LAWRENCE, Kan. — The best party in college basketball is at 1651 Naismith Drive. The unassuming building looks so peaceful nestled into its spot on the Kansas campus. Don’t let the appearance from outside fool you. It is two hours to tipoff inside Allen Fieldhouse, and the bash is in full swing.
The experience starts as soon as you walk through the door. A party is only as good as its venue, and this isn’t just any arena.
“It’s iconic,” ESPN broadcaster Brent Musburger said on the sideline before the start of his ESPN broadcast of Monday night's game against Missouri. "It's one of the great historic arenas."
Musburger knows his sporting venues. He has covered a myriad of college and professional games during his decades in the business. When it comes to college basketball, he mentions two places in the same sentence as Allen Fieldhouse: Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium and UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. Together, they form the three untouchables, but it’s the history that makes the home of Kansas basketball special.
“There's been so much new building that it's unusual to go into an arena like this where history has been made and it's been preserved," Musburger said.
The inventor of basketball, James Naismith, coached at Kansas* , and outside his name is on the street sign. Inside, his name is on the court. Forrest C. "Phog" Allen, the former longtime coach and a former player for Naismith, has his name on the building itself.
KU's rich basketball history drips from the championship banners and retired numbers that are suspended from the building's blue rafters. From the ceiling, the past watches over the present, protecting the court from anything that tries to take away from its old-time flavor.
“You kind of think of basketball in a different era, seats without the back, the red, the school colors," Musburger said.
The school colors — crimson and royal blue — are painted over the wooden bleachers. It must be beautiful when it’s empty. A chance to find out isn't likely. To do so means beating the students there.
The students run to the seats as soon as the doors open. They’re dressed in blue, like a mob of raucous Smurfs. A few of the 16,300 in attendance wear red. It’s accepted, but the shirts stick out like bright beacons in the blue sea.
Any color other than blue or red draws odd looks. If you dare to wear the opposing team’s colors, be ready for the boos. Think you can make it to your seat safely? No chance. You’re a moving target. Kansas fans don't even limit the jeers to just yelling. They hold up cutouts of the letters and an exclamation point (B-O-O-!) to spell out the word. They want you to hear and read that opposing fans aren't welcome inside Allen.
“The students make any venue great, and these are passionate, passionate fans," Musburger said.
It was loud two hours before the game, but now the Kansas players just jogged out for their warm-up. One hour left, and you start to hear the kind of noise this building is really capable of.
The Jayhawk players take turns throwing gasoline on the fire. Their layup line turns into a dunk contest. Thomas Robinson and his twin teammates, Marcus and Markieff Morris, turn the rim into a trapeze. They swing after every slam to cater to the crowd. High above, 10 speakers pump out a bass-heavy Jay-Z song. Players recite the words when they aren’t hanging from the rim.
The song ends, but the music doesn’t get a chance to fade. The Kansas pep band roars to life, replacing thumping bass with blaring brass. Somehow, the transition works.
It’s getting closer now.
The large video screen centered above the court flickers, and all eyes shoot up. It has been on the entire time, but now it demands your attention. The captain appears on the super-sized TV. He walks through a door and the camera follows him through the bowels of the building. Every step brings him closer to the court. He walks out, and the Smurfs go wild. The screen focuses on a paper sign as it bounces up and down: “Bill Self for President.”
Now it’s time for the most important part.
First, the alma mater. Everyone knows the words.
Then, the chant. Rock Chalk Jayhawk. Three words that are drawn out in an eeriness that could stir the spirits of the building's past.
Next, a rendition of the national anthem that will leave your hair standing after you sit.
Focus your attention to the large screen one more time. A video plays, accompanied by music fit for a noble quest. Highlights of almost every crucial play ever to go Kansas' way are combined with still images of former Kansas greats. The music peaks in the final scene, the replay of Mario Chalmers' famous 3-pointer against Memphis in the 2008 NCAA Championship. The shot forced overtime. Kansas eventually won. Reliving the moment brings the blue army to a fever-pitch. At the height of the madness, Kansas players are introduced.
The sea of blue is moving in waves now. They stomp. They cheer. They scream.
The screen switches and turns into a decibel meter, its lever quivering at 116. The roar in Allen Fieldhouse is now competing with thunder.
Finally, it’s time for tipoff.