawks’ bus rolled up to their hotel in Kansas City. Fans surrounded the bus, rocking it back and forth, before the bus disappeared through a back entrance so the players could get to their rooms.

 

All night, they’d watch the game on replay, unable to comprehend how the last three weeks would change their lives and their legacies.

 

THE AFTERMATH

 

After the Jayhawks traveled to Washington, D.C., after they met President Ronald Reagan and nearly faced the ire of the first lady for walking on the White House lawn, they returned to Lawrence feeling invincible.

 

Soon, though, the good times would end. Manning, of course, was gone, graduated, headed to the NBA. In June, Brown decided to join him, leaving with his entire staff for the San Antonio Spurs head coaching job. The program hired Roy Williams, a young buck with no college head coaching experience.

 

In November, news broke that the NCAA was putting the program on probation for improper benefits given to a potential transfer student, a player named Vincent Askew. The NCAA discovered that KU, under Brown’s direction in 1986, had paid for Askew’s flights to and from Kansas, among other things.

 

Brown was long gone, but that was irrelevant to the NCAA infractions committee, which handed KU a 1989 postseason ban. The Jayhawks made a different kind of history, becoming the first national champions that couldn’t defend their title.

 

"I was crushed," says Barry, who was a senior in ’89.

 

Brown says he would not have left had he known about the probation.

 

"It was a mess," Barry says. "It wasn’t the easiest place for coach Williams to start."

 

Just think: What if the 1988 team did what was expected and exited the first weekend of the tournament?

 

"Thank goodness we had those three weeks," Cairns says. "It would have been really bad to live through."

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