Monday, February 28, 2005

Mayer: Fans bribed for first hoops telecast

Without Wilt, attendance flagged; tickets cheap for '59 game


You know the drill: Some people are so desperate for season tickets for Kansas University basketball games that if they thought it would do any good they'd spend a year as nannies for the McCaughey septuplets in Iowa -- for free!

KU hoops ducats are in the same class with Nebraska U. and Denver Bronco season pasteboards. I haven't heard of any KU basketball packages winding up in wills or divorce suits, as NU and Bronco seats have. But that wouldn't surprise me. Coaches Larry Brown, Roy Williams and Bill Self have combined to orchestrate such a demand. That has led to almost-constant coverage of KU games on live television. Yet people still clamor to get into that wondrous old Jayhawk hall.

Here's the hook: I remember when it was a lot different, when you could fire a cannon through large portions of Allen Fieldhouse during a game and not hit anything but a wall. You've always had to beware of the Phog, but not always a flood of people. It wasn't because folks stayed home to watch the games on television. There wasn't any until 1959, even though KU had just completed two seasons with Wilt Chamberlain as its Super Sultan of Slam.

Let's rewind the tape about 40 years.

Wilt and Co. attracted big crowds, though not always overflowing like today's, starting with his debut as a a non-eligible freshman against the varsity. As a 1957-58 junior, Chamberlain still was smarting from the triple-overtime loss to North Carolina in the 1957 NCAA title game and was fed up with the clogging defenses that negated good basketball. He bypassed his senior year for an $80,000 gig with the Harlem Globetrotters while waiting to become eligible for the NBA's Philadelphia Warriors.

Attendance for KU games nosedived. Crowds of 5,000 or fewer were common even though KU had good men like Al Donaghue, Ron Loneski, Bill Bridges, Bob Billings and Bob Hickman and was an early contender for another Big Eight title. Surprise -- there were at least six, maybe eight, games that never sold out here during the two seasons Chamberlain held sway.

There came the announcement that the Jan. 31, 1959, Kansas-Colorado game would be played in the afternoon on national television in a revolutionary move to try to test afternoon basketball on the populace. The Big Ten was experimenting with daylight ball but few figured it would ever catch on. Night hoops was a tradition and football was for afternoons, the old folks declared.

This was to be only the second time that a KU athletic team was to be featured on national TV. The ice-breaker was the KU-TCU football game here in 1952. KU looked terrific in blanking the Fort Worth glamour boys of the touted Southwest Conference 13-0. Now came a chance to project Kansas hoops to the world on a 180-station linkup through local channels 9 and 13.

Lawrence, KU, the Journal-World and everyone else busted a gut to raise a huge crowd for the Colorado visit, so the world would see a full fieldhouse. Athletic director Dutch Lonborg announced a two-for-one ticket deal to attract more fans. (I'm not making this up, honest!) A general-admission ticket was $2, and if you bought one for that price, you got another free. Junior high kids were to be admitted for 25 cents and high school kids for $1. (Quite a change, huh, from the more expensive ducats now?)

Top 10 TV networks (other than Sunflower Broadband) to play on (with records in Allen Fieldhouse, heading into this season)

1. NBC 4-0

2. Prime (now defunct) 2-0

2. Big 8/12 22-1

3. ABC 7-1

4. ESPN2 4-1

6. Jayhawk TV 88-4

7. Raycom (now defunct) 29-2

8. CBS 9-3

9. ESPN 42-7

10. USA 0-2 (they actually televised college basketball? Who knew?)

-- Kevin Romary, Sunflower Broadband

Kansas had played Oklahoma on Jan. 17 at Norman, lost, 38-45, and only 1,500 people were in the stands. Ace Ron Loneski had a bad ankle and couldn't play but was expected back for Colorado. Wilt-less KU carried a 6-8 overall record into the Colorado game here but both clubs had 3-1 league records and were aiming to catch leading K-State.

Bad news. Colorado won 66-64, and the crowd was listed at only about 7,000. It was bigger than usual, but far from the 10,000-plus local hustlers had been aiming for. Colorado never has been a strong fan attraction here for football or basketball, and KU without Chamberlain just didn't cut it with many potential spectators.

In that pioneering KU-CU match, Al Donaghue scored 27 points and got five rebounds against the Buffs, Bill Bridges had 18 points and 12 boards and Loneski, still limping, hit only nine points but snared a game-high 13 rebounds. CU went to 4-1 in the league, KU dropped to 3-2 and finished the year at 11-14.

Now get this. The game started at 2:05, TV producers allowed only 10 minutes for halftime and asked that timeouts be kept at a minimum because the network had a 3:45 Hialeah horse race commitment it had vowed not to break. If the KU-CU game had run over, it would have been pre-empted.

That was the first time local people saw how TV could intrude, for a horse race, yet, and a common remark was, "Next time, I hope those guys behave like the other half of the horse."

Lots of changes, huh? KU can't find enough seats, afternoon basketball, and the constant presence of television continues to dictate scheduling that has a lot of people still wondering when the front half of the video horse is going to show -- along with the money, of course.

Rank. score (margin), opp. year

1. 91-66 (25) Missouri 1988-89

2. 89-65 (24) Iowa State 1972-73

3. 70-46 (24) Kansas State 1963-64

4. 72-50 (22) Kentucky 1983-84

5. 91-72 (19) Kansas State 1961-62

6. 56-37 (19) Oklahoma State 1961-62

7. 91-74 (17) Arizona 2002-03

8. 72-55 (17) Indiana 1972-73

9. 79-63 (16) Missouri 1972-73

10. 73-57 (16) Colorado 1962-63

11. 64-49 (15) Cincinnati 1962-63

12. 64-49 (15) Long Beach State 1992-93

Commenting has been disabled for this item.