For supporters of the University of Kansas men’s basketball team, the 1996-97 season had progressed as though it were a pleasant dream. Clearly the best hoopsters in the nation, the Jayhawks had rolled to a 29-1 regular season record – the finest in the tradition-laden history of the program. Even when they had played poorly for long stretches of certain games and had flirted with defeat, they had regrouped to make a large enough run to secure a victory. Three times that season the team had trailed by 16 points or more in games that it had gone on to win. Five times the team had trailed at the half, but it had not lost any of those games. The Jayhawks’ lone loss had come at the hands of their archrival, the Missouri Tigers, in a double-overtime contest in which injuries and fouls had kept some of Kansas’s key contributors on the bench.
But the team had not simply won a lot of games. Despite the different backgrounds of the team members – black and white, rich and poor – the 1996-97 Jayhawks were, as Roy Williams asserted, “more like a family than any team he had ever coached.” The players were not the sorts of egocentric, chest-thumping megalomaniacs that had become ubiquitous in the world of both professional and collegiate athletics by the 1990s. In addition to fielding a first team All-American power forward in junior Raef LaFrentz, the Jayhawks could boast that two of the nation’s five first-team Academic All-Americans graced its roster in senior guards Jacques Vaughn and Jerod Haase. The Jayhawks had deflected praise from themselves to their teammates and exuded class all season.
Although they had done little trash talking over the course of the winter, a person could hardly mistake their quiet demeanor for a lack of character or excitement. KU fans knew that Haase as a freshman at Cal (prior to transferring to KU) had played the day after his father’s death because he suspected that his father would have wanted him to. The Kansas faithful knew that Vaughn kept his bedroom compulsively clean and that reserve B. J. Williams always had a joke to tell. They knew that the team they supported had proven capable of playing both above the rim and beyond the three-point arc. They recognized that the Jayhawks were disciplined in their assignments and remarkably consistent. Their team’s eccentricities – such as their unofficial mascot Marvin (a green Cadillac convertible) and the painted nails and sideburns of Marvin’s owner, senior center Scot Pollard – seemed amusing and harmless.
Led by four scholarship seniors who had seen their ride to the Final Four short-circuited in each of the three previous seasons, the Jayhawks were indeed a complete team. Kansas possessed the nation’s consummate point guard (and all-time school assist leader) in Vaughn, an excellent rebounding center in Pollard, one of the country’s top power forwards in LaFrentz, a defensive specialist and vocal leader in Haase, a small forward with the offensive potential to take over a game in sophomore Paul Pierce, and the best group of reserves in the nation. The team was neither overconfident nor uncertain, but was instead self-assured. The 1996-97 Jayhawks were good and they knew it, but they also realized that they could be defeated. “Teams hoping to beat [them],” reserve forward Joel Branstrom later remembered, “had to bring their best game and hope that [the men from Lawrence] had an off night.” Thus it was that KU fans had plenty of reasons to believe that their team had a legitimate shot to win the national title as the season wound to a close.
The post-season began as well as the Kansas faithful could have hoped. The Jayhawks soundly defeated Oklahoma State, Iowa State, and Missouri en route to claiming the first Big 12 Conference Tournament championship. Indeed none of the final margins was closer than 15 points. The conference selected Pierce, LaFrentz, and Vaughn to fill three of the five spots on the all-tournament team, and named KU’s star sophomore the inaugural tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Having added three wins to its impressive record, the Kansas team, which had sat atop the national basketball polls for more than three months, readied itself for the NCAA Tournament.
Granted the top berth in the Southeast Regional, the Jayhawks prepared to take on the 16th-seeded Jackson State Tigers. As Williams and his assistants drew up a scouting report of the badly overmatched Tigers, the University campus buzzed in anticipation. In an article in the University Daily Kansan, sports editor Spencer Duncan captured the “basketball mania” that had infected Jayhawk fans. Indeed the whole “town of Lawrence,” he asserted, “[had] gone nuts” over a KU basketball team favored to take home the national crown. He wondered, however, what would happen if the team lost. Would anyone remember that the 1996-97 squad had reeled off 22 consecutive victories (a school record) or that it had gone undefeated at home? He concluded that failure to win the NCAA championship would negate all of its accomplishments. “This team,” he curtly ended, would “be measured by how things go in the tournament.”
