Back in the day, distraction was the trick to sneaking into Municipal Auditorium. Take it from one who had the technique down to what he called a science and wasn’t going to miss the 1964 Final Four just because he didn’t have a ticket.
As described by the practitioner, it worked like this. Two members of the group hovered to the side as a third approached a ticket-taker and launched into theatrics.
“‘I’ve lost my ticket,’” the third would say. “‘How can this be? Oh, what are we going to do?’ And make a big commotion and draw the attention of that guard. And, of course, we would sneak in then while he was distracted.”
Fifty years ago this week, that’s how Wyandotte High junior Lucius Allen stepped through a portal and into a transformative moment in college basketball history.
Amid perhaps the maddest March that Kansas City has ever seen, Allen’s presence alone at Municipal wasn’t so distinct from any of the 10,000-plus paying fans who were equally eager to be there.
But it also was much more. The uniquely Kansas City scene would be pivotal in the college choice of Allen, who’s still regarded as one of the two best basketball players to come out of the area.
And his college choice in turn would help ignite the popularity of the NCAA Tournament, and help make the ninth Final Four at the quaint and under-sized Muni the last.
Only months before, President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, an event that Allen remembered shocking him and shutting down Wyandotte High.
Only months later came the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a legislative milestone that would help change the landscape of discrimination in America.
The extremes were emblematic of that dizzying decade of turbulence and social progress. As the world was changing, so, too, was the sliver of it encapsulated in college basketball.
A harbinger of that, perhaps even a hub, came here — where, unfathomably now, the significance of the NAIA Tournament rivaled or even trumped that of the NCAA.
Even with the NCAA finale coming to town a week later, the most major local basketball story of the moment was Rockhurst winning the NAIA title on March 14 in a ridiculously raucous Municipal. It was the first national championship for a Kansas City pro or college team.
Rockhurst’s 66-56 win over Texas-Pan American was attended by 10,783 — officially just 81 fewer than the crowd for the NCAA title game between UCLA and Duke a week later.
Afterward, hundreds surged on the court, an action at the time that was virtually unprecedented but was bubbling all game.
“They came with tin horns, trumpets, crickets exhausting Kansas City toy and novelty shops (and) trash barrel lids to be used as impromptu cymbals,” The Star wrote at the time.
“Crickets” was a reference to toy clickers, explained Tom Schenkenberg, who later earned his Ph.D. in neuropsychology and now teaches at the University of Utah.
Schenkenberg was “the accidental trumpeter” in the story, he said, as he recalled the lengths his fraternity and other students went to get ready for the game.
He was of the mind they’d bought “every cricket” in Kansas City, mostly to be deployed while Pan Am was shooting free throws. Then there were the party horns, drums, pots and pans, spoons and trash-can lids that had been “borrowed” from around the Plaza area.
“I’m sure they wrote down the address numbers of those homes and returned them,” he said, laughing.
For his particular part, Schenkenberg drew on his past cornet-playing experience to blow “Charge,” which, in fact, was a novelty in itself.
As described then by The Star, the now well-worn tune was “a crowd gimmick used by fans of the San Diego Chargers of the American Football League.”
At game’s end, the crowd surged out of the Muni and blocked traffic across downtown, “as stalled motorists added to the din by tooting car horns,” The Star wrote.
Days later, the NCAA Tournament’s past and future converged.
In the early 1960s, the NCAA Tournament consisted of a 25-team field. Games were televised only sporadically via rights granted for $150,000 to the “Sports Network.”
The Final Four (which wouldn’t actually be called that until the 1970s) was played in Friday-Saturday sessions that included a consolation game.
Admission was a bargain.
“Cost 7 bucks for a ticket,” recalled former Missouri coach Norm Stewart, then the coach of the school now known as Northern Iowa.
The relative innocence, intimacy and throwback elements of the game were accented by the atmosphere around it. And that atmosphere was buoyed by the presence of Kansas State, which was particularly comfortable in Kansas City after having won that season’s Big Eight holiday tournament.
Former Wildcats Max Moss and Larry Weigel recalled dressing in the hotel rooms at The Muehlebach and mingling with fans in the lobby. Then they’d walk among them, dodging cars, through the underground parking garage to the arena.
No wonder that before the national semifinal game, UCLA coach John Wooden was acutely conscious of home-court advantage.
“We were the hometown favorites,” Moss said, “and we were kind of the Cinderella team.”
Cinderella, in fact, was leading UCLA 75-70 with seven minutes left in the national semifinal when she was ambushed by tournament lore.
Four UCLA cheerleaders arrived late and became a spectacle in their short skirts with “monogrammed britches,” as The Star reported at the time. Their walk past the court even eclipsed the fact that K-State had a live 3-year-old Wildcat mascot being paraded in a cage.
Moss’ future wife, Penny Heyl, was clad in the considerably more conservative cheerleading garb of K-State. Each laughs about now about the scene.
“I was bringing the ball up-court, and I definitely was distracted, because in addition to the shorts, on their bottoms the four of them had (the letters) U-C-L-A,” said Moss, a veterinarian in Wichita. “That’s a true story. I don’t think that necessarily was the entire reason for our loss, but it seemed to change the momentum of the game at that point.”
Suddenly, UCLA’s press on defense became a vise, and the Bruins swamped K-State 20-9 the rest of the way, winning 90-84.
UCLA went on to win the title 98-83 over Duke, which, like UCLA, was playing in just its second Final Four and not yet a household basketball name.
The next day, while Wooden and his wife, Nell, stood outside the Muehlebach awaiting a cab ride to church, a pigeon plopped a dropping on the Bruins’ coach. He would later remember thinking, “I think the Good Lord was letting me know, ‘Don’t get carried away.’”
Although Wooden had made his name in Kansas City years earlier by playing a role in integrating the NAIA Tournament, his Bruins had only reached the NCAA Final Four once in his first 15 seasons.
But catapulted by the first Final Four appearance, over the next 10 years they’d only fail to make one Final Four and would win nine more national titles before Wooden retired in 1975, widely regarded as the greatest coach who ever lived.
Instrumental in two of UCLA’s future national titles was Allen, whom Moss remembered as a guest at a Kansas State team lunch during the 1964 Final Four.
As he sat alongside Allen, Moss recalled him saying that he loved coach Tex Winter and the program at K-State but that Allen seriously was considering UCLA, along with his friend Lew Alcindor.
Maybe they could create a dynasty at UCLA, Moss recalled Allen saying, but a lot sure depended on who won the semifinal between K-State and UCLA.
“Who knows how it would have influenced college basketball if Kansas State had won?” Moss wondered.
Allen doesn’t recall that conversation, and believes the timing was off for him to have already met Alcindor, who later became known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But Allen admired Winter and regretted not being able to face him when he picked UCLA over K-State.
“I just ran off,” Allen said.
Yet Allen did say he made his seismic decision based plenty on what he saw in Municipal, a spectacle that included Gail Goodrich shooting at will for the Bruins.
“We were in the Hank Iba school of thought in Kansas, because he was the Olympic coach, and that school of thought was, ‘If you don’t have a layup, don’t shoot the ball. There’s no shot clock, make the defense work,’” Allen said. “And then I see UCLA come out here, and Goodrich is shooting the ball one-on-four. From 20 feet away. And he’s not getting yanked out of the game because he missed.
“So I said, ‘Hey, hey,HEY
, that’s the type of basketball I want to play!’”
Because of a liver condition, Allen’s father died around the time he was 4. His mother was left to raise him and eight siblings.
They went without many things, but they had all they really needed as his mother sewed in the garment district during the week and did housecleaning on the weekends with children in tow.
“That was very meaningful, especially when you were as lazy as I was,” Allen said, laughing and noting he’d also work baling hay or picking fruits and vegetables for, “like, $2 dollars a bushel. I think it was good for me, because I became sturdy and strong, and for my basketball I was able to go where I wanted to with quickness and strength.”
But perhaps nothing formed his game like playing three-on-three for money in parks around the KC area. Each player would plunk down a quarter, and winner took all.
“If we lose, we didn’t eat lunch the next day,” Allen said.
So they learned not to lose, reeling in quarter after quarter after quarter. That sometimes had consequences of its own. Playing on the Missouri side one day, a group they’d beaten all day wanted their money back.
“So they chased us all the way back across the bridge to Kansas,” he said. “But they weren’t going to catch us.”
Later, those pickup games included a handful of showdowns against Central High’s Warren Armstrong, who at Wichita State changed his surname to Jabali to reflect his African roots.
The late Jabali and Allen are widely considered the top tandem produced by Kansas City, and the debate remains open as to which was better.
“He was so much more physically gifted than I was,” Allen said. “I was quick and I could jump, but he was quick, he could jump and he was strong He was pretty intimidating. We would have some serious, serious battles. I couldn’t stop him, but he couldn’t stop me.”
Allen ultimately concluded, “I don’t think if I played Warren Jabali one-on-one I would win, but I think if you put us both with the same players, same team, my team was going to shine because I did a lot more of the intangibles.”
By the time he had played for a second state championship his senior year, Allen said 400-plus schools had offered him scholarships.
In addition to UCLA and Kansas State, he also was inclined toward Kansas, whose boosters had become particularly attentive to him. They’d “touch base every weekend” and often had him over for cookouts or other events.
Allen saw it as a chance “get a little culture and see what the other side of the world looked like.”
Of course, nothing he saw looked quite so much like another part of the world as UCLA. On his recruiting trip there, Allen thought of Goodrich’s freedom and saw the “weather and swimsuits” and remembered thinking, “That was it; I wasn’t spending the winter in Kansas anymore.”
It wasn’t always easy at UCLA. Along with Alcindor, Allen considered transferring to Michigan State because he didn’t always feel he fit and was conscious of not having nice clothes or shoes.
They’d heard through the grapevine that Michigan State players were getting cars, money for their parents and other amenities they considered necessities. But booster Sam Gilbert “salvaged” that at UCLA, coming up with what Allen termed “basic things” to keep them there.
“Instead of losing us over some clothes and food and those types of things, he was an angel who really took me under his wings,” said Allen, who acknowledged the use of cars through Gilbert but said he was not given one. “I was hurting, I didn’t have it and I needed it. Sam Gilbert was a father for me.”
So, too, was Wooden. Despite some conflicts between them over the years, Allen now calls himself “the epitome of his pyramid of success.” He constantly finds himself using Wooden’s aphorisms.
“At a time when we wanted to be hippies and black-power nationalists, all of that stuff, he was not going to have it. And I fought him. And I put gray hair on his head,” Allen said. “I didn’t want to go to class — I wanted to party, and I wanted to do this and do that. And he wouldn’t have it.”
Wooden also wasn’t necessarily having that one-on-four stuff Goodrich could get away with.
“I’d make a behind-the-back pass, instead of a John Wooden bounce pass, and I would get yanked out of the game,” Allen said. “It happened so often, I would make the behind the back pass, we’d score, and I’d just walk over to the bench because I knew I was coming out of the game. I knew better.”
But as the world turned, he also knew that UCLA was where he’d become who he was.
And in no small part, that realization was kindled by what he saw when he sneaked into Municipal Auditorium 50 years ago this week.
“The rest,” Allen said, “was history.”