As the University of Kansas’s men’s basketball team prepared for the 1988 Big Eight Tournament, the University Daily Kansan looked back on a season “full of twists and turns.” Indeed a series of peaks and valleys had marked the 1987-1988 season as the Jayhawks had staved off injuries and roster adjustments, saw their 55-game home winning streak snapped by archrival Kansas State, and had even lost five of six games at one point. With the regular season over, KU stood with a respectable, but hardly intimidating, record of 20 wins and 10 losses.
Although the Kansan was loath to admit it, the season had proven disappointing. KU had begun the season ranked in the top ten in both the Coaches and Associated Press polls. Led by Danny Manning, the pre-season favorite for National Player of the Year honors, KU also retained enough of the previous year’s quality players to look like a legitimate contender for a spot in the Final Four.
However, for a while in early 1988, when the Kansas team had stumbled to a 12-8 start, it seemed possible that KU might not receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament at all. The team had managed to turn things around, however, toward the end of the season, and even following a 15-point loss to K-State in the second round of the Big Eight Tournament, the Jayhawks, though unranked, were a virtual lock to make the NCAA Tournament Field. Nonetheless, they certainly could not anticipate a particularly high seed.
As the sixth seed in the Midwest regional, the Jayhawks drew the 11th-seeded Xavier Musketeers of Cincinnati, Ohio. Although Xavier had not played a top-20 team all season, its impressive 26-3 record had led to a ranking of 18 in the AP poll. Xavier coach Pete Gillen could not understand how his team could draw so low a seed, but readied the Musketeers to play a talented, but thus far underachieving KU team. Gillen had his hands full before the game even began as he struggled to downplay the trash talking done by some of his players. (Newspapermen quoted Xavier’s center as saying, “All they’ve got is Manning. I’m guarding him. No problem.”)
Further adding to Gillen’s woes was the fact that Cincinnati sportswriters managed to turn the Lincoln, Nebraska crowd against Xavier by referring to the Cornhusker State as “a Siberia with 7-Elevens.” After KU knocked off the Musketeers 85-72, Kansas coach Larry Brown noted that the atmosphere of the game “was almost like playing at home.” Despite the fact that 32 teams received more votes in the final AP poll than KU, Gillen claimed that his team had “lost to one of the top ten programs in America.” Though the Musketeer coach would be proven right, the rest of the country still needed convincing.
The Jayhawks next drew the 14th-seeded Murray State Racers, who had upset the third-seeded North Carolina State Wolfpack, in the second round. The prototypical “Cinderella” team, the Racers led Kansas 58-57 in this game with less than a minute to go. Then Manning hit a basket with a little more than thirty seconds left in the game to give the Jayhawks the lead, but in so doing gave Murray State the ball with the shot clock turned off and a chance to hold for the last shot of the game. With one second left, Manning rebounded the miss of a Racers’ player’s four-foot jumper. Fate had smiled on Brown’s team and the coach knew it. (He would later refer to the game as the one “lucky” game his team needed to win the tournament.) Having knocked off the 11th and 14th-seeded teams, KU had advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
Moving from Lincoln to Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome, Kansas prepared to play the Vanderbilt Commodores, who had earned a trip to the Motor City by upsetting the second-seeded Pittsburgh Panthers. In an odd twist of fate, the fourth-seeded Kansas State Wildcats also found themselves in the Silverdome. A victory by K-State over the top-seeded Purdue Boilermakers would pit them for the fourth time of the season against their cross-state rivals, if the Jayhawks could manage a win as well. Led by Manning’s 38 points, KU held up its part of the bargain in the first game of March 25. Many K-State supporters had rooted for KU in this contest. To return the favor, numerous Jayhawk fans – perhaps motivated by Big Eight pride, perhaps out of a loyalty to their home state – stuck around to cheer the Wildcats on to 73-70 victory over the No. 1 seed in the day’s second game.
The two Kansas schools thus found themselves in the peculiar position of playing against each other for a berth in the Final Four. The teams had competed 214 times before, but never with so much on the line. Kansans were energized about the game, Michigan residents, of course, were less so. Nonetheless a respectable crowd of 31,632 fans showed up to watch the regional final in an arena that sat 50,000. K-State led by two at halftime, but, despite holding Manning to only 20 points (his tournament low), simply could not contain Kansas in the second half. The Jayhawks outscored the Wildcats 44-29 during the final 20 minutes. Having knocked off no team seeded higher than fourth in its region, KU had advanced to the Final Four. In a stroke of good fortune, the Jayhawks would play these deciding games just a stone’s throw from Lawrence in Kansas City’s Kemper Arena.