In Memphis, the NCAA Tournament began rather inauspiciously for a Kansas team favored by 36 points against the Southwest Conference Tournament Champions (and lowest overall seed in the 64-team field). With four minutes gone in the second half, the Jayhawks led by only seven. Following a Coach Williams tirade, they put Jackson State away with a 20-5 run. Although the final margin was sufficient to allow the team to clear its bench, KU managed only a 14-point victory. Apart from its rebounding and shot blocking (Kansas had out rebounded the Tigers 61-27 and had swatted a season-high 13 shots), the men from Lawrence had not played particularly well. Even so, supporters could take solace in the fact that the Jayhawks had fulfilled the tournament mantra to “survive and move on.”
Their victory over Jackson State, however unimpressive, earned them a match up with Purdue in the second round. The Boilermakers seized a one-point lead with just less than 10 minutes remaining in the contest, but the Jayhawks answered with three consecutive baskets from beyond the arc including two by three-point specialist Billy Thomas. The other clutch basket came from Vaughn who had played in spite of a 100-degree fever and flu-like symptoms. (Although clearly less than 100 percent, KU’s floor leader finished the game with 12 points and nine assists. He had even managed a miraculous steal when he flashed in front of a Boilermakers’ inbounds pass in the waning moments of the first half. He converted the steal into a 15-foot jumper at the buzzer that gave Kansas a 10-point halftime lead.) When the final buzzer of the game sounded, KU had recorded its second consecutive 14-point win and was set to travel to Birmingham, Alabama for Sweet 16.
The Jayhawks shrugged off criticism about their less-than-inspiring play following their return to Lawrence from Memphis. Despite not competing at anywhere near their top level, the team members had won two of the six games they needed to win in order to claim the championship. Further, they had won in spite of Vaughn’s illness and some nagging injuries – the most significant of which was a broken bone in Haase’s wrist. The fans, for their part, remained confident that 1997 was still “the year” for KU to take home the title.
On Wednesday, two days before the Jayhawks’ Sweet 16 match up against the University of Arizona, for instance, Chancellor Robert Hemenway announced that classes would not be cancelled if the University’s team won the NCAA Tournament. The chancellor claimed, “It was the students’ responsibility to make the adult decision whether to attend classes following a victory in the finals.” This pronouncement did not go down well on campus. That Friday morning the UDK published an editorial criticizing Hemenway for skipping an English class that he taught to attend the Jayhawks’ first two games in Memphis. “Welcome to the hypocrisy,” the paper asserted. “Our chancellor,” it continued, “sees nothing wrong with missing his class so that he can travel to a basketball game, but he has the audacity to tell students that they cannot miss a day of class if the men’s team wins the title.” The fact that the chancellor announced such a policy and that the students responded with so much hostility to it revealed the enormous degree of confidence the Jayhawk faithful had in the team’s ability to win the national crown.
Lute Olsen, Arizona’s coach, led a talented, extraordinarily quick and athletic, but very young team which had started the tournament as inauspiciously as had KU. After a fifth-place finish in the Pac-10 Conference, Arizona had earned a four seed in the NCAA Tournament where the Wildcats had squeaked by the University of South Alabama in the first round. Arizona had then needed an overtime to dispose of the College of Charleston and secure a berth for the second straight year against KU in the Sweet 16. (In the 1996 Regional Semifinals, a KU team composed entirely of underclassmen had defeated an Arizona team with four senior starters by three points before losing to Syracuse in the Elite Eight.) Nonetheless, the brash young team members were quite vocal in their desire to give Kansas more than a good game. They considered the 11-point line laid down by the odds-makers in Las Vegas in the Jayhawks’ favor as an insult, and asserted that their team “should be favored by five or six” over the Big 12 champs. “They are not that good,” some Arizona players announced, and to a man the Wildcats felt that they had not “been given enough credit.” They resented the fact that “everyone [had KU] cutting down the nets in a couple of weeks” and cared little if the No. 1 team in the nation knew that they expected to knock it off.
