NCAA Tournament

Kansas City proved the NCAA Tournament could work

As you consider your NCAA Tournament plans this week, as you pore over the closest relationship in all of sports between event and fan — filling out a bracket — tip your hat to Kansas City.

The 2013 NCAA Tournament is the 75th, and plenty of recognition is planned for the Final Four next month in Atlanta.

Great players, coaches, teams moments will be remembered, as they were at the 50th Final Four at Kemper Arena in 1988.

But you also should know how and why this thing called March Madness got started, and why Kansas City should take pride in its historical role. It was here that the NCAA Tournament became a national fixture, so it’s fitting the event returns this year with second- and third-round games at the Sprint Center on Friday and Sunday with prominent programs Kansas, Kansas State, North Carolina, Villanova and Wisconsin.

On the second floor, just off the top of the stairs of the College Basketball Experience, is a display that pays tribute to tournament college basketball in Kansas City.

“I didn’t know about all of this,” said Chelsea Montgomery, 25, a medical student at the University of Kansas who was taking in last week’s Big 12 Tournament at the Sprint Center.

“I knew about Kansas’ history, but not about Kansas City. This is something.”

From its earliest days more than century ago, basketball was a Midwest favorite. A goal could hang from a barn or pole and large participation numbers weren’t required, making the game popular not only in the city but in small Missouri and Kansas communities.

In Depression-gripped America, college basketball was finding a place in the sporting culture. Doubleheaders attracted large crowds at Madison Square Garden. As radio started beaming information into homes throughout the country, a powerhouse program was growing at Kentucky and began to capture a nation’s fancy.

In the late 1930s, the college game had swelled to a point that a national event seemed inevitable. Reporters wondered how the regional styles — the rough and tumble East, the patterned play of the Midwest, the finesse of the West — would match up.

Then it happened, not one national tournament but two. But neither was operated by the NCAA.

In 1937, the organization that would become the NAIA staged its first tournament at new Municipal Auditorium. Eight schools from five states battled it out and Central Missouri was the champion. The event netted a $28 profit.

With its championship set for Tuesday night at Municipal, the NAIA Division I men’s basketball championship remains the nation’s longest continuous national basketball tournament.

In 1938, the true inspiration for the NCAA Tournament was launched — the National Invitation Tournament.

College hoops burst onto the New York sports scene for competition and gambling opportunities, and a sportswriters organization, the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association of New York, staged the first NIT.

The group paid the expenses and shared the gate with eight schools. Temple defeated Colorado for the inaugural title in 1938.

The coaches who participated loved it. Those who didn’t, especially in the Midwest, were envious and motivated.

Less than a month after the event, at a meeting of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, the NIT became the burning issue. Why, some coaches wanted to know, should a postseason tournament be operated by a sportswriters group? Shouldn’t the schools organize — and profit — from the event?

Three prominent coaches formed the committee to get this done: Kansas’ Phog Allen, Ohio State’s Harold Olsen and Stanford’s John Bunn, who had played for Allen. The original statement, the letter of intent, was dated May 24, 1938, sent from Olsen’s office to W.B. Owens, a Stanford professor who was serving as the NCAA president.

“This committee is to communicate with and petition the NCAA to take basketball ‘under its wing’ in much the same way as it sponsored national collegiate championship contests and track and field, swimming, wrestling, golf and tennis.”

NCAA approval came on Oct. 3, 1938, and the first NCAA Tournament would be conducted in 1939, operated by the NABC for the NCAA.

The madness had arrived, and people, especially Allen, were mad all right. As in angry.

Three weeks before the inaugural NCAA Tournament, there was no site to bring champions from the East and West. Finally, Olsen got in touch with Northwestern coach Dutch Lonborg, the former Kansas All-American who cleared the schedule for his building. Many of the 5,500 at Patten Gym in Evanston, Ill., who watched Oregon defeat Ohio State on March, 27, 1939, for the first championship, were allowed in free to create atmosphere.

The site wasn’t the only headache. Turned out, not everybody wanted to play, or even knew what the tournament was about. Missouri, which shared the Big Six title that year with Oklahoma, and Missouri Valley champion Drake, turned down invitations because the schools didn’t want to miss class time.

