Officially, they're Jayhawks. But it was a gathering of eagles from Kansas' illustrious basketball history when the Boys of '52 soared into Lawrence for their 40th reunion the past weekend then and now a genuine class act.
Twelve of KU's first NCAA championship team returned. Some ribs are still aching from the laughter. There were tears, too, as several got understandably emotional discussing the merits of being a part of that marvelous family-style experience hubbed by the immortal Phog Allen and assistant Dick Harp.
The 12 players in Allen Fieldhouse last Saturday for an honor ceremony and at the Adams Center later for slap-thigh, rub-gut reminiscences: B.H. Born, Dean Kelley, Allen Kelley, Bill Lienhard, Bill Hougland, Bob Kenney, Clyde Lovellette, Charlie Hoag, Bill Heitholt, Jerry Alberts, Ken Buller and Everett Dye. There was Wayne Louderback, the super-efficient detail man who wrote the book on how to student-manage a college basketball team. He's a former insurance man now retired in Dallas.
WES JOHNSON apparently is the only one of 23 guys in the official 1952 squad picture who has died. It supposedly happened about 10 years ago but nobody seems to have details.
Born and Al and Dean Kelley remain executives for Peoria (Ill.) Caterpillar, the company for whom they also played all-star caliber AAU ball. B.H., whose jersey was fittingly retired, had one of the evening's best quips. He recalled that as a pencil-thin sophomore in '52, he averaged 1.6 points while All-American Lovellette led the nation with 28.4. ``I'd rather you remembered that Clyde and I averaged 30-a-game between us.'' KU's never had a more admirable athlete than Born. Bert rocketed from a shaky '52 debut to All-American and NCAA most valuable player honors in 1953.
Said Alberts, a school guidance counselor in Lincoln, Ill., ``I was a freshman in '52, and I think I had more time on the court at this afternoon's reunion ceremony than I did all that season.''
BILL LIENHARD is a well-known Lawrence bank executive, Hougland just retired as president of Koch Industries (oil and gas) in Wichita. He and his wife will move to Lawrence. Bob Kenney was president for Coldwell-Banker real estate in the Kansas City area and is now a semi-retired realtor in Hawaii.
Charlie Hoag is a Topeka insurance man; Buller is executive vice president of an Irvine, Calif., insurance firm. Heitholt lives in Houston but is helping a friend get an athletic program set up at Webster U. in St. Louis.
Hall of Famer Lovellette, whose KU jersey also was enshrined, is director at a church school for underprivileged boys in Terre Haute, Ind.
Dye is a semi-retired Protestant minister in the Denver area. He and all the others made a point to emphasize the importance of Harp to the squad. Dye called Phog the perfect leader but declared that Dick was ``the glue that held it all together.''
THERE WAS HARDLY a dry eye when the grateful Lovellette, choking at times, declared: ``Whatever I've done, it's because of you guys. You were so unselfish, and tolerant of my faults. Without you guys, I'd be nothing! We're a family that's pretty well stuck together.'' This from one of only six men to play on an NCAA title team, an Olympic championship team and an NBA title club. The other five are Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Jerry Lucas, Quinn Buckner and Michael Jordan.
Roy Williams was there. The ever-outspoken Kenney looked at athletic director Bob Frederick and barbed: ``Bob, you ought to send the San Antonio Spurs a Christmas card every year (for hiring Larry Brown), for making it possible to hire Roy. You're one lucky s.o.b.'' The applause was thunderous.
Lienhard noted Williams was only ``a year old' when KU won its first title (Roy corrected him with ``1 ''). Bill said Dean Smith carried the fabled Kansas tradition to North Carolina and Williams has helped bring it back here. The '52 guys love Roy.
Al Kelley brought down the house, introducing his family but temporarily forgetting the name of his son's fiancee. Master of ceremonies Max Falkeinstein quipped: ``What good is nostalgia, Al, if you can't remember anything?''
HARP DREW a standing ovation. He's 74 this year and said maybe they better consider a 45th instead of 50th reunion since he isn't sure what The Great Calculator may have in mind. Dick provided countless entertaining and often-emotional recollections. Of Phog, he said, ``Very few people ever come along with the charisma, intelligence and spirit Doc had. And we had him.''
Dick long ago said he'd gladly take the '52 team and send it into action in any line of endeavor, and it would be a big success, a winner. Harp made no enemies when he added that ``given a level field'' this group could beat any team, including the present one on Mount Oread.
That'd be one helluva game! But will the new guys still be a close, loving and successful family 40 years from now?