The Jayhawks were aware of the trash talking being done by their next opponent but refused to retaliate in kind. They had larger concerns. Although Vaughn’s health had improved over the course of the week, Haase’s problem had grown steadily worse. After playing for virtually the entire season with a broken wrist, it appeared as though his injury might finally prove too painful to allow the guard to continue to play. To make matters worse, the week’s practices had not been as crisp due to the absence of Haase and Vaughn from some of them. After the team’s Thursday practice in Birmingham’s Jefferson Civic Center Williams had commented that it “wasn’t as good as [he would have] like[d] for it to be.”
Nevertheless, as the teams tipped off shortly before 7:00 p.m. on March 21, the men from Mt. Oread and their supporters had no reason to believe that their dream season was about to turn into a nightmare. The Jayhawks started slowly, turning the ball over six times in the first three minutes, as the Wildcats jumped out to an early lead. At one point in the first half KU trailed 19-5, but the team fought back to within two by the close of the first half. Kansas briefly took a one-point lead in the second half before Arizona began to pull away from the favored Jayhawks. KU again whittled the lead to two before the Wildcats, sparked by an improbable trey from their star freshman point guard Mike Bibby, went on an 11-0 run. Trailing 75-62 with three-and-a-half minutes remaining in the game, Kansas began what its players and fans were sure was “the run” – one like those they had made all season to put away opposing teams.
The Jayhawks turned up the defensive pressure and began to bury three-point shots as they chipped away at the Arizona lead. Pierce started the rally with a dunk that answered a three-pointer by Bibby. (For the fifth consecutive post-season game, the sophomore led the team in scoring. His dunk gave him 27 points to go along with 11 rebounds for the game.) Ryan Robertson then canned a trey to cut the lead to eight. After an Arizona bucket and two free throws each by Vaughn and Arizona guard Miles Simon, KU still trailed by 10. With 1:42 left in the game, Robertson hit a lay up. Pierce intercepted the Wildcats’ ensuing inbounds pass and LaFrentz tipped in a Vaughn miss 10 seconds later to cut the lead to six. On the next possession KU’s star sophomore again stole the ball. Thomas then nailed a shot from behind the arc that narrowed the lead to only three points. Twenty seconds later, however, Bibby hit an off-balance jumper in the lane to extend his team’s advantage. Thomas again answered with a three and the Arizona lead had narrowed to two.
With only 30 seconds left in the game, the Jayhawks found themselves in a situation where they needed to foul to prevent Arizona from running out the clock. They fouled back-up guard Jason Terry (now an NBA starter), who rattled in two free throws to build the lead to four. Less than 10 seconds later, Robertson stuck another shot from behind the arc to cut the lead to one. With 18 seconds to go, the Jayhawks sent Bibby to the line where the freshman calmly sank both shots from the charity stripe to give Arizona an 85-82 lead. Ten seconds ran off the clock before KU got off a shot. Vaughn, passing up a clear three of his own found Thomas for an open trey, but the team’s three-point specialist could not connect. (Vaughn would later draw criticism for the play that illumined the best and worst of the Jayhawk team. In subsequent years, he and the team would be criticized for lacking toughness rather than a selfless “team first” mentality.) Robertson snagged the rebound but his desperation three fell far short and into the hands of LaFrentz. The All-American power forward ran toward the Kansas bench where he wheeled around after crossing the three-point line and launched a shot that was right online but fell a shade short and ricocheted off the rim as time expired.
Having pulled off the biggest upset of the season, Arizona players ran across the court with their arms raised in exultation and jumped up on the press table to celebrate with their fans. As they did so, Kansas players and fans, and sports commentators throughout the country, struggled to come to grips with what had just happened. Fate had had a cruel miscarriage. KU had lost. It was not supposed to end this way for the composed Kansas team. This was the Jayhawks’ year. Jim Nantz, a sports commentator for CBS, shook his head and told his audience that the “nation is shocked.” He added that the “pain [that Kansas players, coaches, and fans feel] will not go away for a long time.”
