Blair Kerkhoff

This year’s Midwest Region teams helped write Kansas City’s hoops history

Danny and the Miracles, better known as the late-1980s Kansas Jayhawks basketball team, celebrated a national championship at Kemper Arena in April 1988.
Danny and the Miracles, better known as the late-1980s Kansas Jayhawks basketball team, celebrated a national championship at Kemper Arena in April 1988. AP

That familiar feeling in Kansas City this week is the return of the NCAA Tournament.

It’s coming home.

The Midwest Region semifinals on Thursday bring Kansas, Oregon, Purdue and Michigan to the Sprint Center. The winner will be off to the Final Four by Saturday night.

An NCAA Tournament round doesn’t appear in Kansas City as often as it used to, but that’s because the rest of the nation wanted in on what the city developed, and most of the schools participating this week had a hand in helping Kansas City become a college basketball capital, directly or indirectly.

Take Oregon.

The Ducks have appeared in Kansas City for a total of three games, two of them in the 1945 Western Regionals.

Six years earlier, Oregon won the first NCAA championship by defeating Ohio State. The game was played on the Northwestern campus in Evanston, Ill., a site that wasn’t established until three weeks before the game.

The first NCAA Tournament lost $2,500. The NCAA agreed to hold the tournament for another year, and Kansas coach Phog Allen promised a profit if the event was brought to Kansas City and its recently built Municipal Auditorium.

It was, and the title game won by Indiana over the Jayhawks played to a full house. The event proved to be enough of a success that the tournament unquestionably would continue. Kansas City played host to nine of the first 26 NCAA title games.

Municipal Auditorium held its last one in 1964, and for the first time Michigan qualified for the Final Four. The Wolverines lost to Duke in the semifinals despite Cazzie Russell’s 31 points and defeated Kansas State in the third-place game.

Michigan also was part of the first NCAA Tournament games played at the Sprint Center, beating Clemson and falling to Blake Griffin’s Oklahoma Sooners in 2009 early-round action.

Purdue hasn’t played a postseason game in Kansas City. But a chapter in the Boilermakers’ history will be on display in November when Rick Mount, the sharpshooting star guard who led Purdue to the 1969 championship game, is enshrined in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in the building connected to the Sprint Center.

Then there’s Kansas, with roots so deep in Kansas City that starting guard Devonté Graham said after beating Michigan State on Sunday that he was excited “to play in our hometown in our own state in front of the best fans in the world.”

The Missouri-Kansas thing can trip up non-natives like Graham, a North Carolinian. But Kansas City has a hometown feel for his team. The Jayhawks’ storied history began on Feb. 3, 1899, with a game in Kansas City. James Naismith fell to 0-1 as KU’s coach.

The program’s first postseason game of any kind occurred in 1936, with the Olympic Trials in Kansas City.

Danny (Manning) and the Miracles’ 1988 championship at Kemper Arena is the program’s most memorable moment in Kansas City. But the Jayhawks lost three other title games here, to Indiana in 1940 and 1953 and to North Carolina in 1957.

Those titles were the first for the Hoosiers and Tar Heels. UCLA also won its first championship here. So did Bill Russell with San Francisco.

No civic function involving basketball can occur in town without quoting the Kansas City superlatives: Most NCAA championships, most regional finals, most NCAA Tournament games.

It won’t always be that way. Everybody wants in on NCAA Tournament action. As host city for the opening round, Dayton, Ohio, soon will replace Kansas City as the site of most games.

What can’t be replaced, and should never be forgotten, is Kansas City’s role in basketball history, and the progress the game has made since then.

Amateur basketball tournaments became a happening in Kansas City long before the debut of the NCAA. The first big one tipped off in 1905. The Star ran brackets for national AAU tournaments as early as 1921.

The NCAA, Big 12 and NAIA — the nation’s longest-running continuous college basketball tournament concludes Tuesday at Municipal Auditorium — have or are planting a tournament flag in Kansas City. More nets have been cut here than any basketball burg.

Another one comes down Saturday. The tradition continues.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff

NCAA TOURNAMENT HOST CITIES DATA (1939-2016)

MOST NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES

▪ 10: Kansas City

▪ 7: Indianapolis; New York

MOST REGION CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES

▪ 17: Kansas City

▪ 11: East Rutherford, N.J.; Lexington, Ky.

MOST NCAA TOURNAMENT GAMES

▪ 128: Kansas City

▪ 113: Dayton, Ohio

▪ 92: Salt Lake City; Charlotte, N.C.

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