'Legends' reveals strength of Kansas family

When Bill Self was hired as the head men's basketball coach at the University of Kansas back in 2003, one of his stated goals was to reach out to the coaches and players who had come before him, strengthening the bond of the Kansas family. Saturday afternoon threw back the curtain on just how successful he's been.

When the idea for 'Legends of the Phog' began to coalesce within the brain of Bill Self, it did so with high expectations for the outcome already attached.

And rightfully so. Kansas is a place where 16,300 fans pack the muggy confines of Allen Fieldhouse for an exhibition contest with East Central Carolina Tech. That it filled to the rafters Saturday as many of the heroes of Jayhawk Nation set foot on James Naismith Court once more is no great surprise.

But it wasn't just the packed house that embodied the event's success. Nor was it measured exclusively by the 27 players who returned home to Lawrence, Kan. to take part, though their jerseys bore names such as Chalmers, Collison, Ostertag, Valentine, Kellogg and Pierce.

It wasn't even solely about the game's final seconds, which couldn't have been scripted more perfectly had Orson Welles been holding the pen.

First Paul Pierce cans a deep three with five seconds left on the clock and Brandon Rush in his face to give the Blue Team a 111-108 lead, and then Mario Chalmers - he of the 2008 national championship game miracle shot - drills his own in response as time expires.

The decibel meter wasn't present on the video board, but to put it in scientific terms the building was "extremely loud." Nobody cared the game ended in a 111-111 tie. There was no clamor for an overtime period. In fact, the nature of the contest made the ending seem somehow appropriate.

Just ask Pierce, who never lost a game at Allen Fieldhouse during his three years as a Jayhawk from 1996-1998, and made it clear to guest coach Larry Brown at halftime that Saturday wouldn't mark his first.

When Chalmers' shot splashed through the net, the Boston Celtics star and future first-ballot NBA Hall of Famer wrapped him in a bear hug.

"I said, 'That's the way it's supposed to end,'" Pierce recalled afterward. "Everybody remembers his championship shot, and it was just a replay of it tonight."

It was what the combination of each of those factors - and many more - revealed Saturday about the strength of the Kansas basketball family that made 'Legends of the Phog' a success for all involved.

Part of what made Bill Self the best choice to replace Roy Williams as head coach in 2003 is how clearly and obviously he saw the big picture. He understood the legacy and responsibility that comes with maintaining an office on Naismith Drive.

Saturday, he proved that he still does.

That so many former players readily answered the call to return home for Saturday's alumni event is not in and of itself indicative of a familial bond. Not in his mind anyway.

It's about something deeper; an understanding that no matter who the coach is at Kansas, they will never be the best coach, Self said, because Phog Allen once prowled the sidelines. Nor will they ever be the best player, because Wilt Chamberlain changed the sport forever while wearing Crimson and Blue.

"You're a part of something that's so much bigger than yourself," Self explained. "And I don't know if guys get it when they're 18 and they walk on campus, but they get it by the time they're 19, or 20 or 21."

Pierce gets it. Thirteen years removed from his final game at Allen Fieldhouse, and he understands it fully.

"This is a special place," he said. "Coach said any time we can come back - and I plan on coming back a lot more than I have in the past - you really don't truly realize how special this place is until you come back, and you step away from it and then you see it again. It's unbelievable."

Brown understands it as well. Though he is the product of another member of college basketball's royalty, the University of North Carolina, he understood there was something special about Kansas even before he became the head coach in 1983.

"I think when you play here or coach here, it doesn't get any better than this," he said. "I remember when I was at Carolina, we used to go around - they always used to talk about the Carolina family, and Coach (Dean) Smith had so much to do with that. But this family here is remarkable."

Self closed out Saturday's press conference with a story about Wayne Simien, himself a Kansas great and one of the players he inherited from Williams.

In the days that followed the 2008 national championship game, Simien happened to be in the basketball offices at Allen Fieldhouse when he ran into Self. He enthusiastically congratulated his former coach, who responded with thanks, and a heartfelt wish that they had gotten him the same opportunity to play for - and win - a national title.

"He said, 'Coach, you don't understand - I did,'" Self recalled. "How many places could somebody say something like that? Here they are, not even a team member, but it meant as much to him knowing we won it because he is a team member. And he always will be."

That's why Saturday's event such a resounding success. Not because the stands are full or the alumni are eager to come home. But because it showed those are just two pieces of a much larger whole.

Other programs talk about being a family. Kansas basketball lives it.

"Like (Self) said, like I said, this is a family type of program," Pierce said. "The guys that come back, they stay in touch. I still stay in touch with Ryan Robertson, guys that I played with."

"I talk to Mario, we have that relationship," he added. "We have that link. Because we're Jayhawks."

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