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Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Woodling

Woodling: White’s finale hard to top

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Initial memories seem to linger longer in the synapses, and thus it was that I never will forget the first time I experienced the singular sensation of a sellout crowd in Allen Fieldhouse.

The occasion probably was the most unusual Senior Night in Kansas University basketball history.

On Feb. 1, 1969, with more than a month remaining in the Jayhawks' season, guard Jo Jo White had to put on his KU uniform for the last time.

White had been a midsemester high school graduate in his native St. Louis so he had become eligible for the first time in the spring semester of the 1965-66 KU school year.

Coach Ted Owens faced a dilemma that season. Should he hold White out and use him in a conventional manner or make him eligible right away? At the time, Owens had one of his best teams, and ultimately he felt the addition of the talented White could put the Jayhawks over the top and make them a national contender.

Later, Owens would concede his decision had been a mistake, but hindsight was 20-20 after White was involved in one of the most controversial referee whistles in KU's storied history.

White's long jump shot appeared to have given the Jayhawks a double-overtime victory over Texas-El Paso in an NCAA Elite Eight game in Lubbock, Texas, but an official ruled White's foot was slightly out of bounds. The goal was waved off.

UTEP -- then known as Texas Western -- escaped with an 81-80 victory and, as many of you know, went on to its historic 1966 NCAA championship win over Kentucky -- the first time a team with all black starters ever had beaten an all-white team in the title game.

By the time White's last KU season (1968-69) rolled around, Owens could have held the 6-foot-3 guard out during the first semester and used him only during the second semester, but that made no sense because of the way school terms broke in those days.

The Jayhawks had 18 games scheduled during the first semester and only eight in the second semester. No dilemma there. Those lopsided numbers made it a no-brainer.

And so as White played out the string in January, people began to anticipate his last game in Allen Fieldhouse. As difficult as it is to believe now, the Jayhawks hadn't had a single sellout until that first day in February when they packed the place to the air ducts in order to bid farewell to a player who had become an icon.

They loved White's skills, they loved his humble personality, they loved his nickname and they came out in force to prove it.

Every time White scored against Colorado -- he would compile a career-high 30 points that night -- the crowd erupted. The two times White was whistled for committing a foul, the crowd booed. They hung on White's every move.

Finally, with 12 seconds remaining and KU assured of an 80-70 victory, Owens removed White from the floor. Momentarily, the fans rose to their feet and a thunderous roar quickly erupted, a continuous ear-splitting blast of such crescendo that it seemed to flatten out because, I suspected, the human brain could not assimilate any more decibels.

That was my first experience with an Allen Fieldhouse crowd hollering en masse as loud as it could. Obviously, similar crescendos have occurred since, but I'll never be convinced there ever has been an Allen Fieldhouse crowd that sounded more like a sonic boom than the one that came to witness White's swan song.

After the game, White addressed the crowd for a few minutes but, as I recall, the ovation, while loud, did not equal the mega-decibel tribute when Owens purposefully sent in a sub for White with just a dozen ticks to go.

"It wasn't so much a game as it was an experience," penned the Journal-World sports editor, then in his fifth month on the job.

Tonight's late-game accolades for Wayne Simien, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles and Michael Lee may be loud enough to make the building shake. Seismologists may be able to detect a Richter scale reading.

It'll be loud, all right, but not any louder than the night they came to honor Jo Jo White and turned sound into an ultrasonic sledge hammer.

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