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It’s gutsy not to root for gutsy KU

By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star

Out here, the party is wherever you want it to be. The party is wherever you are. The sun is shining, 80 degrees or so, the beer and hurricanes cool to the touch.

People here are smiling, many of them wearing something with a Jayhawk on it. They laugh, high-five, toast and of course drink to one of the truly cool stories in an otherwise mostly miserable recent history of Kansas City sports. The Kansas basketball team that won’t quit is playing Kentucky for college basketball’s championship tonight.

Back home, the Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since Travis Releford was 3 years old. The Royals have one winning season since 1994. Missouri and Kansas State have had nice moments, sure, but nothing quite like the national spotlight now focused on the Jayhawks.

In a different world, this would be Kansas City’s respite. Our escape. Our chance to collectively dump the disappointment that’s become the DNA of our sports existence for a shot at a championship.

But in this world, the one with our divided college sports scene, proud Kansas Citians who want nothing but the best for their hometown are working through complicated and conflicted emotions.

If you were famished, would you eat a meal cooked by your sworn enemy?

And if so, could you enjoy it?

“I hate this,” said Drew Beaven, a UMKC senior. “It’s so annoying. I like it that the Midwest is flexing and all of that. I’m a diehard MU fan, but I’m also a reasonable guy. I’m going to enjoy it a little bit, if Kansas wins. My friends will hate me saying that.

“But I’ve never seen the Royals in the playoffs. Never seen the Chiefs do really well. I’ve never seen that. I don’t have a lot to root for.”

In the last 25 years, the Royals have been mostly terrible, the Chiefs are 3-10 in the playoffs, Kansas State’s biggest moment is a Fiesta Bowl, and Missouri’s might be beating KU at Arrowhead Stadium in the 2007 regular season.

In that same time period, KU basketball has played in seven Final Fours, claimed two national championships and won more games than any program in the country.

What makes it even worse for everyone else is how this season has played out. These Jayhawks have become something of a national phenomenon because don’t most of us want our teams to be this gutsy, this persistent, this tough?

Wouldn’t most of us adore a team that wins four consecutive NCAA Tournament games that were within a point in the last four minutes?

Take Tyshawn Taylor, for instance. In a world with no predisposed rooting interests — if Taylor played for Minnesota or Rutgers or some other school you neither love nor hate — you’d probably like this guy.

He hasn’t known his father much, so his mom doubled as his AAU coach for a while. He still talks about support from the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and when he played point guard for one of the best high school teams in the country as a senior, he became a major recruit despite averaging just 10 points and five assists.

Successes and failures and emotions are easy to read on Taylor’s body, especially his face and shoulders, and there is something encapsulating about that vulnerability. His is a life defined by problems, some of them his own doing but the more important ones certainly not. And we’ve seen him push and pull and curse and smile through four years of it.

“I think I had a nickname earlier this season: ‘Tyshawn Turnover Taylor,’ ” he said. “I had that nickname. But I haven’t heard that in a while. Not because I haven’t been turning the ball over. But we’ve been winning, so nobody cares, you know what I’m saying?”

You might not like a lot of things about this team. Taylor’s Twitter rant a few months ago was beneath a senior point guard. Thomas Robinson has inspired many with his personal journey and turned off others with a raw on-court swagger. Bill Self is building a case as the nation’s best coach but hasn’t made friends outside KU fans for his stance on ending the Border War.

Mostly, though, this is a group hell-bent on never quitting. Even down 11 to Purdue or 13 to Ohio State, these kids tell one another they’re about to win.

When Self gets especially frustrated, Elijah Johnson sometimes tells him: “Coach, next play. Next play.” Many around the country have fallen for this team’s indomitable spirit.

“They’ve got a great will to win,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “It’s been amazing. With all they lost, for Bill to put that team together, do what they’ve done? It’s phenomenal. I can’t begin to tell you.”

In a different world, more people back home would get behind this story.

But in this world, Kansas basketball carrying the flag for local championship-level teams is as divisive as the tea party-vs.-Occupy movement.

The outcome of tonight’s game won’t change feelings back in Kansas City as much as it’ll crystallize them. This is what sports are these days: one part entertainment and two parts platform to brag or talk trash.

This is a wild ride the Jayhawks are on. The narrative about losses to Bucknell and Northern Iowa was fading anyway. But now the reputation of KU as a program that lost games it should have won is buried under high-definition images of the Jayhawks winning games they could have lost.

This is a historical powerhouse playing with the kind of guts we usually see from midmajors.

For the portion of our city that roots for the Jayhawks, this is sort of like an unplanned holiday.

For everyone else, it is much closer to a nightmare.

This is what our Kansas City sports scene is. And in a lot of important ways, this is a critical part of the fun.

“All my KU friends, I’ve been giving them so much (stuff),” said Beaven, the Mizzou fan. “I’m like: ‘Oh KU, why didn’t you guys show up for the Big 12 championship game? We were waiting for you.’ And now they’re going to win the national championship?

“That’s so annoying.”

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him on Twitter at mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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