Duke, Arizona, and the Big Eight champion Oklahoma Sooners joined the Jayhawks in the Final Four. There was no question as to which team was the biggest underdog. In the final AP poll of the regular season, the three other teams had all earned a top-five ranking; KU was not even ranked. The aggregate losses of Duke, Arizona, and Oklahoma added up to 11 – the amount Kansas had incurred by itself. No team had ever won a national title when it had accumulated more than ten losses. (Although in 1985, Philadelphia’s Villanova University had won the title despite having lost ten times.)
The Jayhawks drew Duke in the national semifinal, creating something of a re-match. Two years earlier, Manning had led a more talented team than the 1987-88 Jayhawks to the Final Four, but had played perhaps the worst game of his career, scoring only four points. That time, the Jayhawks lost to the Blue Devils. And roughly a month earlier, Duke had marched into Allen Field House and recorded a 74-70 overtime victory against the home team. This history notwithstanding, KU remained confident. Senior forward Chris Piper summed up the team’s perspective when he asserted that “We had a chance to pay back Kansas State and we did. Now we have a chance against Duke and hopefully Oklahoma.”
Meanwhile, as KU prepared to play Duke, rumors circulated throughout the country that Larry Brown intended to leave Lawrence to coach at UCLA the following year. Brown did what he could to minimize the distraction and repeatedly told reporters that questions about his future with KU were not fair. He advised the Los Angeles Times that he “was busy coaching KU and trying to win the national championship,” but he never flatly denied the rumor or even his interest in the position. Despite this uncertainty, the Jayhawks were ready to play when the first game of the Final Four tipped off.
Kansas shot out to a 24-6 lead midway through the first half and headed to the locker room leading by 11. The Jayhawk lead grew to 16 points in the second half before Duke started chipping away at it. With two-and-a-half minutes to go, KU led by only three. Thanks to some solid free throw shooting on KU’s part (and some erratic three-point shooting by the Blue Devils) Kansas succeeded in avenging its losses to Duke and held on for 66-59 victory. The team’s defense, outstanding all tournament, held Duke to 34.4 percent shooting for the game. Quin Snyder, a Duke guard who had torched KU for 21 points in Allen Field House earlier in the season, was held to nine points. (Snyder would later become the coach of KU’s most bitter basketball rival, Missouri.)
Having dispensed with K-State and Duke, the Jayhawks had gained the chance to avenge their two losses to Oklahoma, which had knocked off Arizona in the other national semifinal. As a result, two teams from the Big Eight Conference were set to square off for the national title for the first time in NCAA history. The Vegas odds-makers made OU an eight-point favorite, but KU believed in its chances nonetheless. In the pre-game interviews, Brown acknowledged that the Sooners looked like the best team in the country. However, he added, “In both games we had a chance to win and our kids understand that.”
Oklahoma had earned a reputation for winning lopsided victories and running up the score. The Sooners’ confidence bordered on bravado, their manner came close to arrogance. They dared teams to run with them, but coaches and commentators knew not to bother. The way to beat the Sooners was to dictate the tempo of the game. It was, of course, easier said than done. Oklahoma embraced the role of the bad guys and reveled in the references by opposing fans to their “evil empire.” Before games and after victories, the Sooner players performed their signature “Cabbage Patch” dance. Some of them had even danced on the rims after securing a berth in the Final Four. In a football-dominated school like OU, the basketball team had a chance to steal the show from that season’s gridiron team, which had blown a sure national championship by losing its bowl game.
Thus it was that the 50th NCAA championship pitted the underdog Jayhawks against the powerful Sooners in what would be a classic athletic drama. The Big Eight could not have been more excited, but the rest of America took a pass. (The matchup earned the lowest Nielsen rating that a championship game had drawn since moving to prime time fifteen years earlier.) Those who chose not to watch missed one for the ages.
Perhaps due the excitement of the moment, KU abandoned its plan to control the pace of the game and ran with the Sooners for the first half. After 20 minutes of play, the score was knotted at 50. The statistics, however, alarmed Brown in the locker room at the half. The Jayhawks had shot an astounding 71 percent while OU had shot less than 50 percent, but the score was still tied. Brown admonished his players to slow the tempo of the game. Although they realized the need to utilize the clock better in the second half, the KU players felt confident having played OU-style basketball against the Sooners without falling behind.
