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Thursday, November 26, 2020

Guest column: KU’s 2020-21 season opener a strange but spectacular experience

Kansas junior Ochai Agbaji goes up for a shot during a game against Gonzaga in the season opener on Thursday. The Bulldogs earned a 102-90 win over the Jayhawks in the third annual Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off on Thanksgiving Day at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers on Nov. 26, 2020. Photo by Chris Tilley

Kansas junior Ochai Agbaji goes up for a shot during a game against Gonzaga in the season opener on Thursday. The Bulldogs earned a 102-90 win over the Jayhawks in the third annual Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off on Thanksgiving Day at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers on Nov. 26, 2020. Photo by Chris Tilley

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Fort Myers, Fla. — If someone had told me a year ago that I would be watching No. 6 Kansas play top-ranked Gonzaga five miles from my Fort Myers, Fla., home, I would have pinched myself.

The dream would have been too good to be true.

If that same someone also had told me that I would be flashing dirty looks at a young woman to my left and another to my right because they kept pulling their facemasks off to cheer, scream and yell, then I would have said someone was reading too many Stephen King novels.

I’m halfway through reading King’s “The Dead Zone,” which could have described the Jayhawks at times during their 102-90 loss on Thursday.

I arrived to the junior college arena early with my friend Jim Doepke and we each wore N-95 masks. We enjoyed seeing KU junior Ochai Agbaji throw down some pregame dunks, including one in which he soared and switched the ball from hand-to-hand between his legs.

This scene unfolded in my adopted hometown, 28 years after I covered Kansas defeating Georgia in the 1992-93 season opener for the University Daily Kansan.

Fort Myers Tip-Off organizers sold 300 tickets for the 3,500-seat arena. They made mask-wearing and social distancing mandatory. The former was near impossible to enforce, although most obeyed it. Social distancing seemed to work and helped bring down my anxiety at the screaming, maskless fanatics, who sat about 10-15 feet away from me.

They made me realize that college basketball, more than any other sport because of the passions involved, will be the most difficult sport to host fans as we continue navigating the uncertainties of this pandemic.

The first 11 rows of bleacher seats were pulled back, giving the players and coaches plenty of room. We sat in row Q, which became the first row overlooking the Kansas bench. Fans were clustered in pairs or in foursomes. Three empty seats separated each cluster of fans. And an entire row of seats sat empty between the rows that had people. Bravo to the organizers.

Tickets for the four games over two days cost $1,200 per pair. I decided against going until finding out I could land a pair for $700 for just the two Kansas games. I weighed the risks. To me, they seemed high considering COVID-19’s contagiousness and the devastation it has wrought.

I considered the rewards. A once-in-a-lifetime shot at seeing my alma mater play not just in Florida but a 10-minute car ride down Summerlin Road.

I’ll be back for the encore against Saint Joseph’s on Friday, this time with my buddy Barry Hendon. He recently gave me a vintage copy of “Phog Allen’s Sports Stories,” autographed by Allen himself.

Time — five-to-14 days, I’m guessing — will tell if the rewards outweighed the risks.

But for now, I’m trying not to think about that.

College basketball is back. And I am pumped. I just hope we get to finish it this time.

— David Dorsey is a reporter for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla. and a 1994 Kansas graduate. He’s also the author of “Fourth Down in Dunbar,” which profiles the athletes and hometown of Kansas All-American Walt Wesley and many NFL players, including Sammy Watkins and Deion Sanders, who grew up in Fort Myers.

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