A person in Lawrence on Friday, March 22, 1957, could exert massive effort to get people to talk about something besides college basketball. But such a contrarian would have had little luck. The tremendous enthusiasm had seeped east into the ranks of Kansas City-area followers, as well.
Seldom has court fever been as intense and widespread as the 23-2 Kansas Jayhawks faced the zero hour for the national college semifinal game against San Francisco in Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium. Dick Harp's Jayhawks were ready for the challenge, but so, too, were their countless fans in the region and throughout the state.
The 1952 Kansas team had been overwhelmed by a late-night and early morning downtown turnout of massive proportions when it returned from Seattle with an NCAA championship. It was the biggest celebration of its kind up to then, but some felt the '57 uproar would be even greater if the Jayhawks could bring home another title trophy.
In 1957, people who cared not a bit about the average basketball game at any level had been infected with an all-consuming NCAA Tournament virus. Whether the basketballs had rubber or leather covers, whether the goals were 10 or 12 feet high : the only topic for most men AND women was whether KU could duplicate its 1952 national title - and improve on its one-point 1953 runner-up finish against Indiana.
Kansas featured All-American Wilt Chamberlain and was the '57 favorite. But San Francisco with Bill Russell and K.C. Jones had won the 1955 and 1956 college championships, had another stellar defensive crew, rated second-best in the nation and had won 14 of its last 15 games. On offense, the Dons focused on ball control, which had given KU serious trouble in its only losses - to Iowa State at Ames and Oklahoma A&M at Stillwater.
There was no television for the Kansas-San Francisco game. Non-ticketholders would have to get the news via veteran broadcaster Max Falkenstien calling the shots over radio station WREN for the KU Sports Network. That would change the coming night when the championship game would be televised, but only locally, on Channels 9 and 13. TV people had gambled that KU would be involved against the winner of unbeaten North Carolina (30-0) and Michigan State on Friday night.
How attractive did the 1957 Final Four prove to be?
For Saturday's showdown, the largest media group in tournament history was assembled in Kansas City. Coverage included an 11-station television network, 64 newspaper writers and live radio broadcats on 73 radio stations in 11 states. It marked the first time any basketball game would be televised in the state of North Carolina.
Some analysts contend the 1979 NCAA title game featuring Michigan State's Magic Johnson and Indiana State's Larry Bird was what made college basketball the draw that it is now, particularly at tournament time. But those who are closer observers say it was 1957's matchup of unbeaten Carolina and Kansas superstar Wilt Chamberlain that was the real door-opener.
Frank DeFord of Sports Illustrated called the dream matchup of KU and UNC "the defining game of the NCAA Tournament." Other media people concurred.
Kansas fans were understandably upset because there had been only 250 tickets made available for each of the four teams. However, with finagling, manipulating and orchestrating many Jayhawkers who wanted to be in the auditorium found ways to get there. Tickets nowadays are scalped for hundreds of dollars. Official prices then were astoundingly low, around $20 at the peak. Premium prices ran much higher and some recall scalpers getting $50 per ticket for the final game.
This year, a Final Four ticket, if it can be had, runs $75 to $100 and patrons have to buy two-night packages. Scalpers, as usual, boost those costs far higher.
Wherever a televison set was set up in 1957, the operators could be sure of banner crowds on Saturday night. Some entrepreneurs charged eager viewers. At the Kansas Union well over 3,000 were expected in the ballroom for the free telecast. Trumpet-vocalist icon Louis Armstrong was playing a concert there that night. A victory celebration was planned. As fate would have it, he still played and sang "When the Saints Go Marching In" late Saturday when the KU team returned home a heartbreaking 54-53 title game loss to North Carolina in three overtimes.
Closing hours for women students were greatly relaxed because of the basketball event and many citizens with and without television sets planned home parties, relying on radio if they had no "tubes."
Cliff Ogden and Al Lightner, two noted referees who had been at Dallas the previous week and had to deal with crowd ugliness of a racial nature against KU, were to work the Kansas City tournament along with Joe Conway and Hagan Anderson. Conway and Anderson were to call the KU-Frisco battle and Ogden and Lightner were lined up for the title game the following night.
The anti-KU outbursts by Southern Methodist and Oklahoma City people in the regional games at Dallas had been brushed aside for Kansas City. Kansas, Michigan State and San Francisco all had black players while North Carolina had brought an all-white squad. There appeared little likelihood of any major new race cards being played as they had been in Dallas.