On Tuesday, March 6, I flew to Kansas City to attend the 2012 Big 12 Men’s Basketball Tournament. I started attending this tournament in 1993 when it was the Men’s Basketball Tournament of the Big Eight Conference, so this was my 20th tournament. I have seen many changes over these 20 years, the biggest being the expansion of the conference to 12 teams in 1996.
The Big Eight Men’s Basketball Tournament was always played in Kansas City, and through 2002 the Big 12 Tournament was played at Kemper Arena in Kansas City. In 2003 and 2004, the tournament was played at American Airlines Arena in Dallas. The tournament returned to Kemper Arena in 2005, and returned to American Airlines Arena in 2006. The tournament was then played at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City in 2007, then the new Sprint Center in Kansas City in 2008, back at the Ford Center in 2009, and then at the Sprint Center starting in 2010 and scheduled to remain there through at least 2014.
I had made a “flight and car” reservation through Orbitz that had me flying from Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington, DC to McConnell International (MCI) in Kansas City on US Airways Express. We landed in Kansas City 20 minutes early through 40 mph winds that would be in the Kansas City area for the next two days. It was 70 degrees when we landed.
I was to meet Dave, my friend and former co-worker, at the rental car counter upon arrival. I had landed in Kansas City before Dave was scheduled to land, so I boarded the bus to the rental car center. Dave called while I was en-route, so I knew he was right behind me. Orbitz had booked a Chevy Aveo for us through Dollar Rent a Car. Although I had already paid in full, I was offered a “Big 12 Special” upgrade to an available Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima, or Chrysler 300 for an additional $12 per day. With the high winds this sounded like a very good deal. An Aveo would be pushed around by those winds, and my previous experiences with Aveos have shown that they usually fail to get 30 miles per gallon despite their small size and three cylinder engines. I chose the Fusion because I have had very good experiences with the Fusions I have rented.
Dave had not arrived by the time the paperwork was completed, and the agent suggested I check out the car and put away my bags while I waited. The assigned Fusion was black, and it looked like a smaller version of the Ford Taurus I had rented in Las Vegas at Thanksgiving. Unlike the Taurus, the Fusion didn’t feel too big. I put away my bags and got out my GPS to program in the address of Dave’s brother’s house in Olathe, KS where we would be staying. After I checked for dents (there weren’t any), I headed back to the Dollar counter area. As I came through the glass doors, Dave was arriving, so we proceeded to the car. After putting away Dave’s bags and checking out of the lot with the exit gate operator, we got on I-29 and were on our way to Olathe!
This would be the third time that Dave and I have stayed at the Olathe residence of Dave’s brother Paul. Paul was out of town on business through Thursday evening, so we were the guests of Paul’s wife and two of his daughters in the interim. As I drove, Dave got in touch with his friends John and Mike to coordinate dinner at Stroud’s in the suburb of Fairway, KS. We would meet there at 6:30.
We arrived at Paul’s house and let ourselves in through the garage. Paul has created a “man cave” in the finished basement of the house, with a full-size refrigerator/freezer, HD TV with surround sound, gas fireplace, restroom with shower, Apple Mac with printer, two beds and a couch. The accommodations are excellent! We met up with Laura and the kids shortly after getting settled. The family would be taking a spring break trip to Southern California, starting on Friday morning, to visit their oldest daughter Emma who is in school there, and the girls were especially excited. As we left for Stroud’s, Dave and I promised to bring back some of their famous cinnamon rolls.
Stroud’s has been serving chicken dinners to Kansas City diners since 1933 (the Fairway location opened in 2008). The restaurant’s Oak Ridge Manor (Kansas City) location has been featured on The Travel Channel’s “Man vs. Food” program, and Stroud’s pan fried chicken is touted by some as the best in the world. Stroud’s is a James Beard Award winner for Excellence. As we pulled into the parking lot, we saw John come out of the restaurant and go to his car. We met at the door and sat with John and his wife Vicky while we waited for Mike to arrive. Dave and John grew up together in Syracuse, KS and worked several summers harvesting wheat throughout the upper Midwest. After catching up on recent news of family and friends, including an update on Vicky’s brother who would be joining us at the tournament and who was en route from Colorado, Dave and John traded stories about their hometown, their days at the University of Kansas, and their times on the wheat harvest.
Mike finally joined us, and ordering commenced. Chicken fried steaks for John and Vicky, while Dave, Mike and I ordered three piece chicken dinners. Each dinner comes with a salad and cinnamon rolls, and sides are served family style. The food was excellent, as was the conversation which mixed reminiscing with anticipation of the upcoming tournament, several weddings in Dave’s family, and Mike’s impending retirement. As the food disappeared it became evident that the three piece chicken dinner eaters were lagging behind. I had eaten my three chicken pieces and had sampled all the sides, but I made the conscious choice of the smallest remaining cinnamon roll because that was all that I could eat. Dave could only eat two of his chicken pieces, and when the remaining piece was offered around everyone else declined. We were all full! Dessert was declined; the extra dozen cinnamon rolls were packaged to take home, as was Dave’s third chicken piece. When we got back to Olathe, Dave and I still felt quite full. We quickly turned in for the night and had no trouble getting to sleep.
The first round of games would begin at the Sprint Center at 6:00 pm on March 7. Kansas was the regular season Conference Champion and would not play its first game until 2:00 pm on March 8. Since we had so much time before the games started, Dave and I decided to drive to Lawrence, KS, the home of the University of Kansas, to see the gravesite of Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of the game of basketball, and to take Dave’s son Nicholas, a second-year law student at KU, out to lunch and give him his tickets for the Friday and Saturday games he would be attending. We would also visit the KU Bookstore and several other stores in Lawrence that specialize in KU apparel.
Dave and I first visited the Naismith gravesite in 1992 on my first visit to Lawrence. We have made a pilgrimage to Lawrence every year that the tournament has been held in Kansas City. We drove west on K-10 and exited before entering the city limits. After a left turn and passing through some fields that are currently lying fallow, we were on 15th Street and in the distance we could see Frazier Hall on the KU campus atop Mt. Oread.
Our first stop was Memorial Park Cemetery on 15th Street. Dave’s parents passed away in 2010 and 2011, and this was my first chance to see the plaque for Dave’s father and pay my respects to Dave’s mother who passed away last April. Dave and I had stayed with Dave’s parents for almost all of the previous Kansas City tournaments, and they always had treated me like one of the family. I was very proud to have known them. There is a Naismith Memorial near the entrance to Memorial Park Cemetery, just a few steps from the vault where Dave’s parents rest. After some pictures, we headed to Naismith’s gravesite and cenotaph. Every time I visit this site, I am amazed that I am standing at the final resting place of the man who invented the game that is so popular worldwide, the game that generates so much revenue on both the collegiate and professional levels, the game that people like me travel hundreds or thousands of miles to watch, and the game that has millions of people filling out brackets and watching three games at a time during March weekends. In addition to inventing the game of basketball, Dr. Naismith (he was a medical doctor) created the first football helmet by cutting up a volleyball to cover his ears because he was tired of opponents boxing his ears. Dr. Naismith is also the only KU men’s basketball head coach to have a losing record for his KU career.
Next, we stopped on Massachusetts Street (the main drag in Lawrence) to look at KU apparel before heading to the Law School to pick up Nicholas. After lunch and having given Nicholas his tickets, we dropped him off at his apartment so he could work on a law school brief. Dave and I somehow ended up on the campus of Haskell Indian Nations University. Founded in1884, Haskell is an accredited college offering associates and bachelors degrees to members of federally recognized Native American Tribes in the United States. Notable locations on campus are the Haskell Cultural Center and Museum, the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame, and the Haskell Medicine Wheel Earthwork.
Then it was back to the KU campus and the University bookstore. Established by the Kansas Legislature in 1865, the University of Kansas has its main campus in Lawrence. A liberal arts university consistently ranked in the top 150 universities nationally, KU also has a deserved reputation for its basketball program. Fielding teams every year since 1898 and boasting coaches such as Dr. Naismith, Forest (Phog) Allen (the Father of Basketball Coaching and one of the creators of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament), Larry Brown, Roy Williams and Bill Self (all but Dr. Naismith won National Championships), the KU men’s basketball program has won more games than any other program except the University of Kentucky. KU players have included Adolf Rupp, Dean Smith, Wilt Chamberlain, Jo Jo White, Danny Manning and Paul Pierce.
Sights to see on the Lawrence campus include the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History, the Spencer Museum of Art, Allen Fieldhouse, the Memorial Campanile, Memorial Stadium, and the Kansas Memorial Union which includes the main KU Bookstore. We drove around campus and then entered the parking garage next to the Union from Oread Avenue. Once my Bookstore purchases were made I found that there was still time to take a few pictures on campus before our hour of parking was up, and I hurried to Frazier Hall after taking a few pictures of Memorial Stadium. Then it was time to head back to Kansas City. As we began to head out of Lawrence our friend Wendell called. He and his wife Elizabeth had just landed in Kansas City and were getting their rental car. It was agreed that we would meet at Sprint Center that evening.
