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Archive for Saturday, February 16, 2008

Memories still fresh

Jayhawks won it all 20 years ago

February 16, 2008

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From left, KU's Danny Manning, team manager Bill Pope, Chris Piper and Archie Marshall celebrate a victory from the bench.

From left, KU's Danny Manning, team manager Bill Pope, Chris Piper and Archie Marshall celebrate a victory from the bench.

Danny Manning, everybody's All-American, blocks a shot against Kansas State.

Danny Manning, everybody's All-American, blocks a shot against Kansas State.

Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs, right, and his Sooners hang their heads late in their 83-79 championship game loss to the Jayhawks.

Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs, right, and his Sooners hang their heads late in their 83-79 championship game loss to the Jayhawks.

KU's Chris Piper and Danny Manning (25) cut down the nets after a 69-54 victory over Kansas State in Detroit secured a trip to the FInal Four.

KU's Chris Piper and Danny Manning (25) cut down the nets after a 69-54 victory over Kansas State in Detroit secured a trip to the FInal Four.

Jayhawks, from left, Chris Piper, Milt Newton, Scooter Barry and Danny Manning huddle during their semifinal victory over Duke in Kansas City, Mo.

Jayhawks, from left, Chris Piper, Milt Newton, Scooter Barry and Danny Manning huddle during their semifinal victory over Duke in Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas' Jeff Gueldner, right, is at the center of this hug scrum as time ran out on the 1988 national title game.

Kansas' Jeff Gueldner, right, is at the center of this hug scrum as time ran out on the 1988 national title game.

Kansas University's player and coaches celebrate in Memorial Stadium the day after they beat Oklahoma to win the 1988 NCAA men's basketball championship.

Kansas University's player and coaches celebrate in Memorial Stadium the day after they beat Oklahoma to win the 1988 NCAA men's basketball championship.

Where were you, when the clock hit 10:09 p.m. on April 4, 1988?

Where were you, when Ricky Grace heaved a three-pointer that thunked off the backboard and fell into Danny Manning's hands at the buzzer?

When Kansas University's men's basketball team beat Oklahoma, 83-79, to win its last national championship 20 years ago - a jubilant Monday night in Kansas City, Mo. - just where were you?

For the 14 players who suited up for the Jayhawks that night, where they were was captured by television cameras, still photographs and ecstatic memories. Where they were and how they got there remains a cherished chapter in KU basketball lore, now 20 years later on the eve of an anticipated anniversary celebration at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kevin Pritchard was next to the free-throw line, both arms in the air, finally able to rest after quarterbacking an uptempoed offense.

Chris Piper pranced toward center court, looking for someone to embrace, after playing 37 minutes that earned widespread praise.

Head coach Larry Brown and two of his assistants - R.C. Buford and Alvin Gentry - did a three-way bear hug by the Kansas bench.

Scooter Barry weakly guarded that last three-point attempt - in no mood to foul - before throwing his arms in the air when Manning secured the carom.

After that?

"I don't remember," Barry says now. "It is a blur."

The amazing culmination of a trying season - one that featured boo birds in Allen Fieldhouse in February, constant questions about Brown and coaching vacancies, injuries, suspensions, you name it - took place just 40 miles from home with a huge KU fan base there to soak it all in.

So where were you?

The adversity

Amazingly, several players who contributed to that championship run have different answers.

Many weren't in Kemper Arena.

What's lost among all the enduring storylines of the 1988 Jayhawks - Manning's domination, the Miracles' unsung contributions, Brown's tactical brilliance, Archie Marshall's unwavering inspiration - was perhaps the most incredible subplot all season.

KU's amazing ability to overcome adversity.

"I was part of that adversity," guard Otis Livingston says. "At the end of the year, they started just playing basketball."

Livingston wasn't there to live it.

He was suspended from the team prior to the Big Eight Tournament and never came back, painfully watching the miraculous March run on his own time.

The disconnect he felt lingers to this day. While most of the 17 Jayhawks who played that year refer to the team in the first person, Livingston never did in an interview last month. He always said "they" when reminiscing about the national champions, despite playing in 27 games himself that season.

The thing is, Livingston hardly was alone. All season long, the Jayhawks dealt with personnel setbacks, only to bounce back and deliver the knockout punch in the final round.

