Local voices: A love affair with the Kansas Jayhawks

I’ve been in love before, but never like this.

The relationship between fans and their favored sports team is, for all intents and purposes, a love affair.

I never understood this before now.

I grew up in Illinois, and my parents and siblings bled orange and blue. I just didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I was an awkward bookworm, not even good at “spectator sports.” I didn’t have a clue what was going on when the rest of my family cheered. Maybe I even felt a little bit superior. When my parents drove to Champaign-Urbana for Fighting Illini games, I made them drop me off at the bookstores. I really didn’t get it. What was so great about a little ball being bounced or kicked around a court or field, for crying out loud?

Then, about 15 years ago, I moved to Lawrence, Kansas.

What a difference a location makes!

At first, I was able to successfully resist Jayhawk fever. I was homeschooling a young daughter and working as a freelance writer. My days were full. Yet I couldn’t help noticing the fervor that gripped the town, especially in spring, when young men’s (and women’s) fancy turned to love – of basketball.

We started taking our daughter to the KU women’s games, and cheering from the sidelines. I actually got into the spirit, even waving the long blue-and-red pompoms. My face got flushed during peak moments in the game, and my heart raced. My own mother (who’d despaired of me ever being a sports fan) wouldn’t have recognized me.

The making of this particular Jayhawk was a gradual one. It happened insidiously, when I wasn’t paying attention. And when the transformation was finally complete, I still didn’t realize it. I began watching the games on television, going to the “Late Night with Roy Williams” spectacles in Allen Fieldhouse, and glorying in KU’s traditions. I did it, I reasoned, because it was fun. I didn’t know yet that I was falling in love.

The first inkling that I had crossed over to the full throes of passion came about at a Tucson writers’ conference several years ago. I was seated in a hotel banquet room filled mostly with Arizona natives, and heard our luncheon speaker preface his remarks: “In case you are interested, the Jayhawks are leading the score by six points against Arizona at halftime.” Forgetting entirely where I was, I rose to my feet and punched my fist in the air, screaming, “YES!!!” The reaction of the other people in that room couldn’t have been icier, despite the desert heat outside.

But the savage looks on my Arizona friends’ faces didn’t deter me. Giving in to the intensity of my feelings, I felt ready now to declare my love.

“Love” is not too strong a word to express the emotions of basketball fans. Even the words used to describe basketball events are couched in the terms of love: “Sweet 16” and “Final Dance.” The Rock Chalk chant can bring Neanderthal-looking men to the brink of tears. We love all the guys on the team, and get to think of them in a very possessive, proprietary way. They’re “our boys,” and we get choked up on Senior Night, almost as if we’re saying goodbye to beloved family members.

We’ve gotten to know their personalities a little bit, their idiosyncrasies – the way Sasha thoughtfully chews his mouthguard before a free throw shot, the easy loping stride of Russell Robinson as he ambles onto the court, the wide grin flashed by Sherron Collins when he’s made a big play. We’ve shared their highs and their lows. We’ve opened our hearts. We’ve felt the love.

And “love” is truly what we felt for coach Roy Williams. I have to admit, I felt depressed when he made up his mind to go.

When a beloved coach leaves you, it feels like betrayal. When North Carolina came wooing Roy, it felt like the Jayhawk Nation was in the middle of a love triangle. Roy’s “Dear John” letter took us by surprise. Rejection hurts. Many Jayhawk fans reacted like a “jilted spouse.” It felt as if Roy had spurned them. And then, just one short year later, he not only took the Tar Heels to the prom, but he got them a golden ring.

Love is truly blind. We couldn’t see that Roy’s decision was made not because he wished to abandon us, but because he felt that it was the best one he could make for his life.

Yet now we have come full circle. My daughter’s a KU student. The Jayhawk Nation is at fever-pitch, having won the national championship under Bill Self, a coach who they’ve grown to love and respect beyond measure. And on Monday, Roy Williams was seen sitting in the stands in San Antonio cheering the Jayhawks on to victory. Dadgumit, it looked as if he still cared about us, after all. Our once-broken hearts could heal. And we could remember the 15 wonderful years he gave us.

On Tuesday afternoon in Memorial Stadium, it didn’t feel much like springtime, but the love in the air was almost palpable. The crowd cheered themselves hoarse – for the players, for Bill Self, and for the sheer love of the game.

How proud I was to be in the stands that day, feeling a part of something much bigger than me, a part of KU’s tradition of excellence. How proud I was to be a Jayhawk. And how happy I was to be so in love.