Home Court Advantage
KU's Allen Fieldhouse celebrates 60 years as college basketball's kind of the courts.
I was a seventh grader when I saw my first Kansas basketball game at Allen Fieldhouse on Dec. 20, 1993, the 500th game played by the Jayhawks in the storied arena. I was instantly captivated by the aura of the place: the dulcet tones of public address announcer Howard Hill, the students throwing their carefully-torn University Daily Kansan newspaper clippings in the air like confetti when the starting lineup was announced, the Rock Chalk chant, and the noise. Wow, the noise.
That game was against Furman University, and the Paladins were no match for the Jayhawks as KU beat them 101-60. And you could say they've won a few more games there since then.
Entering the 2014-15 season, the Jayhawks are 714-109 at Allen Fieldhouse, an extraordinary winning percentage of .868 on their hallowed home court. They've had 17 undefeated seasons at Allen Fieldhouse, and in his 12th year as head coach at Kansas, Bill Self can claim four of those undefeated seasons. In one of the more staggering statistics in sports, Self boasts more Big 12 championships (10) than Allen Fieldhouse losses (9) before this season began.
When Allen Fieldhouse was dedicated on March 1, 1955, the Jayhawks beat Kansas State 77-67 in front of 17,000 people on an elevated court with a dirt floor underneath it. Phog Allen, who is credited as "The Father of Basketball Coaching," would coach the Jayhawks to just seven more victories in the arena that bears his name before he stepped down at the mandatory retirement age of 70.
And 60 years later, Allen Fieldhouse has rightly earned its reputation as the most special game environment in basketball—and one of the most intimidating for opponents. ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas has such an affinity for Allen Fieldhouse that he's called it a “cathedral of college basketball” and compared it to perhaps the most famous golf course in the world.
"Allen Fieldhouse is the St. Andrews of basketball," Bilas said when he emceed a "Celebrating 60 Years" event on October 27, 2014. "This magnificent building cannot be captured in words. You have to feel it.
"This building," he said, "has a soul."
Jerod Haase knows from experience. The transfer from California never lost a game at Allen Fieldhouse, playing for coach Roy Williams from 1994-97 during a 62-game home-court winning streak. "You really feel like it carries the tradition of the former players and coaches within the walls. They're all there," Haase says. "It's just a feeling when you're in that place that the history is around you, the former players are around you, the former coaches are around you. When you look up at the sign, 'Pay Heed, All Who Enter, Beware of the Phog,' it's just a magical kind of place."
Since 1955, players like Wilt Chamberlain, Jo Jo White, Danny Manning, Paul Pierce, Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich and Mario Chalmers have become KU legends in this building, while a small but impressive list of coaches have presided on the bench. The four coaches who have led the Jayhawks in the last 50 years—Ted Owens, Larry Brown, Williams and Self—spoke at the "Celebrating 60 Years" event at Allen Fieldhouse. Besides Williams’ 62-game winning streak, Brown owns a 55-game streak and Self's teams won 69 home games in a row from 2007-11.
"When you come into this building, you add something," Williams said that evening, "maybe greater than any other place where they play college basketball.”
When the Jayhawks make one of their signature runs during a game at Allen Fieldhouse, there's nothing like it. The rowdy, pulsating crowd can get so overwhelmingly noisy that it influences the outcome of the game.
In December, Kansas was sputtering against Florida and trailed 45-27 in the second half. But the Jayhawks chipped away at the lead and the fans kept encouraging them, and all told, it was a 33-7 second-half run that helped Kansas beat the Gators 71-65.
"The fans know when KU needs a lift," says Joe Dooley, a former Kansas assistant coach and the current head coach at Florida Gulf Coast University. "I watched the Florida game, and it was funny because Dick Vitale made the comment, 'There's going to be a run.' You know there's going to be a run. The fans, once KU started getting some stops, got louder. Sometimes they wake the team up and get behind them, and they know you need a stop. They get louder and louder because they understand the game."
Another recent comeback that has been etched in Allen Fieldhouse lore is Missouri's last visit to Lawrence as a member of the Big 12 on Feb. 25, 2012. With Missouri leading 58-39 before the first media timeout of the second half—"We were in a bit of trouble," Dooley says, which is an understatement—two things turned the tide. That 2012 team showed the toughness that defined their ride to the national championship game, and the Allen Fieldhouse mystique took over. The noise at that Missouri game was measured at 120.2 decibels, or the equivalent of a jet plane taking off. The Jayhawks won, 87-86, in overtime.
Many things have changed about Allen Fieldhouse, and it's not just the absence of the dirt floor. The track that once encircled the building and symbolized the multipurpose aspects of the facility is no more. The scoreboard is much larger and fancier. Attached to the east side of Allen Fieldhouse is the Booth Family Hall of Athletics, which opened in 2006 and is a beautiful museum of KU sports history. And because of the generosity of David Booth and the DeBruce family, the original rules penned by the game's inventor and first head coach at Kansas, James Naismith, will soon reside permanently at the DeBruce Center, which is projected to be open in time for the 2015-16 season just north of the Fieldhouse. But aside from the upgrades and additions, the ambiance and the excitement on game days hasn't changed.
What also makes Allen Fieldhouse unique isn't limited to the 40 minutes of game action, either. It's the line of students outside the building before the doors open. It's the considerable number of student groups that camp out inside the fieldhouse for the best seats. It's the distinct smell of popcorn as you walk in. It's the sunlight streaming in through the windows during afternoon games.
And it's the KU pep band playing "Sounds of Summer," the same medley of 1960s songs they've played exactly 45 minutes before every game for years. When the band bursts into the first bars of "Fun Fun Fun" by the Beach Boys, which then leads to "Wipeout," "Louie Louie," "Twist and Shout," "Tequila" and concludes with the Isley Brothers' "Shout," it colorfully and energetically contributes to the atmosphere. Music is an indelible part of the Kansas basketball tradition and pageantry at Allen Fieldhouse.
For Dooley, who had one of the best seats in the house as an assistant with Self for 10 years, all of the games are special. Yet he also recognizes that some of the neater things about Allen Fieldhouse don't have anything to do with the games.
"Sitting there on a Sunday afternoon in the off-season, my little boy would be down there shooting in the Fieldhouse," he says. "And you look around and think about all the great games and all the great players, and what an honor it was to be able to work there."