Okay, the SEC/Big East Challenge isn’t technically a “tourney,” but I needed a clever title to lead off this blog post. I’m hoping you get the movie reference as I bask in the heartland of America this weekend between the sports doubleheader of my dreams.
You see, I’m officially credentialed for the AFC Championship game on Sunday in Arrowhead Stadium between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Kansas City Chiefs. However, I cruised into town a day earlier just so I could slide over to historic Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday to watch my Wildcats spank the Jayhawks in what was supposed to be college basketball’s game of the year.
The buildup for this one had been huge, with ESPN’s College GameDay crew salivating in anticipation of a titanic tussle between the top two blueblood programs. The Jayhawk fans were also jacked. Their team had won four of the last five against the Wildcats, and they fully expected to be feasting on Kentucky fried chicken before the final horn sounded.
Haha, by now you know the ending: Kentucky 80, Kansas 62, in a game totally dominated by the Wildcats from beginning to end—a brutal beatdown for the ages. Forgive me if I gloat.
Mind you, today’s win was extra special because it took place in Allen Fieldhouse. I’ve never been to “The Phog” before. It’s on my Mount Rushmore of iconic basketball venues (together with Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, and—of course—Kentucky’s Rupp Arena). By most everyone’s standard, it’s a bucket-list destination.
To begin the Allen Fieldhouse experience, you walk into the hallowed halls of what looks like an airplane hangar. Immediately, you’re thrust into the distant past through a collage of exhibits and display cases. Trophies, personal mementos, and championship paraphernalia dating back to what seems like the beginning of time bombard your senses. The original rules of basketball are etched on the northwest annex of the building. You feel as if you’re standing on holy ground.
For this is where college basketball started. It’s like the “big bang” of big-time hoops with the ghosts of James Naismith, Phog Allen, and Adolph Rupp still roaming the various nooks and crannies. “Pay heed, all who enter: Beware of ‘The Phog,’” says the sign over the tunnel leading into the arena. Placards listing every single player who ever wore the Kansas uniform line an entire concourse wall. There’s definitely a sense of reverence and tradition you don’t get walking into Rupp Arena—or anyplace else for that matter. Lambeau Field perhaps? Maybe Fenway or Wrigley? Wimbledon?
There’s also no pretense with this place. It’s old and decrepit—and it doesn’t care. Forget about keeping up with the Joneses. Built in 1955, the building remains perfect just as it is, comfortable in its own antiquated, creaking skin. It’s hard to believe it seats only a couple of thousand less than a massive Rupp Arena. The stands are compact, the bleachers vertical in scope, with nary an extra inch of extra space for proper ingress or egress.
It’s also hot today—nearly unbearably hot. With outside temperatures approaching sixty, inside it’s ninety degrees and humid. It’s a breeding ground for Covid I’m sure. But unlike Rupp Arena, at least ninety percent of the patrons don masks.
And it is loud in here. From what I’ve been told, it’s consistently loud—not just when the Wildcats come calling. It’s a piercing type of loud too, whereas Rupp is more of a roar. I’ve heard it louder in Rupp (Minniefield to Bowie half-court alley-oop and dunk, Unforgettables beating Shaq, Tayshaun’s five threes). But to be fair, it’s hard being vocal when your team’s getting slaughtered. However, I will concede that when the 17,000 or so on hand started swaying to the singing of the KU alma mater and then morphed into the “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk” chant, goosebumps broke out on everyone, including myself.
Today is also the first time in six years that I’m watching the Kentucky team play as a fan—with absolutely no media obligations. It’s liberating for sure to be able to cheer openly, loudly, and freely again with no repercussions whatsoever from the press box police. I’m even boldly brandishing the blue, shedding any specter of objectivity or impartiality that team media allegedly bears.
To be honest, I’ve missed this feeling more than I thought I ever would. I forgot what it’s like to feel your heart race or the angst rising in your gut right before tipoff. As the game begins, you’re straining as never before with every single misfire, contorting your body as if willing the shot to go in or grabbing that next rebound yourself. When things go well, you’re high-fiving others and yelling “Go Big Blue” at the top of your lungs.
My seat purchased from StubHub isn’t bad at all. It set me back a couple hundred, but it’s better than my usual media seat at Rupp. Of course, I’m surrounded by Kansas fans. A mom and daughter are seated next to me on one side. They’ve got their faces painted and are loaded for bear. On the other side of me are two old curmudgeons who apparently have been following the Jayhawks for decades.
By the time the final horn sounds, the mom and daughter are deathly quiet, their painted faces dripping with frowns. The two curmudgeons are lamenting about what Bill Self did wrong and how Calipari outcoached him. I’m all smiles.
As a fan, there’s nothing more exhilarating than charging onto an enemy’s homecourt and taking their hearts. To do it in an environment considered by many to be the best in all of college basketball makes this a memory I’ll forever cherish.
If the Bengals win their game against the Chiefs today, perhaps I’ll retire permanently from this media gig. It’s much more fun being just a fan.
If you enjoy my writings as a basketball fan, check out my latest book, KENTUCKY PASSION, available in bookstores and online at https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669 . Follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.