As the Jayhawks managed to break the Sooner press in the second half, they succeeded in slowing the pace. Even so, hot shooting by Oklahoma saw the Sooners take an early five-point lead. Kansas tied the game again with just over 10 minutes to play, and the score remained even with 6:13 left in the game. The Jayhawks went on a 6-0 run to claim a 77-71 lead with slightly more than three minutes to play. However, KU then missed four of its next five free throws, and with less than a minute remaining, Oklahoma guard Mookie Blaylock hit a jumper that brought the Sooners to within one point. After Kansas had killed almost 25 seconds, Blaylock fouled Jayhawk forward Scooter Barry. Barry sank the first free throw, but missed the second. Manning, however, came up with a clutch rebound and drew a foul. He calmly buried both attempts. OU guard Ricky Grace pulled his team within two by sinking a jump shot with fewer than ten seconds to go. Sooner coach Billy Tubbs called timeout and hoped that his team, which had led the nation in steals, could find a way to grab one more. Kansas, however, managed to inbound the ball to Manning who, after being fouled, sealed KU’s victory with his 30th and 31st points of the game.
At the post-game press conference, Manning, who had closed out his collegiate career with a career-high 18 rebounds, asked the reporters, “How do you like us now?” Even as Manning and his fellow players answered questions about the game, their season, and what it was like to be part of the first unranked team to win the title, students in Lawrence began to celebrate KU’s first NCAA championship in 36 years. Thousands of students poured onto Jayhawk Boulevard and an impromptu rally quickly developed in front of Wescoe Hall. Chants of “We’re No. 1” mingled with the refrains of “Crimson and Blue” and melted into the “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk” yell. Jokes about “Choke-lahoma” circulated through the crowd. Judith A Ramaley, KU executive vice chancellor, announced shortly after the game that the next day’s classes would be cancelled. Given a day off from classes, the partying continued into the wee hours of the morning, with some gatherings persisting until nearly 5:00 a.m.
The celebration resumed after the students had roused themselves the next day. Roughly 30,000 fans crowded into Memorial Stadium to greet the returning Jayhawks that afternoon. The team arrived at the stadium in their bus at 1:15 PM and was greeted by what the University Daily Kansan described as a “deafening roar.” The team, cheerleaders, and fans all joined together in a mock rendition of the Sooners’ “Cabbage Patch” dance. The screams of appreciation for Coach Brown, whom the students feared would be leaving, were exceeded only by those for Manning, who had been named the tournament’s MVP. The players took turns at the microphone. Marvin Mattox, who played football as well as basketball, looked out over the crowd and joked that he “was wondering where everybody was at for football season.” When Manning took his turn, the stadium exploded into chants of “Dan-ny, Dan-ny.” Addressing the crowd, he claimed to “have one question,” and then yelled, “Does this feel good?”
And surely it did feel good for the University. The improbable run of the 1987-88 Jayhawks to the national championship was a high point for KU athletics. But the moment was fleeting. After a parade about a week later in which 60,000 people turned out to celebrate the success of the team that had come to be known as “Danny and the Miracles,” the excitement over the victory predictably faded as concerns about final exams and summer plans replaced the exultation that had accompanied the national title.
The NCAA victory marked the last national title a KU sports team would win in the twentieth century. It was also the last game in which Manning would play or Brown would coach for Kansas. The Los Angeles Clippers would select Manning with the first pick of the NBA draft. (Although a series of knee injuries would prevent him from developing into one of the league’s premier players, he would manage to put together a fairly respectable professional career.) As a senior, Manning’s exit was expected; Brown’s was only slightly less so.
Less than seventy-two hours after the buzzer sounded in the championship game, Brown decided to leave KU for UCLA. A short time later he reneged on his decision, and promised KU fans he would return. Unconvinced, basketball commentator Dick Vitale vowed to scrub the floor of Allen Field House with a toothbrush if Brown returned to Kansas. The colorful announcer would never have to make good on his promise.
NBA dollars lured Brown to abandon collegiate coaching. He went first to the San Antonio Spurs, following that stint with five other NBA coaching jobs. In the process, he built a reputation as one of the best coaches in the game. In 2001, he coached the Philadelphia 76ers to the championship series where, despite losing, his team managed to spoil the Lakers dreams of becoming the first team to go through the NBA’s post-season undefeated.
In the meantime, KU hired a little known assistant coach from North Carolina
by the name of Roy Williams to replace Brown. Williams, despite an inauspicious
inaugural season in which the Jayhawks were placed on probation and denied an
invitation to the NCAA Tournament, would turn out to be a more than adequate
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas