If you follow college basketball, you may well hate the University of Kansas. Jeremy Stahl certainly does. Writing in Slate’s annual NCAA tournament “Teams We Hate” feature, Stahl called the Jayhawks “odious” and “contemptible.”
No big shock. Kansas—along with North Carolina, Kentucky, and Duke—is one of those teams that fans love to hate, like the Yankees, the Lakers, or Dallas Cowboys. KU is a high-dollar, high-pressure program, perennially in the top 20, usually in the top five, and always a threat to make the Final Four. Of course people root against the Jayhawks. Tonight, for example. Unless, like President Obama, you picked KU to win the National Championship, you will probably cheer against the Jayhawks tonight as they take on 12th-seeded Richmond. That’s only natural. As Kansas alum Wilt Chamberlain once famously said, “Nobody roots for Goliath.”
In this case though, that’s a real shame. It’s shame because hating on the Jayhawks means you hate the United States of America. Yes, you read that right.
The Jayhawk, a mythical mix of a blue jay’s cunning with the ferocity of a hawk, was born in pre-Civil war era “Bleeding Kansas,” when the strange bird was adopted as the mascot of abolitionist forces fighting for Kansas to enter the Union as free state. The Jayhawkers battled with Border Ruffians, many from Missouri, who wanted to bring slavery into the new territory, and who ultimately sparked a horrific, bloody war of secession. Surely, it’s more than mere coincidence that the pro-Union Jayhawks must face a team from the old capital of the Confederacy tonight, and could face another on Sunday.
If you root against KU basketball, then, you are actually rooting for slavery. You’re supporting the Confederacy over United States, cheering for racism, oppression, and war, and, not for nothing, you want President Obama to fail—all of which are certainly “odious” and “contemptible” by any reasonable definitions.
Or maybe Stahl just hates sports history.
Kansas basketball, certainly, has a history as rich as any team in the country, no matter what the sport, at any level of college or the pros. The first coach of KU basketball, after all, was the first coach of any basketball team, anywhere, ever. James A. Naismith brought his newly-invented sport to Lawrence in 1898, coaching for seven years before handing the reins to his heir and greatest pupil, Forrest C. “Phog” Allen.
Allen essentially created the game of basketball as we know it. He streamlined Naismith’s invention, creating a sleeker, faster sport, and he founded, through sheer force of his will, many of the college basketball institutions and traditions people like Jeremy Stahl enjoy today. For just a hint of Allen’s enormous influence, consider the history of two other college programs, North Carolina and Kentucky.
Both schools, as Stahl probably knows, play in buildings named for their greatest coaches. Just as KU plays in Allen Field House, the Kentucky Wildcats plays in Rupp Area, named after Adolph Rupp, while North Carolina’s Tarheels play in a dome named for the legendary Dean Smith.
Does Jeremy Stahl also know, however, that Rupp and Smith both played college ball, and learned coaching, under Phog Allen at Kansas? Because they did.
Allen also was the driving force behind basketball being made an Olympic event. Without that 1936 milestone, the game would never have gone global, there would never have been any Dream Teams, and today there wouldn’t be dozens of international players spicing up the NBA. If, Lord forbid, Phog Allen had never lived, Tony Parker and Pau Gasol would be playing soccer right now. While Yao Ming, meanwhile, would just be some very tall poor guy in China.
Really, if you think about it, it’s very cruel of Jeremy Stahl to hope that Yao Ming lives in poverty.
Oh, and this whole March Madness/Big Dance/Bracketology thing? The tournament of thrills the whole country goes mad for each spring? That was Phog’s idea, too. Allen founded the postseason tournament in 1939, through his National Association of Basketball Coaches, and handed off its management to the NCAA the following year.
Yep. As it turns out, Jeremy Stahl even hates the NCAA tournament. Can you believe this guy?
Stahl, however, is right about one thing. He was right to criticize some of the players on this year’s Jayhawk roster.
Like Mario Little, for instance, suspended earlier this season after his arrest in a late-night domestic disturbance. Or the twins, Marcus and Markieff Morris, who may be perfectly friendly young men off the court, but had to break an unfortunate habit of throwing elbows on it. Or what about point guard Tyshawn Taylor? He was suspended during conference play for being a self-described “bad kid,” which rumormongers claim was a dalliance with his girlfriend under the seats at Allen Field House.
Funny? Sure. But very, very against the rules, detrimental to the team, and really not the kind of thing you look for in a leader.
That kind of junk just isn’t what Kansas Basketball is supposed to represent. KU may not be all snooty like Duke, with delusions of Ivy grandeur, but Jayhawk fans do expect better than tawdry sexcapades and low-rent thuggery. The Jayhawk Faithful expect more than that—from any player who accepts the challenge of wearing the crimson and blue.
Like Tyrel Reed, for instance. A senior from little Burlington, Kansas, Reed is not only living a childhood dream of playing for Kansas, he will graduate early, in three and a half years, and was named as a first-team Academic All-American.
Surely Jeremy Stahl doesn’t root against kids who get good grades? Surely he also wouldn’t root against sophomore Thomas Robinson.
Robinson, at just 19 years old, endured more loss this season than most people could stand in a decade. In late December, his grandmother died. Less than two weeks later, his grandfather followed. Just days after that, in mid-January, Robinson’s mother Lisa passed away from an apparent heart attack at age 43—a brutal stretch for the young man. At least, though, he has had his teammates, coaches, and the whole KU community around him, and it’s been inspiring to see the support Robinson and his younger sister Jayla have received.
With due respect to Richmond Spider fans—some of whom, unlike Jeremy Stahl, may not actually be pro-slavery—basketball in Kansas isn’t a casual thing. For most fans around the country, of the average college hoops team, basketball is something that happens a couple of times a week, a few months a year, after football season is over.
Not for the Jayhawk Faithful, insanely committed and knowledgeable, who critique every shot, even in exhibition games, and follow every off-season recruiting rumor like national security is at stake. Show up on a game night at Allen sometime. A bad pass, a double-dribble, or silly foul will elicit genuine gasps of shock from the crowd—even if the ‘Hawks are up by 30. To grow up a Jayhawk is to grow up indoctrinated. It’s like being raised in a strict fundamentalist church—but the only fundamentals that matter are footwork, hustle, shot selection, and knowing how to guard the pick-and-roll.
So, go ahead, casual hoops fans. Root against the Jayhawks, if you must. Sure, it means that you show no love for passionate basketball fans, and have no respect for the history of the game. Sure, rooting against KU also means that you support slavery, hate America, and want the President of the United States to fail. Oh, well. At least you’ll have Jeremy Stahl on your side.
HAMPTON STEVENS – Hampton Stevens writes for ESPN.com’s Page 2 and ESPN the Magazine, as well as The Atlantic and TheAtlantic.com.