Archive for Tuesday, February 15, 1994


February 15, 1994


Seldom is heard a discouraging word about Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas' basketball home the past 39 years.

KU's players and coach Roy Williams simply love the grand ol' barn, as did players in the Larry Brown, Ted Owens, Dick Harp and Phog Allen eras.

Perhaps it's only justice that Kansas has been served well, for so long, by Allen Fieldhouse.

It's fitting because Kansas' first home, which the Jayhawks' first coach, Dr. James Naismith, had such high hopes for, burned down after just two KU basketball games.

The arena -- actually a roller rink -- located at 807 Kentucky, burned on March 20, 1899, 15 years after it was built. Today, a concrete post and marker, sponsored by Douglas County Bank, commemorates the site of KU's first game.

As buildings go, the roller rink was a suitable place to play basketball 1899-style, says Steve Jansen, director of the Elizabeth M. Watkins Community Museum.

"Whether they had a full regulation court or not, it was probably pretty spacious. There probably was room for fans to sit, because it was a rink, catering to the public," Jansen said.

"It was a skating rink, but it was also an armory. Political meetings were held there, various forms of entertainment were held there," Jansen explained.

Various forms of entertainment ... including basketball. Details are sketchy but were unearthed by Max Rife who, with the help of newspaper accounts, wrote about KU's first home game in detail in his 1967 thesis entitled, "Basketball in its early years at the University of Kansas 1898-1925."

That thesis is considered gospel about the early years of KU hoops.

KU, Rife reported, took an 0-1 record into its first-ever home game. The Jayhawks had fallen to the Kansas City YMCA, 16-5, on Feb. 3, 1898 in a game that started at "promptly 8:45 p.m.," according to the Lawrence Journal.

The paper also stated that an opposing KC YMCA player named Jesse James played "a rough and at times ungentlemanly game. He was cautioned and punished several times."

The Jayhawks bounced back and won their home opener, 31-6, over the Topeka YMCA on Feb. 10, 1899.

Rife, now retired after working as a Lawrence High teacher, coach and administrator, wrote: "The Kansas Weekly reported that only 50 people were present at this first game due to the fact the gas line froze up." The Lawrence Journal noted that, "There were few business houses that were warm enough to work inside without wraps on."

The game itself? Rife wrote: "The University's first home game resulted also in its first win. After two minutes of play, (KU player) Sutton threw a goal and the first applause was heard. This gingered the varsity boys and they played so fast that the visitors could offer little interference. In the second half, Topeka warmed up for a little time and scored after three minutes of play.

"The visitors had learned the varsity tactics and put up a fair interference for a short time. They were unacquainted with the 'Roly-Boly' game and weakened when this was brought into play."

Jansen says Roly-Boly was the act of rolling the ball from one player to another as a means of advancing it closer to the goal.

KU also won the second and final game played at the rink, beating the KC YMCA, 16-14, and avenging its opening loss.

How did the fire start? "Various causes were suggested by the campus paper," Rife wrote. "Among them the warmth of the games played between the sophomores and seniors."

Yes, students often played games in the building as well as the varsity. However,the cause of the fire remains unknown.

KU had trouble finding a place to play for several years after the roller rink burned down. For the next three years, the Jayhawks played on the second floor of the old YMCA building on the 900 block of Massachusetts. Then, they moved to old Snow Hall, located where Watson Library is today.

It was tough to schedule teams in Snow because of pillars on the court.

In 1907, Robinson Hall was built, thanks to Dr. Naismith, who pushed for its construction. The year Naismith quit coaching is the year Robinson went up.

KU played games in Robinson until 1929, when Hoch Auditorium opened for basketball. However, KU practiced at Robinson until the dedication of Allen Fieldhouse.

Robinson Hall, which was torn down and replaced by Wescoe Hall several years ago, was KU's first true home.

"Robinson was built not because KU was in love with basketball, but because James Naismith, the first professor of the physical education department, convinced the campus administration they needed a gymnasium for general purposes," Jansen said.

"Ironically, in Robinson, KU also gets a state-of-the-art basketball facility, KU has a place to put 2,000 people, which then interests the athletic association in hiring its first full-time basketball coach (Dr. F.C. Allen)."

The rest, as they say, is history. If not for Naismith pushing for the construction of Robinson, KU might have struggled for years to find a permanent home for basketball. As a result, it may have taken years to build local support for the burgeoning sport.

All because of a fire that gutted the roller rink.

"We're 24 or 25 games behind Kentucky and North Carolina (on all-time win lists). If we had any decent home court in Dr. Naismith's nine years as coach, we'd not be behind at all," Jansen said.

The Jayhawks entered this season as the third-winningest program of all time, 55 games behind North Carolina and 46 behind Kentucky.

"The loss of the skating rink was so significant in that it took nine years until Robinson was built," Jansen noted.

Jansen wants Naismith to be known for getting Robinson built, not for his dubious honor of being KU's only coach with a losing record.

"This is what he did for us. He got Robinson built," Jansen said.

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