As I See It

KU’s camping tradition adds meaning to the game

Updated: 2013-11-23T23:25:24Z

By ELISE REUTER

The Kansas City Star

As students file into the half-empty bleachers of Allen Fieldhouse at 5:30 a.m., the court is unusually serene, a freshly waxed floor reflecting the fluorescent glow of stadium lights overhead. On the north wall, five national championship banners hang proudly beneath an ominous warning to opponents: “Pay heed, all who enter, Beware of ‘The Phog,’ ” serving as a nod to Kansas’ history under legendary basketball coach Forrest “Phog” Allen.

This is lottery, the game of chance students enter to draw seats for future basketball games. Contenders form groups of five to 30; larger groups are given extra chances to draw a better number. But an hour later, after lottery comes to a close, the real competition begins. Every group must send at least one member to camp daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the Fieldhouse to hold their place in line. Roll is called periodically throughout the day, and if your group is a no-show, you lose your hard-earned seats.

The process repeats itself weekly following every home game until March, when exhausted fans can celebrate a successful post-season.

Lottery is a Kansas basketball tradition that pits fan against fan for the best seats in the house. It is a test of teamwork, passion and the ability to wake up at ungodly hours to sit on the cold, hard floor of the Fieldhouse for several hours at a time. It is one of the few times college students can be spotted before 6 a.m., many groggy-eyed, sporting KU sweatpants and quietly nursing cups of coffee.

There’s an art to organizing thousands of students to draw for seats in a timely manner. And with players like top-recruit Andrew Wiggins on the team, the numbers have only increased.

On Nov. 6, a Wednesday morning, 2,031 eager fans crowded into the Fieldhouse to draw numbers for KU’s season-opener against Louisiana-Monroe. That’s more than half of KU’s allotted 4,000-seat student section in one room, before dawn. It’s astounding, if not concerning. Fans speculate that this season will be the one when seats run short.

The lottery starts with students nervously fishing around in a sack filled with chips, each printed with a number that will determine which groups get first dibs on choosing seats at the next game. Whenever a group draws a one or two, a loud cheer echoes through the rafters, while groups drawing a 300 or above will silently trudge out of the stadium, their efforts in vain.

By some magic, the Fieldhouse remains quite civil. Friends and strangers bond to form camping groups, coming up with pun-loaded names including “The Wonderful Wiggins of Oz,” “Tharpe Attack,” and my personal favorite, “Finding Niko.” The trick is to select your group carefully because you will be stuck with them for the duration of the season — these are the people you will be trusting to hold your seats.

The true camping experience takes place leading up to the game, when the Fieldhouse floor is crowded with students napping on air mattresses or fold-up chairs. In a pinch, an overstuffed backpack will suffice.

Many memories surface out of the camping community, perhaps a rare conversation with a friend you haven’t seen in a year or a new acquaintance with a stranger sitting nearby. Sometimes Coach Bill Self appears out of nowhere — with doughnuts — in the tradition of Roy Williams, and Larry Brown before him. The building brims with history, and these moments add to its story.

When I think of KU basketball, I will remember the times my group returned in the nipping cold from a successful lottery to celebrate with omelets. As the eggs cooked on the stove, we exchanged our predictions for the upcoming season, stories about past games, our hopes and dreams for the future. These moments are where friendships are strengthened and traditions are formed.

To reach Elise Reuter, a junior at KU and an intern for The Star’s editorial page, send email to oped@kcstar.com.

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