My Final Four story — of the basketball kind.
From an early age I recall hearing people talk about basketball. It’s woven into the fabric of Southern culture.
Growing up in North Carolina it’s ever present. The Tar Heels, The Wolfpack, The Demon Deacons all more than just mascot names.
The defining moment was the Dean Smith inspired Carolina comeback from being down 8 points with 17 seconds to go in the 1974 match-up with ACC rival, Duke University just down the road in Durham, NC
Even if you are not a big hoops fan, a comeback against all odds like that will get your attention. It was another game that served to solidify the legend of Dean Smith and Carolina Basketball.
I began to pay more attention to The Dean, The ACC and college basketball in general. I learned about John Wooden and Lew Alcindor and the great teams of UCLA. Then there is Bobby Knight and Indiana basketball. Then of course there is KU, Rock Chalk Jayhawk, Paul Allen and James Neismith.
I moved to Kanas City, Missouri in 1983. I had been with Eastern Air Lines almost six years by this time working in Charlotte, NC as an inside sales reservations agent. After four years in the Air Force, I had discharged and returned home to attend the University of North Carolina. I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to work for Eastern so I worked full time and went to school full-time.
The move to Kansas City was finally an opportunity to work at the airport because that is where it was all happening. The KC HUB as it was called was the brainchild for Company President, Frank Borman and former Apollo Astronaut.
From the beginning, I enjoyed everything about living in KC except fot the weather. It was a sports town. They had George Brett and the Kansas City Royals. They had Arrowhead Stadium and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Growing up in Charlotte, NC in the 70’s felt like a minor league expereince. When you watched baseball, it was either the Atlanta Braves or the Baltimore Orioles. When you watched football it was either the Washington Redskins or the Atlanta Falcons. It was a major effort to attend anyone of those events.
My sports focus in KC was mostly the Royals at first. I was aware of the famous ‘pine tar incident’ and even though the Royals were not considered a premier team at the time, they were interesting to watch and they were accessible.
Over a period of time working at the airport in KC, I would meet people from time to time that were connected to the Royals organization. I met George Toma. The Doctor of Dirt, The Titan of Turf the Sod Father. Not only did he take care of the natural grass at Arrowhead, he also took care of the grass at Royals Stadium. He also flew Eastern and a lot and he liked to fly first class.
Somehow we managed to cross paths frequently and I would somehow manage to get him upgraded to First Class and somehow he managed to slip an envelope with prime box seats into my pocket.
Over a period of time, I met coaches and scouts for the Kansas City Chiefs. A man named Greg Mohns who was a scout. He flew a lot and he liked to fly First Class. We had a great relationship and I saw a lot of good games.
Coincidentally a man named Larry Brown came to Kansas and became the coach of the Jayhawks in 1983. He signed the nations top recruit, Danny Manning and soon after, his father as a coach.
As you might guess, the team flew Eastern Air Lines on their road games. They started winning and a lot. The team was constantly in and out of the terminal and most of the times things went smoothly. As I recall it was the year 1988 when their flight got delayed and then cancelled. As fortune would have it, I was the gate agent in charge of their flight that day.
I met a man named Alvin Gentry who was an assistant coach. He was from Shelby, NC and went to Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. Over a period of weeks, Alvin and I became well acquainted. He had family in Shelby and I would see him frequently on the direct flight from Kansas City to Charlotte. On one occasion, I was boarding the flight to Charlotte which he was on. He told me he had a very ill family member with cancer and it was dire and he was lucky to get the last seat on the plane.
I upgraded him to first class and gave him my phone number and told him if he ever had trouble getting a seat on a place to give me a call. He did, several times and he would somehow happen to have tickets to games that were played at Kemper Arena in Kansas City.
One day he came in for a flight and handed me an envelope with tickets and said ‘I think you will enjoy these’. I stuck the envelope in my pocket and later that day I pulled out the enveope and looked at the tickets. They were court side seats to a Big Eight match-up with Oklahoma at Allen Field house, the Mecca of college basketball.
I took my buddy, Loren who was a big hoops fan and we got there early so we could check out the Field House. I remember walking around the ellipse that surrounded the basketball arena. It was essentially an indoor running track. Integrated into the track was the ‘Sports Walk of Fame’ There were tophies and placques from years gone by. There was a photo of Gale Sayers, The Kansas Komet who was a prolific running back in college and went on to foootball greatness in the pro’s with the Chicago Bears. Then another photo and plaque of John Riggins another famous fullback/running back who went on the play for the Washington, Redskins.
As I’m walking this circle, I’m amazed at all the names of sports figures I recognized but never knew they went to Kansas.
Then we came upon the basketball hardware. The trophies to Phog Allen, James Naismith and others who were part of the early days of the discovery and development of basketball. The game with unique roots in he history of America.
What first caught my eye was the photo and trophy of Wilt Chamberlin. The 7 foot giant of a man who played there in the mid-50's.
Then I saw it, the boyish face of a young Dean Smith. There he was enshrined in the the glass trophy case that honored the team that went to the 1957 National Championship where they were defeated by North Carolina Tar Heels and Frank McGuire. It was a triple over time game with North Carolina completing an undefeated season and finishing 31–0.
It was then that I began to understand the single threaded connection woven into the fabric of NC & KU. Linked together with Dean Smith and Roy Williams and their winning traditions at both schools.
It was such an expereince and of course I had to tell Alvin Gentry about it and he was beaming the entire time. Alvin made a final trip on the flight to Charlotte and sadley the loss of a close family member and it was a very sad day. He told me how much he appreciated all that I did to get him home when he needed to be there. I told him I was glad that I was able to help.
It was the Spring of 1988 the KU team was on their road to basketball glory. One Sunday afternoon on a short light to play in Oklahoma City, Alvin introudced me to Larry Brown. He was a smiling and friendly man and said something like ‘so this is the Tar Heel fan you’ve been telling me about’ Being the smartass I was, I had to comeback with a corrections and say ‘well, actually, I’m a Dean Smith fan’. We all had a good laugh. It was not much longer after that, Alvin and the team came in for another flight as they were advacning in the NCAA playoffs. He came by where I was and asked for my home address. He said, keep an eye out, there will be something special for you soon.
The Kansas Jayhawks made it to the Final Four in 1988 and it was plyed right there in Kansas City at Kemper Arena. In my mailbox there were two tickets two each of the final games. It was Duke, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arizona.
Duke had Danny Ferry, Oklahoma had Waymon Tisdale, Arizona has Steve Kerr and Kansas had Danny Manning.
They were all high drama games and a hoops fans dream. It turned out to be Kansas beating Duke to go on and beat Oklahoma for the National Championship in 1988.
A remarkable season and a remarkable memory for a country boy who grew up in the backwoods of rural North Carolina.