Witnessing live the local university’s basketball team win two Final Four games in 2008 and one two weeks ago made it impossible to see Mass Street turn into a river of bodies.
Missing those three nights makes it easy for me, in my seventh year here, to name the most vibrant scene on one of the nation’s coolest streets.
The adrenaline from the afternoon event on Eighth Street between Mass and New Hampshire drifted into every downtown eatery. Everybody had just seen something so fascinating, so different and wanted the day to last forever. Those who missed it vowed they would catch it a year later.
The first downtown shot put, last April, triggered that high-energy evening, and an even stronger field will compete at the same place, Wednesday at 6 p.m., to kick off the 2012 Kansas Relays.
Dylan Armstrong and six other competitors ranked in the top 20 in the world will be among the 11 participants. So will a former Oklahoma basketball standout.
Kevin Bookout, a three-time track-and-field All-American for the Sooners, is in the field. Competing on a downtown street will be a first for Bookout, who after a one-year basketball career in the NBA Developmental League, has concentrated on throwing. Dan Taylor, among the throwers with whom Bookout trained for two years in Phoenix, told him all about last year’s smash-hit event.
“He told me it was awesome, said the crowd really got into it,” Bookout said by phone from Norman, Okla. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how they set everything up. I wish more cities around the U.S. would do it. If they heard how much Lawrence got into it, I would think they would want to do it.”
KU Relays director Milan Donley hopes that can happen, but for now it’s not such a bad thing for Lawrence that it can hog the spotlight.
“The great thing about shot-putters,” Donley said, “is they’re so approachable. They love talking to the people in the crowd.”
Bookout, who said he set a personal record this year with a throw of 66 feet, 3 inches, agreed.
“People look at us and think we’re just big and strong, and they’re a little bit intimidated at first,” Bookout said. “But I’ve never met a thrower who was just awful to be around.”
Bookout hopes things go better for him Wednesday than they did for his Sooners when he last competed in Lawrence as a basketball player. Bookout had 11 points and eight rebounds, but the Sooners lost, 59-58, after building a 16-point second-half lead in February 2006.
“Brandon Rush just kept making shots and the crowd, which had gone quiet, kept getting louder and louder and louder,” Bookout said.
The first downtown shot put audience of at least 2,500 started on the quiet side and then was coached by the men throwing shots to bring the heat. It also grew louder and louder and louder.