2012 is the fourth year the tournament has been played at Sprint Center, and one thing we have learned is that free parking downtown is available if you are willing to walk seven blocks from 20th Street on Grand Avenue or Walnut Street to the Power and Light District and the Sprint Center. We exited I-35 at the Penway Exit and parked on 20th Street. We then met Dave’s friend John and his brother-in-law (also named Dave) at The Cashew, a bar at 20th and Grand that serves as the KU Alumni Association’s focal point during the tournament. After doing some catching up it was time to board the bus provided by The Cashew to take fans to Sprint Center.
The Power and Light District is blocked off to automobile traffic for several blocks around the arena during the tournament. Grand Avenue in front of Sprint Center is turned over to exhibits and contests sponsored by the various sponsors of the tournament. Pep rallies for the schools are held on an open air stage in a courtyard enclosed by establishments fronting on Grand and Walnut.
This year we had really great seats, just five rows from the court in Section 115, just at the baseline at one end of the court. You could see and hear everything at our end of the court. We have never had better seats! The first game was Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma, and the highlight of this 62-53 Texas A&M win was when Wendell and Elizabeth arrived and Dave and I had the chance to catch up with them rather than watch the rather dreadful basketball being played on the court. I hadn’t seen Wendell and Liz since Thanksgiving in Las Vegas.
The second game pitted Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, and OSU’s 76-60 victory was just as bad an exhibition of basketball as the first game. Afterward, John and brother-in-law Dave made their way back to John’s house while Wendell, Liz, Dave and I went to Fran’s, a 24-hour diner located just two blocks from Sprint Center. I had no idea this place was there! I learned later that Fran’s is a Canadian chain, which I should have realized when I saw poutine on the menu. We all ordered breakfast items and it seems that the eggs just didn’t come out right. My scrambled eggs had definite yolk and white sections, while the over easies were off as well. To top things off, the “three scoop sundae” we ordered for the table must have used a melon baller for the scoops. There certainly weren’t three real scoops of ice cream in that little flute of a dish. Still, the day and night had been good, and Dave and I made our way back to the car anticipating a full day of basketball with the KU Jayhawks slated to play at 2 pm.
On Thursday, we would watch Session 2 – two games with the first starting at 11:30 am – have dinner at the Bristol Seafood Grill (next door to Fran’s) between sessions, and then return to the arena to watch Session 3 – another two games starting at 6 pm. We drove to a parking lot near I-35 in Olathe where we met John and his brother-in-law, and John drove us to Kansas City. It only took 24 minutes from the time we entered the Interstate until we were parked on 20th Street. It wasn’t quite 10 am, and The Cashew wasn’t open. At 10:15, the Cashew still wasn’t open and the 60 degree temperatures of Wednesday had given way to 40 degree temperatures while a brisk wind still blew. Worse, the Cashew bus that was a supposed to start taking fans to the arena at 10 am was nowhere to be seen. We felt that walking to the arena would be our best course and we arrived at the Power and Light District just as the KU Pep Rally was about to begin. Standing among a sea of Big 12 basketball fans, the majority wearing KU’s crimson and blue, we watched as the KU Pep Band played and the Jayhawk Dancers and KU Cheerleaders danced and vaulted. Even though I had never set foot on the KU campus until I was well into my thirties, I find myself getting caught up in the excitement accompanying such events. Who can resist joining in the famous “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk” chant?
Back inside the arena, our group was joined this day by Dave’s former KU roommate Mike and his friend Michelle. Michelle is a Missouri fan, and the fact that she and Mike are friends is a testament to tolerance on both their parts. The 11:30 game pitted Baylor and Kansas State. Baylor had been highly rated before the season, but underachieved and ended up ranked #4 in the conference. Kansas State’s teams have been known as hard working, no nonsense squads for the past several years, but they lack scoring ability. Baylor’s tall front line and deadly three point shooting proved too much for K State. The Wildcats fell behind and every time they tried to make a run to get back to even, Baylor would hit a three pointer or score on a break away. The final score was Baylor 82 – Kansas State 74.
