Kansas University fans tell players they're still winners, despite tournament loss.
The fans came by the thousands to welcome home their Jayhawks, and despite their joy of the successes this season, Saturday morning's assembly at Allen Fieldhouse at times resembled a huge group therapy session for friends grieving over the loss of a loved one.
Expecting a more jubilant return in the wake of the No. 1 college basketball team's 35th win, fans wore their hearts on their sleeves as they said goodbye to hopes of an NCAA championship this year. With the Jayhawks' 34-2 season, however, it didn't take long for the somber crowd to warm up as the young and old recounted their highlights of the season.
About two dozen fans approached the microphone. Among the memories of favorite plays were other stories: Jerod Haase's dogged persistence despite a broken wrist, Scot Pollard's on-court proposal to his girlfriend, the team's Christmas shopping spree for needy families and coach Roy Williams' gift of doughnuts to students camping for tickets.
Lawrence resident Jerry Myers said Williams brings class to the game.
"I realize not only is he a better person for knowing these players, but we are," Myers said. "I'm glad we got to know them."
Williams, weary from a sleepless night after the 'Hawks' 85-82 loss to the Arizona Wildcats, led the players and coaches onto the court as about 4,000 KU fans applauded.
"This is a very difficult time for us," said Williams, who earlier fought back tears while fans addressed the team.
"Last night, I told the team this was a dream year, though we didn't realize our final dream," he said. "It's my hope that five years from now, 10 years from now, even 20 years from now, these youngsters up here" will be remembered.
The players echoed Williams, who thanked the fans profusely. Several expressed surprise how many showed up at the fieldhouse, despite the start of spring break.
"I'm amazed every time I walk into this place, how great you are," sophomore forward T.J. Pugh said. "You're the best fans in the world."
Although fans are mourning the end of the seniors' college career, senior Jerod Haase reminded them that the tradition will continue next year.
"I hope I provided a few thrills for you guys," said senior Jacque Vaughn, who was instantly drowned in applause. "I just hope that a few times you watched the games you left with a smile on your face."
A reserved Scot Pollard said he noticed a few teary eyes in the stands. The usually flamboyant senior was also visibly touched as he credited Williams with helping make the players into a team.
"I came here a boy, and hopefully I'm leaving a larger man -- not just physically but emotionally and mentally," said the 6-foot-11-inch center. "It's due largely because of Coach Roy Williams."
The crowd began chanting "one more year" and "two more years" as junior Raef LaFrentz and sophomore Paul Pierce took the microphone. The players, both considering leaving college for an early start on a professional basketball career, will make up their minds in due time, Williams said.
A few fans lingered to look at photographs of this year's team, along with pictures of past championship KU teams.
"This year's squad has given so much of themselves that we just couldn't keep from coming here to recognize them," said Bob Mathews, an Overland Park resident who was on Phog Allen's team in 1943-44.
"It kind of brought tears to my eyes," said Mathews, whose son, Mark, was on the 1971 team that went to the Final Four.