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Archive for Saturday, February 3, 1996

CAT CURTAIN CAPER

February 3, 1996

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Hard to believe it's been 31 years since the Great 'Cat Curtain Caper in Allen Fieldhouse. It still rates as one of the all-time great basketball stunts, even if it might have been an inside job. To this day, it's at least a semi-mystery; potential perpetrators are long gone or more evasive than Simpson trial witness Kato Kaelin.

The date was Saturday, Feb. 20, 1965, and Ted Owens was in his first year as Kansas' coach. Kansas State came here a strong favorite because it had defeated KU eight straight times in regular-season Big Eight play. KSU had dispatched KU, 71-63, at Manhattan.

Jayhawks like Walt Wesley, Ron Franz, Al Lopes, Dave Schichtle and Delvy Lewis clearly intended to break the string, however, and got off to a surprising start. But even more surprising was the clever scoreboard aberration with 8:02 left in the first half and Kansas leading 23-9. A pair of 6-by-12-foot banners unfurled, one on the east, the other on the west side of the fieldhouse scoreboard. It was like Siegfried and Roy erupting out of nowhere in one of their stage illusions.

The message, quite inappropriate since KSU was far in arrrears: "Go Cats . . . Kill Snob Hill . . . Again!" The wires used to trip the banners tracked into the K-State fan and cheerleader area at the south end of the hall.

One of the very first to notice the derisive curtains was KU's Owens, a Nervous Nellie noted for always having at least one eye on the clock and scoreboard, and always looking for an edge. Did Ted see the signs so quickly because of his habit, or out of anticipation? More about that later.

Rather than restructure the scoreboard right away, KU officials opted to wait for halftime. That created even more mental floor burns for KSU and its fans. Many in the capacity crowd couldn't see the scoreboard. Ed Elbel, the late, great public address mahatma, had to announce the score and time left after each bucket -- and dearly loved it.

Since KU fashioned a 42-26 halftime lead en route to an 86-66 victory, Jayhawk faithful incessantly chanted, "What's the score, K-State? What's the score!?" Seldom has a local crowd had so delicious a chance to rub it in, so deeply, on an arch-rival.

K-Staters were as uncertain as everyone else who created this sensation. But one KSU grad living here, now in Purple Heaven, had a marvelous jab: "You have the perfect contrast here between the basic research they emphasize at KU and the applied research we're into at Manhattan: At KU, they'd ponder and come up with a thousand theories how to do something like this -- at K-State the kids just went out and did it."

KU and K-State had a "peace pact" against doing harmful things prior to athletic matchups. A broken scroll painted on one curtain and an exploding firecracker on another signalled the pact was broken. Yet this was clever fun-type stuff, the kind of thing you hope will happen rather than statue-painting, graffiti and related vandalism.

One fearful aspect to the Curtain Caper was that the lower corners of the banners had two-pound weights to make them unroll from the straight curtain-rod setups to which they were attached. Had one of those weights broken free, somebody, mainly a player, could have been killed.

With each passing year, evidence points to an inside job, perhaps something coach Owens and good friend Glenn "Skinny" Replogle of the fieldhouse staff hatched up to motivate the underdog Jayhawks.

The scoreboard was 60 feet above the floor, hanging on cables 30 feet below a catwalk. About a week earlier, the north side of the scoreboard had been damaged by a discus that got away from a KU trackman who missed a safety net during a workout. People had been working on the scoreboard since.

Then the very morning of the game, the board was lowered to floor level to put in the proper signs for the game in that pre-electronic era. Not a trace of curtains, rods, weights, wires, workers said. The scoreboard then was cranked up by electric pulley and the control box was locked. The entries to the catwalk were sealed off and there was no way to get in through the roof.

K-State worked out early that afternoon, but there were people around who would have seen some trained aerialists descending 30 feet on cables from the locked catwalk to install the complicated insult material.

Wonder if Ted Owens will ever own up? Wonder if equipment man Ray Coughenour, still alive and kicking, knows anything about it. Ray, by the way, put K-State streamers in the KU dressing room before the '65 game, stressing the eight straight the 'Cats had won in league play. The players admit that motivated them. Did coach Owens have still another ace up his sleeve?

Granted, this doesn't rate with Kennedy assassination myths or the O.J. Simpson murder riddle. There was no blood, no grassy knoll, no DNA, no gloves, no Zapruder film, no Oliver Stone distorted history movie. But it's an intriguing mystery nonetheless. And always delicious to rehash for a few mirthful reminiscences . . . because it became such a deucedly clever facet of a marvelous basketball rivalry.

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