The 2:00 game was our first chance to see the top seeded Jayhawks in the tournament as they faced game one winner Texas A&M. The Aggies will be joining the Southeastern Conference next year, so if they lost it would be their final Big 12 basketball game. Kansas started slowly, not having played since the previous Sunday. The lead traded hands several times, but a series of three point baskets by Elijah Johnson of the Jayhawks secured a lead late in the first half, and Kansas rode a 13-0 run to a 14 point halftime lead. Kansas would lead by as many as 20 in the second half, and cruised to an 83-66 victory. Texas A&M had ended its Big 12 basketball history with a loss.
Our party of 8 made its way from the arena to the Bristol Seafood Grill for our between-sessions dinner. Although known for its seafood, Bristol also does an excellent job with steaks and chops (this is Kansas City after all). It took a few minutes for our party to be seated – at the same table we had been assigned two years before. Drink orders were taken (I broke down and ordered a non-alcoholic beer) and the signature fresh baked rolls were delivered. Several in our group wanted to include the lobster mac & cheese in their dinners, and they were not disappointed. I went with the caesar salad and the filet with lobster tail. Service was a bit slow, but that was understandable given the crush of tournament goers looking for places to eat. Our waitress did seem to disappear for about 10 minutes, but reappeared to take another round of drink orders just before the entrees arrived. My second non-alcoholic beer came with a chunk missing from its crown. This can sometimes happen when screw off tops are removed with an opener. No injury occurred, and the replacement was delivered promptly. Although the food was certainly up to standard, somehow the experience left something to be desired. I can’t put my finger on it, but my two previous meals at the Bristol, under the exact same circumstances, were better.
We returned to the arena in time for the Missouri – Oklahoma State contest. Like Texas A&M, Missouri is slated to join the Southeastern Conference beginning with the 2012-2013 season. Missouri’s final game in this tournament would be its final conference game. A top ten ranked team all season, Missouri was too much for the Cowboys. The Tigers used their tenacious defense and offensive quickness and three point shooting ability to run away from Oklahoma State. The final score was Missouri 88- OSU 70. Missouri looked impressive.
The final game of the night was Texas versus Iowa State. Both these teams were considered locks to be playing in the NCAA Tournament the following week, but a loss by Texas may have broken their string of NCAA appearances. I secretly hoped that Texas would lose and end up not going to the big dance. Both teams played a very sloppy game. There were times I would turn to Wendell and ask if either team knew what the object of the game of basketball was? The mistakes made by both sides were frustrating to watch. Iowa State finally caught some momentum and eventually led by 16 points with 12 minutes to play. But Texas started coming back and Iowa State kept making silly mistakes. When the lead was cut to four points I knew that the Longhorns would end up on top, as the Cyclones just could not remember how they had scored all their points earlier in the game. After Texas broke out to a 6 point lead, Iowa State twice had the opportunity to cut Texas’ lead down to 2, and both times the Cyclones just could not get the defensive stop and offensive conversion needed to make it a one possession game. Texas ended up winning the contest 71 – 65, but neither team should have been satisfied with its performance this night.
After the session was over, Dave, Liz, Wendell, Mike, Michelle and I waited on the concourse for John and his brother-in-law to come down from their seats. After about 10 minutes, we began to suspect that we had missed them. If this was the case, and they had headed back to Kansas, Dave and I would have to find another way back to Olathe. Dave called John’s cell phone, but got his voice mail. As we parted with Wendell and Liz we agreed that if John’s car was not where he had parked it on 20th Street we would call to let them know that a ride was needed. As we got to 20th Street, there was the car. John thought it was silly that we’d think that he would head back to Kansas without us, but we were just being prepared. As we headed back to I-35, I texted Wendell that taxi services would not be needed.
Kansas was slated to play the first of Friday’s games, against Baylor, with a 6:30 pm tip off. Nicholas was coming in from Lawrence to the games, and would meet us in Olathe at about 3 pm. From there we would meet Wendell and Liz at Tannin Wine Bar on Walnut Street at 4:30. None of us had ever eaten at this place. Friday was Wendell and Liz’ day to visit Lawrence and shop for KU gear. Dave and I had talked about using all the time we had on Friday to visit the World War I Museum up the hill from Union Station, or visit the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, which is located just behind the World War I Museum. After we saw Dave’s brother Paul and the family off on their way to Southern California, and Dave completed his daily trip to Starbucks, we found that the previous days had worn us out a bit. Both of us ended up nodding off, and Nicholas had to come around to the backyard before we could hear him knocking. Then we headed back downtown.