"The guys that were left standing, we really jelled together," said Milt Newton, the second-leading scorer behind Manning that season. "We really became a team."

Miraculous, considering all the distractions:

¢ The heartbreaking injury to senior captain Archie Marshall, who collapsed to the Madison Square Garden floor during a December game with a serious knee injury. It was his 11th game back from another knee injury that sidelined him for a year. Teammates were devastated.

¢ The loss of forward Marvin Branch to ineligibility after 14 games. The 6-foot-10 Branch had proven to be a solid complement to Manning inside, and his academic issues sparked a campus-wide controversy when Brown openly expressed his frustration regarding academic support for athletes.

¢ The red-shirting of forwards Sean Alvarado and Mark Randall, which almost became costly after Marshall and Branch were lost.

¢ The addition of two football players, Clint Normore and Marvin Mattox, in the middle of the season when Kansas became dangerously thin.

¢ The loss of Livingston before the Big Eight Tournament to suspension.

¢ The constant rumors of Brown being a candidate for other jobs - UCLA and the NBA's Charlotte Hornets, to name two.

¢ The loss of forward Mike Masucci before the NCAA Tournament to suspension.

Yet, the 1988 Jayhawks stuck together, welcomed the additions, swallowed all the losses, ignored the distractions and hit their stride in the NCAA Tournament.

Miraculously.

"I've often thought about it," Randall says now, "and I still don't understand how it worked, to be honest with you."

Coming together

Manning is a good place to start. The senior was college basketball's best player in 1988, and averaged 24.8 points and 9.0 rebounds per game that season. In the NCAA championship victory over Oklahoma, Manning had 31 points and 18 rebounds, hitting the game-clinching free throws with five seconds left.

He was smart, athletic, tremendously talented and praised unanimously by his KU teammates as being a joy to play with.

"All around," Marshall says, "one of the best players that ever stepped on the court."

An all-time great coached by one of the most respected basketball minds out there - two super ingredients.

Though his constant quest for a better job ultimately defined him, Larry Brown's ability as a coach is hard to ignore. Many pointed to him as the main reason Kansas was able to get it done in 1988.

"The best game coach that I've seen," said Barry, who played 17 years of professional basketball after finishing at KU. "He could draw up a play in an entirely new situation and you knew it would work if you just did what you're told to do."

Accompanying Manning was a core group of players - mostly sophomores and juniors - who fit into the puzzle just fine.

Piper, playing through a nagging groin injury, was a key piece after taking over the starting spot midseason in Branch's absence.

Pritchard moved to point guard midseason and flourished. He became one of the unsung heroes of the NCAA Tournament, scoring 13 points in the title game.

The list goes on - Newton's growth, Jeff Gueldner's grit, Barry's touch. They were dubbed "The Miracles" in the years to follow, a catchy moniker signifying Manning's monster season and the supporting cast who went along.

"It's a catch phrase - Danny and the Miracles," Randall said. "It's a little disheartening because a lot of guys put a lot of sweat and hard work into it. If you don't have the other guys, it's not a national championship."

The run

Ahh, but it was a national championship - miraculously.

Kansas didn't know it at the time. But after beating Vanderbilt, 77-64, to advance to the Elite Eight, KU would finish its run with three teams it already had played during the 1987-88 season - and went a combined 1-5 against.

So, naturally, the Jayhawks won them all. They beat Kansas State, 71-58, to advance to the Final Four. Then they stopped Duke, 66-59, in the semifinals before topping Oklahoma to take the title.

"Playing K-State, Duke and Oklahoma, we had familiarity with those guys," says Lincoln Minor, who averaged 4.8 points per game that season. "I think things fell into place in that respect."

Miraculously. The Jayhawks obviously had talent, and terrific coaching helped lead the way.

But more than a dozen players interviewed 20 years later had similar statements on how exactly the Jayhawks won it all that year.

They had chemistry. They had Danny. And it just all fell into place from there.

"It was just one of those years where everything came together at the right time," Marshall says. "Everyone was inspired to play their best basketball."

For six straight games, the Jayhawks weaved through the NCAA Tournament and finished with what OU coach Billy Tubbs called "the best game they played all year."

And when it was finally over, when Manning hauled in his last rebound, raised his right fist in the air and headed toward the championship mob : where were you?

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