Before we get to the real and personal reason Kansas and Missouri will finally play a men’s basketball game, we should address the question you are probably wondering:
Does playing an exhibition on Sunday, Oct. 22 at Sprint Center to benefit disaster relief mean they will soon play a real basketball game?
Bill Self, the KU coach and currently the most influential man on either campus, answered that question directly.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with playing Missouri,” he said. “Not one thing with playing Missouri.”
But, consciously or not, he also answered the question as purely, rawly and honestly as he possibly could when referencing why he had to tell his players about the game on Thursday instead of after the game became official on Friday.
“Somebody across state lines leaked it,” Self said.
In those six words is everything you need to know about why a fiercely proud man is digging deeper in his refusal to schedule one of the greatest rivalries in college athletics. The first four words are a passive aggressive way of not using Mizzou’s name, and the last two words are a clear lack of trust.
Which leads into the real and personal reason this game is happening.
Because Self was the lead on this. He’s the one who brought it up at the August board meeting of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, the one whose sweat and muscle pushed the NCAA to approve the game, and the one who called MU coach Cuonzo Martin to set it up.
You can imagine Self’s reaction when the news first came out of Columbia, and before the game even had approval.
It is bizarre, too. Self continually attempts to downplay the scope of his influence, but there is no doubt that if he wasn’t angry with how Mizzou left — the lack of trust goes back a ways — the rivalry never would’ve ended.
But Self has a very personal reason to want to do this charity game. It was his father’s idea.
He didn’t mention that specifically in his public comments on Friday, making only a vague reference to an attempt to raise money after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
His dad was then the head of the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association, and the idea was awesome in scope and spirit: every school from the highest levels of Division I all the way down through Division III, junior colleges and high schools would schedule one more game, with all the money going to Katrina victims.
Think about that. Thousands of games, across the country, to help those in need. The most high-profile colleges might be able to raise seven figures in one night, and high school games might generate just a few hundred dollars. But put it all together, and you could have $50 million, maybe more, with thousands and thousands of people in the cause.
The NCAA shot it down. Too complicated, too broad and not enough time.
“You know at the time,” Self said, “I remember my dad telling me, ‘Who knows if we’ll ever have another Katrina?’ Well, now we’ve had a few.”
When the disasters hit, Self went back to his dad’s idea, and this is where two sides of him conflicted.
He is fundamentally opposed to playing Mizzou, but if he was going to play an exhibition for charity, how could he do it against anyone else?
First, the obvious. The game will generate a small fortune, with courtside tickets expected to go for $200 and even seats in the upper bowl commanding $50. The timing is fortunate, with so much more optimism and energy around Mizzou’s program, but even without Michael Porter Jr. leading one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, the nature of the rivalry means this scenario was always going to raise the most money.
Also, part of the NCAA approval is that expenses are cut to a bare minimum. No bands. No cheerleaders. Not even any comp tickets, except for players’ families and for people working the game to get in. The schools’ only expenses are the bus and per diem, which won’t be taken out of the proceeds.
So if the options for a game like this are limited to schools close enough for a day trip on a bus, well, would you rather see Kansas play Missouri or UMKC?
Self has a physical reaction to the suggestion that this means he’s softening on Mizzou. He’s heard that, too, as well as the loud and clear objections of some major boosters who’d rather write a check than watch the game.
But there was no way out of this for Self without conflict. He wanted to honor his father’s idea, and once the game is happening, a refusal to do it against Mizzou would’ve meant less money for people in desperate need.
So, sure. He’ll play Missouri now. This once. For charity, and in some ways for his father.
Those of us who wish he would and think he should change his mind on playing a real game will have to keep waiting.