The Thrill of Victory

march madness college basketball game tournament
Elena M. Macaluso (middle row in gray sweatshirt) with the Sac Jayhawks of the Kansas Alumni Association at a game-watch party in January. Photo by Beth Baugher.

And this is Allen Fieldhouse,” my cab driver pointed out. We had been in the car for about 45 minutes. I’d just dropped my mom off at Kansas City International Airport for her return flight to Sacramento. Mom and I had driven from Sacramento, my hometown, to Lawrence, Kansas, so I could pursue my master’s in journalism at the University of Kansas. I’d gotten my undergraduate degree at Sac State and had never lived out of state. I had traveled back east, from where my family hails, a handful of times, but I had never visited the Midwest and I had never set foot in Kansas.

To say I was a bit emotional after dropping Mom off is an understatement; I was nearly in tears when I got in the cab. The driver, who probably wasn’t much older than 30, picked up on this and—either out of pure kindness or a self-preservation-spurred desire not to have a crying 20-something in the car—peppered me with fun facts about my new home and gave me a mini tour as we made our way to my off-campus apartment. The pièce de résistance? The aforementioned Allen Fieldhouse.

I’m not going to lie: Upon arriving at KU, I was a casual sports fan at best, and that’s only if joining my dad watching the Yankees play in the World Series or attending college  football games for the sole purpose of tailgating counts. I had never heard of Allen Fieldhouse, let alone the Kansas Jayhawks (more on them in a second), and I had no idea why either was important.

But I quickly learned.

Built in 1955, Allen Fieldhouse, named in honor of University of Kansas basketball coach Dr. Forrest C. “Phog” Allen, is the home of the Kansas Jayhawks basketball teams. Games there—particularly men’s basketball games—are legendary. Last year, CBS Sports announcers Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander asked—anonymously—some 100 college basketball coaches, “which arenas have the best environments in college hoops?” for their annual Candid Coaches series. Allen Fieldhouse topped the list with 67.3 percent of the ballots. In July 2022, AFH tied for first place with Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium on ESPN analyst Jay Bilas’ list of top five college basketball venues.

I’ve often described attending a game at Allen Fieldhouse alongside a thundering crowd of 16,000+ fans—KU students, staff and faculty, the community of Lawrence and sports fans in general—as a religious experience. The sound of the cheers is deafening, the energy palpable, the excitement off the charts. Even the chant, “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk,” is mesmerizing, starting slow and melodic and ending in a frenetic cheer: “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, KU!” And when one of the starters—which in the years I attended KU included basketball hall-of-famer Paul Pierce (best known for his time with the Boston Celtics) and former Sacramento King Scot Pollard (best known for his quirky personality and wild hairdos)—showed their grit, or just a fancy b-ball move, the crowd went wild. After my first game at Allen Fieldhouse on a cold November night with my newfound pals Emily and Regina, I could no longer consider myself a “casual sports fan”—at least not when it came to the Kansas Jayhawks. I was hooked. For the rest of that season and the following year until I graduated, when the ’hawks played, you could find me at one of three places: a friend’s apartment (watching), a local sports bar or—when I was really lucky—in the stands at Allen Fieldhouse.

Fast-forward some four years later. I had graduated from KU, returned to Sacramento and gone to work for a local magazine. (This publication, as a matter of fact.) I enjoyed watching games—especially the yearly March Madness tournament, where some 68 college basketball teams vie for the NCAA National Championship over the course of about three weeks—when I learned about a group of KU alumni and fans who gathered to watch games at a local sports bar. Watching a game with fellow fans? It sounded like my grad school days minus the stress of studying. I attended my first “watch party” in March 2002. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The Sac Jayhawks of the Kansas Alumni Association holds game-watch parties at Players Sports Pub & Grill in Fair Oaks. The group is led by Joyce Pulley who, with assistance from her husband, Glenn (an alumnus of heated rival University of Missouri—but we still like him), ensures that Players will be open and the game will be shown, sends out invites to the group and, on game day, arrives early to welcome new and old members alike. KU coasters, blue-and-red pom-poms and Jayhawk mascot cutouts adorn the tables, courtesy of the alumni association. Though the group boasts more than 200 members, attendance at watch parties typically ranges from about two dozen people to 65+ depending on the game. Members vary in age from 20-something to 80-something, with different backgrounds and interests. However, the thing that unites us is our love for the Kansas Jayhawks and our shared desire to see them win every year.

And so, over cold beverages and greasy pub food, wearing our favorite Jayhawks shirt, sweatshirt, hat or socks (or maybe all of the above), we watch, intently. Superstitions are taken seriously; we have lucky seats and lucky shirts (that may or may not be washed during the tournament itself). When the game is on, this group is hard core, man. All eyes are on the TV. Every play is scrutinized. Every basket made gets a rousing cheer. Every basket missed gets a groan. And if a ref makes what the group deems a bad call? Well, let’s just say some adult language may accompany those adult beverages some of us are sipping.

For me, game watching with this group brings me back to those bygone grad school days and that awesome sense of community that a sports team can foster. Living in Lawrence, I would see local business marquees sporting an encouraging message to the town’s beloved basketball team or hear a game broadcast while grocery shopping at the local supermarket. The college town of about 75,000—when I lived there in the 1990s—stood behind the team through good seasons and bad. Likewise, so does the Sac Jayhawks group.

Watch parties take place every three to four weeks during the regular season, increasing, depending on game schedules, as we get into the Big 12 Tournament, and last however far the Jayhawks go in March Madness. Each time the group reunites the following year, it feels a bit like coming home. Collectively we have been through a lot in 20 years—marriages, divorces, retirements, career changes, major surgeries, relocations. We’ve lost a husband, lost parents, had a couple of kids, nearly died of a heart attack, suffered a layoff, gone back to school, raised a grandson, moved away, come home. All that life stuff is shared, supported and celebrated during those moments before, after and—OK, if the game is a blowout in the team’s favor—maybe during games.

The Jayhawks are always a highly ranked team going into March Madness. The chance of their winning the national championship, though greater some years than others, is always an option. And so every year we watch, hopeful that we will make it all the way and experience the thrill of victory. We did in 2008 in a heart-stopping overtime victory against the Memphis Tigers, and we did last year against the North Carolina Tar Heels. But, much like life, the road to the NCAA Championship title is tough. Unlike the NBA Finals, which has a best-of-seven series, the NCAA tourney is a one and done. If you lose the game, you’re out of the tournament and your season is over. When that happens, the sense of deflation is striking, correlating in intensity with how far into the tournament your team has gotten when that loss happens. And the years that happens (all but two during the years I’ve been watching with the Sac Jayhawks), we mumble our goodbyes as we head to the door, our heads hung low and the thought universal among us: “Maybe next year.”

But during those seasons when the Jayhawks manage to fend off their opponents (some easily, others not so easily) and make it all the way to the Final Four, make it all the way to the championship game and, especially, when they win the championship like they did last year, something magical happens. For a brief moment we, the Sac Jayhawks of the Kansas Alumni Association, believe we ourselves have won that championship and, for a brief moment, we as a group are one. We are united. And maybe, just maybe, if we are lucky, we carry that sense of unity out into the world.

Rock Chalk!