“(T)he worst of it was when Missouri pulled out it looked like we were running a sideshow,” Allen wrote to Olsen that summer in summarizing the first tournament.

Even a team that played wasn’t thrilled about it. Ohio State first had to travel to Philadelphia for a four-team regional, then to Chicago for the final. Jim Huff, a senior captain for the team, told the Chicago Tribune in a 1990 interview, “We had no desire to go. We wanted to go watch the Ohio state high school basketball tournament.”

To make matters worse, the first NCAA Tournament also was a bust at the bank, losing $2,531. The NABC didn’t have the funds in its account, and was happy when the NCAA accepted an offer to underwrite the loss and become financially responsible for future tournaments.

If there were to be any future tournaments.

Allen stepped in, and in his Aug. 11, 1939, letter to Olsen he essentially said Kansas City would make the tournament a success.

“I have never had charge of any tournament that we have ever lost money on, and I’m not boasting in saying that” Allen wrote.

He wasn’t. As an 18-year-old, Allen had organized the 1905 challenge series between the Buffalo Germans and the Kansas City Athletic Club that drew huge crowds to old Convention Hall and turned a tidy profit. He was a fixture at the national AAU tournaments in Kansas City in the 1920s that drew huge crowds, and he also had seen how the NAIA Tournament had quickly grown at Municipal.

Bring the NCAA Western playoffs and championship to Kansas City, Allen said, and the event will profit.

The tournament was awarded to the Heartland.

Another financial loss and the plug might have been pulled on the enterprise, or at least delayed its growth.

But Allen made certain the 1940 tournament wouldn’t fail. He started cranking out publicity in September and October, moving tickets months before the event.

“Dad worked so hard on that,” said Bob Allen, a guard on that 1940 team and Phog Allen’s son said in a 1994 interview. “He wanted to be sure everything was right.”

As if to leave nothing to chance, Allen put together a powerhouse team that included Ralph Miller, who went on to a Hall of Fame coaching career, Howard Engleman and Dick Harp. The Jayhawks reached the Western finals and defeated Southern California in a one-point thriller.

A week later, in the second national championship game tipped off, and it wasn’t much of a game. Indiana beat Kansas by 18.

But the real story was the game’s presence. It was a happening. Municipal’s blue leather seats sparkled. Walls were decorated in red, white and blue banners and streamers. Before tip-off, the lights were dimmed and a tribute was paid to James Naismith, the game’s inventor and longtime Kansas professor who had died four months earlier.

A capacity of crowd of 10,000 packed Municipal, and the crowd included all major basketball organizations, like the NABC.

Hoosiers athletic director Z.G. Clevenger sent a letter of congratulations to the organizer, who happened to be the losing coach.

“Let me take this opportunity of congratulating you upon staging such a successful final game, financially and otherwise.” Clevenger wrote. “(You) could have sold two or three times as many tickets as were sold if it would have been possible to get them in the auditorium. You proved that there is no place up to the present at least that can equal Kansas City in backing such a tournament.”

The best news: $9,522.55 in profit.

Municipal Auditorium played host to the next two championship games and six more in the 1950s and 1960s — after the NCAA had moved its national office to Kansas City. Nine NCAA men’s basketball champions have been crowed at Municipal, more than any other building.

Also, Municipal’s 13 regional finals are the most of any building, and more NCAA Tournament games (122) have been played in Kansas City than anyplace else.

The first ones, in 1940, proved it would work.

The Final Four as we know it today won’t return to Kansas City.

It’s been nearly 20 years since the championship was played in a basketball arena that seats fewer than 20,000. Since then, the national semifinals and championship game have held exclusively in domes and football-specific stadiums.

When Kansas City votes didn’t approve the 2006 ballot measure to put a rolling roof on Arrowhead Stadium, the city lost its chance of becoming a Final Four host.

But Kansas City should remain part of the NCAA Tournament rotation for regionals. This week’s games at Sprint Center marks the second NCAA stop here since the building opened in 2007.

Visitors to the tournament may wander into the building attached to Sprint Center, the College Basketball Experience, and if they go upstairs, a history lesson awaits.

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