In the Kansas locker room, the players fought back tears and prepared for their post-game press conference. Williams gathered the team around him and told them that sometimes “life was not necessarily fair.” When asked by a reporter a few minutes later how he felt, Vaughn answered in a barely audible whisper, “Sometimes, the best teams do not win.” Williams, Pollard, and sportswriters echoed Vaughn’s sentiment. In Kansas and Missouri newspapers, sports columnists fumbled about to figure out what it was that had been missing from the 1996-97 Jayhawk team. They could find nothing. (The first criticisms of the team lacking “toughness” did not emerge for more than a year.) Jason Whitlock, a sportswriter for the Kansas City Star, concluded, “maybe all [the team’s seniors] were missing for four years was luck.” “Whatever it was,” he continued, he was sure that it was “irrelevant in the game of life. But it would have made all the difference in the NCAA Tournament.”
For the super-competitive Williams, the loss proved especially difficult to swallow as he had acquired the reputation of being the best college coach never to have won a title. His mentor, the legendary Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina had been a head coach for 21 years before he won his first title, but in the aftermath of the loss Williams claimed that he was not sure if he “could wait that long, [or even] if [he] could live that long.” At least one Kansas City journalist feared that the coach would take the loss too hard. Williams proved resilient and promised the he would “keep on knocking on the door” because “one of these times [he and his team would] kick the sucker down.”
Fans of the team and the reporters who had covered it sought to find an explanation for the Jayhawks’ tournament collapse, but found only a long list of “what-ifs.” What if Haase’s wrist had not finally given out? (The starting guard had played only 14 minutes in the Sweet 16 contest – only four of those in the second half. Surely the presence of the best perimeter defender on the KU squad would have helped slow down Arizona’s trio of guards – Simon, Bibby, and Michael Dickerson – who had combined for 58 points.) What if Kansas’s big men had been more aggressive offensively? (Arizona had shot 27 free throws while KU had shot only 13.) What if Vaughn had made the two free throws he missed in the first half? What if Arizona had missed some free throws at the end? What if Pollard had not gotten into foul trouble and had to spend nine minutes of the second half on the bench? What if LaFrentz had shown up in the first half of the game? What if KU had simply allowed its hot player, Pierce – who was really the Jayhawks’ lone bright spot in the game – to create on his own? “What if,” an article in the Topeka Capital-Journal concluded, “we back up a couple of days, pretend this didn’t happen and play it again?”
Kansas fans would have liked nothing more, but it was not to be. More than 4,000 people turned out at Allen Fieldhouse on March 22 to welcome home the best regular-season team in KU history. With their voices cracking and tears in their eyes, the players addressed their equally distraught supporters. As they passed the microphone around to speak, the crowd dutifully cheered. Vaughn received the warmest ovation and with characteristic humility told the crowd, “We’re not worthy.” When LaFrentz and Pierce took their turns, the assembly burst into chants designed to persuade the underclassmen to spurn the NBA and return for the following season.
It was small consolation to the Jayhawks and their fans that the Arizona team went on to defeat two more No. 1 seeds to claim the national title. The Jayhawk faithful steadfastly maintained their claim that KU was the best team in the nation. To be sure, their contention was not entirely unsubstantiated. Even Simon of Arizona had claimed after his team’s victory over the Jayhawks “this probably isn’t going to make them feel any better, but Kansas probably is the best team in the country over a full season.” More than four years later, Branstrom, now a teacher and basketball coach at Lawrence High School, maintained that if the 1996-97 Arizona and Kansas teams were to have played 10 games, KU would have won the vast majority of them. The reserve forward hastened to add, however, that part of what makes March Madness so exciting is the single elimination format of the tournament. He reticently conceded that on the night of March 21, 1997 the Arizona Wildcats had simply outplayed his Jayhawks. And in the NCAA Tournament, a team need only be better than its opponent for a single night.
Though dimmed by time, the pain of the loss lingers. Jayhawk fans have since witnessed several seasons of exhilarating wins and agonizing losses, though none of the losses has carried with it the enormous sense of unfulfilled expectations that attended the last game of the 1996-97 season. If Branstrom is typical of the players, they still do not care to reflect back over the loss. (Until July 2001, Branstrom had not so much as glanced at a single account of the game.) As for Coach Williams, he has continued to “knock on the door” in the hope of bringing the national championship trophy to Lawrence, but has not yet assembled a group of guys quite up to the task of “kicking the sucker down” with him. Perhaps his time will soon come.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas