Ex-players, coaches lament end to 'Border War'
Saturday, February 25, 2012
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — The story was embellished over the years to almost mythic proportions, how former Missouri coach Norm Stewart so detested the state of Kansas that he would refuse to allow the bus driver to purchase gas on the wrong side of the state line.
In truth, Stewart had a grudging respect for the Kansas basketball program.
He was recruited by legendary coach Phog Allen to play for the Jayhawks in the early 1950s, though he ultimately chose to play for the Tigers. But he always loved visiting Kansas' old Hoch Auditorium, and when he returned to coach his alma mater in 1967, nothing quite stoked the same level of passion as heading down I-70 for games at Allen Fieldhouse.
"Did I put a special meaning on it? Sure," said Stewart, now 77, retired and living in Palm Springs, Calif. "They were always the best in the conference, it seemed, and if you could beat them, you figured you could beat everybody. It became a big game."
There have certainly been some memorable Kansas-Missouri games over the 105-year history of the rivalry — the bench-clearing brawls of the early 1960s, top-5 showdowns of the '70s and '80s, and the battle for conference supremacy that dominated headlines of the 1990s.
One more will be added to the annals on Saturday, when the third-ranked Tigers head to Allen Fieldhouse to face No. 4 Kansas in the perhaps the final regular-season match-up ever.
Missouri leaves for the SEC next season, and Kansas officials have no intention of playing the Tigers out of conference. So barring a tournament showdown of some sort, this will be the final time the Tigers and Jayhawks meet on the hardwood.
"I don't see it being played in the very near future, and I understand Kansas' position," Stewart told The Associated Press this week. "Missouri left the conference. Kansas didn't have anything to do with that. For Kansas to play the game, what would be the reason?"
Perhaps it is fate that Saturday's edition serves as the coda to one of the longest, most compelling rivalries in major college sports, one that traces its history to the Civil War.
The Jayhawks (23-5, 13-2) can ensure a share of an unprecedented eighth straight Big 12 title with a win over the Tigers, who beat them just a few weeks ago in Columbia. Missouri (25-3, 12-3) can buoy its own flickering championship hopes with a victory.
And of course, bragging rights in perpetuity are riding on the outcome.
"The magnitude of the game is big, but you don't tend to worry about that until it's over," said Missouri guard Michael Dixon. "It's going to be a fun game."
"We understand the rivalry. We understand there's history," added Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor. "But I think we have to understand the game more than the rivalry. The game is important for us. After the game, we can talk about the rivalry and how it ended."
There's no shortage of people to talk about it in the meantime.
Students began camping out for prime seats at daybreak Sunday, more than six days before the tip. There have been so many credential requests that there isn't enough room inside the Phog for all the media planning to descend upon the sleepy college town of Lawrence, Kan.
The game brings back memories, fond and forgettable, for players on both sides.
"It's one of the biggest rivalries in NCAA basketball, and it's going to be sad not to have that rivalry going back and forth," said former Kansas guard Mario Chalmers, now with the Miami Heat. "It's going to be weird. When I was at KU, we always looked forward to that game."
Another former Kansas guard, Kirk Hinrich, called them "the funnest games" of the season.
"Kansas-Missouri, there's no bigger rivalry," he said. "There's just so much history."
No game stood out to Hinrich, now with the Atlanta Hawks, but one in particular sticks in the mind of Cole Aldrich, who played for Kansas from 2007-10. The Jayhawks blew a 30-16 halftime lead his sophomore year in Columbia, falling 62-60 on Zaire Taylor's last-second jumper.
"Those games are always hard-fought," Aldrich said. "Players maybe have a little animosity toward each other, but it's a great game, and there's a lot of history behind it, too."
Nick Collison's recollections are mostly positive — he went 4-0 against Missouri his final two seasons. The Jayhawks beat the Tigers to cap a 16-0 conference campaign his junior year, and then clinched the Big 12 title with a win over them the following year.
"When I was playing, that was the game," said Collison, now a forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who will take advantage of fortuitous timing of the NBA All-Star Game so that he can make the pilgrimage to his old stomping grounds this weekend.
"It's going to be really sad, because it's been the biggest game of the year for a long time, probably for both sides," Collison said. "Hopefully they can figure out a way to play."
Don't hold your breath, as far as Bill Self is concerned.
The Jayhawks' coach understands the importance of the game — he knows the old field house will be electric Saturday. He just won't lose any sleep over the series ending, especially after many at Kansas believe that Missouri jilted the Big 12.
"I don't think there will be anything that compares to it," Self said. "The only thing I can think of is the inaugural event, the opening of the building. I would think that would have been a special event when Kansas played Kansas State."
The Wildcats will never be the same rival to Kansas that Missouri has been, though. Nor will Arkansas, Texas A&M or Kentucky become the same kind of rival to the Tigers.
"You don't artificially make up rivalries," explained former Missouri star Jon Sundvold, now a television analyst. "When you go back, you talk to former Missouri and Kansas players in all sports, they'll mention something in the rivalry — a fight here or there, fans spitting on you, a brush-back pitch in baseball and the benches empty. You can't just create that."
Most believe there's enough money on the table that Kansas and Missouri will play again.
The Sprint Center in Kansas City has been mentioned as a possible venue for a once-a-year meeting, and interest in the game would be high. But it wouldn't have the same juice as the games played at the Phog, or at the old Hearnes Center, during the heat of a conference race.
The truth is that after Saturday, things will never be quite the same.
"There's nothing like walking into an arena, whether you're getting off the bus at Hearnes and students are waiting, or I can remember getting off the bus and walking into Allen Fieldhouse and the students were lined up," Sundvold said. "That was the fun part. That was special."
AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds and Jeff Latzke and AP freelance writers Amy Jinkner-Lloyd and Jake Kreinberg contributed to this report.