KU Hoops in Chicago

CHICAGO, Ill. - The journey into March Madness began at 4:05 on Thursday morning, when my alarm clock awakened me after less than three hours of sleep. I was exhausted and wanted to shut my eyes and drift deeply back into a deep slumber. But I couldn't. I wouldn't. And I didn't.

I had to get ready for the hour-long drive from my home in Lawrence and catch my 7:10 am. flight out of Kansas City International Airport en route to Chicago.

Of course, Chi-Town is where the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks play their opening-round NCAA Tournament game against No. 16 seed Niagara at 6:10 tonight at the United Center, the home where the legendary and former Chicago Bulls' great Michael Jordan thrilled millions in the basketball world with his acrobatic, high-flying dunks and deep hunger and passion for the game.

A bronzed, majestic statue of 'His Airness' stands just in front of the United Center. There he is in amazing likeness, the classic pose with his feet spread far apart in the air, his right hand palming the basketball and outstretched upward toward the heavens as if he were about to throw down one of his famed, thunder slam dunks. Below Jordan's statue is his signature emblazoned into the concrete, followed by two life-sized handprints and footprints. His footprints are soaked in water, with a tiny brown leaf floating at the bottom.

And on the black plaque describing this legend, the words read:

Michael Jordan.
Chicago Bulls.
1984-1993.
1995-1998.
'The best there ever was. The best there ever will be.'

So as the Jayhawks kick off the Big Dance tonight in the former house that 'Mike' built, they too, will try to make their mark and claim their signature as one of the best teams in KU basketball history,

As I entered the United Center yesterday at 2:26 p.m., I picked up my credentials, went to the press work room, and then headed to the media buffet, where I got my fill of hamburgers, salad, and chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies. As I watched the TV showing NCAA Tournament games, at 2:58, I suddenly became mesmerized by a commercial for Cingular. It was the 1988 NCAA championship game, and they showed highlights of Danny Manning soaring in the air for a dunk on the fastbreak; racing downcourt for a twisting layup, and then finally, grabbing his 18th and final rebound of the game as the clock expired.
KU had beaten Oklahoma and won it all, Manning holding tightly onto the ball with his arms raised in jubilation, and fellow senior forward Chris Piper running towards him in the greatest moment of their lives.

The commercial stops, but the dream lives on. So as I lowered my eyes from the TV screen to finish my meal, I wondered if that commercial of Danny and the Miracles' NCAA title was a sign of greatness to come for the 2006-07 Jayhawks. Could they soon become a team of destiny and win it all?

Of course, KU first has to get past the first round tonight, something the 'Hawks haven't been able to do the past two years in losses to Bradley last year and Bucknell in 2005. But this time, KU enters the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed. And No. 1 seeds have never lost a first-round game. Entering today's games, No. 1 seeded teams have gone a perfect 90-0.

So naturally, KU coach Bill Self and his players had to deal with answering a ton of questions from the Kansas and national media about their recent first-round failures during yesterday's press conference and interview sessions.

Asked about the prospect of making history with a third-straight loss in the opening round, junior guard Russell Robinson said he was determined not to make that happen.

"We control our own destiny," he said. "We've got a talented team and we've just got to go out and do the things we need to do. I think we'll be fine. The main thing is to just go out and leave it all out on the court."

After the interviews were all over, KU took to the court for an open practice at 4:25. Over 30 photographers stood by the baseline as Self took his team through light running and passing drills. The photographers wanted to capture every picture, every moment, every step of the first practice into madness. A scattering of fans, including the crimson and blue faithful, watched with great anticipation.

Self now told his team to pick up the pace.

"Faster, faster, faster," he said.

After that warmup concluded, Self had the players begin shooting drills at both ends of the court. Swish after swish after swish. The players looked focused, and the coaching staff was constantly on them to work even harder.

About 30 minutes later, the light practice was over and fans rushed their heroes for autographs. From walk-ons like Brad Witherspoon and Brennan Bechard to stars Brandon Rush and Julian Wright, the KU players signed willingly, happily, and with a sense of pride in all they represent to the Jayhawk Nation. Of course, Chicago natives Wright and freshman guard Sherron Collins got the most love from fans, signing hats, jerseys, and even money.

After Collins signed a dollar bill for Connor Henry from Chicago, Connor's friends asked with awe: "You're going to frame that, aren't you?"

I went over to the boy and saw all the autographs on the dollar bill: Collins, Robinson, and Mario Chalmers. I think Wright was on there, too, but Connor was so excited, he left hurriedly with his prized possession that I could get a great look. For this young fan decked in KU blue, that dollar bill was priceless. Just like my autographs of former KU players like Darnell Valentine, John Douglas, and Bud Stallworth were to me when I was growing up in Lawrence.

It's 5:50 p.m. now as I waited outside the press entrance (Gate 3A) for the Media Shuttle to bring me back to my hotel at the Hyatt Regency on 151 E. Wacker Drive. The temperature had dropped dramatically since I entered the United Center over three hours ago. And yet, I decided to take one last look at the Jordan statue before leaving. With the brisk wind and 27 degree temperature, I was freezing and had the chills.
My eyes suddenly became fixated on Jordan's plaque. I read the words softly aloud as the meaning came alive:

The best there ever was. The best there ever will be.

Chills again ran up and down my spine. This time, it wasn't from the bitter cold. I'm just thinking to myself, "Hey, wouldn't it be nice if this Bill Self Jayhawk team makes history and carves its name as one of the best KU teams this school has ever seen?"

The shuttle had finally arrived, and time to go back to the hotel. I closed my eyes and dreamed about the hopes...and all the sweet possibilities of this magical journey ahead.


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