After parking on 20th Street we walked up Walnut to Tannin, which is located in a small brick building. Dave, Nicholas and I arrived before Wendell and Liz, and we were seated in a booth. Wendell and Liz arrived shortly thereafter, having come straight from Lawrence. We ordered off the tasting menu. The signature crab dip was not as disappointing as on line reviews made it out to be. We found the entrees to be uninspiring, and worse when Nicholas ordered the Ahi Tuna (on a Friday during lent), he was told that they were out of it – at 5 pm. The desserts that came with the tasting menu were very good, but also very small. Tannin will not be among the restaurants we visit during tournament time next year; or the year after.
Once we were all seated in the arena, you could sense the tension among the KU fans. Kansas had handled Baylor easily in both games during the regular season, but the Baylor team that had handled K State on Thursday seemed to be much more focused. This time the game went back and forth for a bit, but then Baylor started taking advantage of KU mistakes and misses. The Jayhawks’ inside game seemed to be working, but their outside shooting was terrible. Baylor had a lead at the half and stretched it to 13 points before an 18-3 run by Kansas put the Jayhawks ahead by two points with over 10 minutes remaining in the second half. But from there Baylor came back to take the lead and never give it back. Kansas made its run by driving to the basket, but once the Jayhawks took the lead they abandoned that strategy and went to outside shooting. Kansas never shot well in the game and made only two 3 point shots (one in the first half and one in the second half). Baylor won the game convincingly, 81-72.
In the second game Missouri took on Texas, and this game was never in doubt. Missouri did whatever it wanted at either end of the court and Texas did not have much of an answer. The Longhorns were lucky to have made it to this round of the tournament, but they would not be going any further. The final score was Missouri 81 – Texas 67. The game was not as close as the score would indicate.
Saturday’s game was scheduled for 5 pm. We went for breakfast to Mom’s Kitchen in Olathe to meet Dave’s sister Diane and her husband Tom. We were surprised to find Dave’s brother John and his wife Melanie were also seated at the table. Although the Jayhawk loss was the prime subject of conversation, once that was put aside family talk ensued. Wedding preparations (Nicholas is not the only member of the family with an upcoming wedding), upcoming vacations, and Halloween and Christmas decorations were among the subjects discussed. Dave had made reservations for Tasso’s on Wornall at 84th (south of the arena) for after the game, so breakfast would have to tide us over until later in the evening.
The arena was awash in Missouri’s colors of black and gold. Although Baylor had more fans at this tournament than at any previous, they were still greatly outnumbered. Unlike Kansas, Missouri had no trouble taking its third win from Baylor, building a lead and maintaining it throughout the game. We decided that if Baylor was behind by 15 points with 10 minutes remaining, we would leave early. Baylor made a bit of a run and cut the Tigers lead to 12 at the 10 minute mark. We then made the cut off a 10 point deficit with eight minutes left. Baylor was behind by 12 with eight minutes remaining, so we left. As we got back to the Cashew, the score was Missouri 90 – Baylor 75, and that is the way the game ended. Missouri finished its Big 12 history with a win and a conference tournament championship. The Missouri fans who chanted “S-E-C” in response to their Big 12 tournament victory should savor this one because with Kentucky and Florida soon to be their competitors, another basketball tournament victory probably will not be coming for some time.
It is hard to find parking at Tasso’s, so you have to be inventive, using neighboring parking lots. We were seated immediately, even though we were early. A Greek restaurant, Tasso’s has live entertainment with plate breaking and belly dancing. The atmosphere is lively, and there was a bachelorette party and some kind of work group in attendance on this night. Each of us ordered Tasso’s Package Deal, where each participant gets an appetizer sampler, choice of salad and choice of entrée for $20.95. We also ordered Saganaki (flaming cheese) for the table. The appetizer sampler could have been a meal in itself, and the Saganaki was flavorful and the pita wedges were soft and complemented both the cheese and meats. Spring leg of lamb, rack of lamb, and filet mignon sish-kabob were ordered as the main dishes, and each was wonderful. Even the vegetables had a delightfully distinctive taste. The belly dancer was entertaining but not intrusive, and our entire group had a marvelous time. We all remarked that this had been one of the least expensive of our meals in Kansas City, but it was without question our best meal of the trip.
And with that, our trip to Kansas City was over. Sensing our mood, the weather turned overcast and misty. We all returned to our respective hometowns sad that Kansas had lost, but happy to have had the chance to be with one another once again. I know that some of us are already making plans for next year’s tournament. Go Jayhawks!