Mayer: Rabid KU fans prove basketball’s mass appeal

Phog Allen used to say things that sounded pretty nutty until he had the chance to explain and elaborate. Man, could that Kansas University basketball legend elaborate! Then Doc would sound like a genius with incredible vision, which he was.

One of his utterances that first astounded me was, “When they put a self-starter in the automobile, they made it a woman’s product.” I had asked him why women seemed to be more enamored with basketball than football, and a lot of other sports. (And Bill Self wasn’t even born yet.) When drivers had to crank an engine to start it, risking a broken arm from the kickback, autos weren’t too appealing to females.

An engine ignited from within a vehicle naturally would charm more gals, even the tougher ones like Babe Didrikson who could go bear-hunting with a twig. But what’s that got to do with basketball, Doc?

In football and often baseball, he said, the players can be distant from where women sit in the stands. The athletes wear hats, helmets, pads and other attire that make it tougher for non-fanatics, the more casual spectators, to feel up close and personal. Basketball is played in more confined areas with viewers nearer the court and more able to see the guys faces, expressions, physiques (despite those flapping ceremonial robes they call shorts), and maybe even hear them utter things that athletes do — prudent, prurient or otherwise.

That was long before television provided windows into jocks’ souls. Consider all the things that lip-readers can decipher even when the crowd is going bonkers and you couldn’t even hear an atomic bomb detonate.

What Doc Allen was trying to get across was that basketball is a more microscopic activity that allows women to love, hate, admire and analyze guys they can relate to more personally. (Yeah, the reverse holds true for women basketeers. People are able to get to know them far better than if they were on a soccer field or softball diamond. Just trying to dodge the inevitable equal opportunity bullet here.)

By now you may start to understand what Doc was getting at. Self-starters were great for women driving cars and the more intimate atmosphere of basketball is a major lure for women. Who else could have come up with something that unique? Or weird?

Kansas long has been noted for its basketball players, coaches and its many victories and championships. Also extremely prominent among the good things which have happened are the spectators, a huge number of whom have been women. Jayhawk crowds have increased incredibly as support groups when Allen Fieldhouse offered more room for viewers after opening 50 years ago. Yet it didn’t take that important development to spawn devoted female followers of KU basketball.

I go back to the days when the likes of Florence Black, Wealthy Babcock and Elizabeth Lawson knew as much about KU hoops as any living creatures. They were fixtures in Hoch Auditorium and the fieldhouse for eons. Charming, to be sure. Yet you didn’t want to take them lightly.

Crusty Elizabeth Lawson was the sister of the famed Adolph Rupp of Kansas reserve status and Kentucky coaching fame. She didn’t put up with twerps who wrote mindless letters to the Journal-World on KU traditions. She would put them in their place, especially when they had the audacity to barb female fans. Elizabeth didn’t suffer fools, such as I, and she zinged me a number of times, especially when I might besmirch brother Adolph, who needed a lot of besmirching. Despite the run-ins, we wound up good friends (lucky me). Man, she was fun!

Another of KU’s innumerable topnotch female fans is Mary D. Burchill, ex-law librarian and wife of Brower, prof emeritus in biological sciences. She’s just issued a 30-page booklet titled “A Fan’s Guide to KU Men’s Basketball in Allen Fieldhouse.” If you’ve been a longtime fan you’ll be deeply interested; if you’re a newcomer, there’s detail after detail in there I never was aware of despite being around since the joint opened. This gal grew up here, was around for the fieldhouse opening in 1955 and has compiled a batch of stuff that’ll stagger you even if you think you already know a lot about Phog’s Phorum.

The Burchill piece is available at local book stores and Mary hangs out at 1329 Kasold, 843-9199. She treasures KU’s heritage and fondly helps her readers do so.

But there’s a special tradition glitch that clearly perturbs Sarah Hill-Nelson, another Jayhawk addict. She’s fought through all the controversial ticket fol-de-rol but represents a lot of people who think the newer crowds are bastardizing the sacred Rock Chalk Chant.

“Seriously, we can take the turnover at the fieldhouse if they will at least carry on traditions properly,” says Sarah. “There needs to be some sort of tutorial. … The final line of The Rock Chalk Chant is ‘Kay-You-OOO’ … a three-syllable word. It is NOT, as is currently being done, a two-syllable word (Kay-You). Also, the chant is not to begin until the one-minute mark. Most old-timers I know agree. I realize there are many more important issues before us, in Kansas and the country, but I’d like to see the end to this travesty. This one can be resolved.”

Sarah, a sixth-generation Kansan, grew up in Lawrence, didn’t attend KU but is no less devoted than others to the school and its rich history. With a twinkle, she says, “I envision some sort of cute little old lady being wheeled out to the center of the court to give the tutorial, reminding the new crowd that the magic of the chant comes from the haunting … ‘Kay-You-OOO.'”

When you run into priceless zealots like Mary Burchill and Sarah Hill-Nelson, you understand a little better why KU basketball is the great entity it is. And that’s whether or not you’re sure what Doc Allen meant about the auto self-starter and female fans. On some days I’m still a little Phoggy. Yet now we have Bill Self to act as the starter for a lot of probable fans, male and female. Did Old Doc have vision or what?