Dunks, Dancing and Debuts

KU opening the 2014-15 basketball season with the 30th edition of Late Night.

KU Marketing Communications

   It’s supposed to be a basketball season curtain-raiser. But the action at Late Night in the Phog is almost secondary to the spectacle. Sure, you get to see the Kansas Jayhawks scrimmage, but where else can you determine which player has the best dance moves?

   The 30th Late Night will be staged on Oct. 10 at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan., and it's one of the most raucous events on KU's campus as a line snakes around Naismith Drive before the doors open. Hundreds of people are turned away once the building meets its standard capacity of 16,300.

   But it wasn't always that way.

   When then-coach Larry Brown hosted the inaugural Late Night in 1985, he had arguably one of the great KU teams of all time with Danny Manning, Ron Kellogg, Calvin Thompson, Cedric Hunter and Greg Dreiling. A modest crowd of 6,000 people watched as Kansas officially started practice at midnight. It gained some traction by the next season as "Late Night with David Letterman" oddball Larry "Bud" Melman made a day of it in Lawrence and joined the proceedings.

   The format for the evening has fluctuated often. Other than special guest stars from the Letterman comedy troupe, KU's volleyball team has played on several occasions before Late Night, most notably a straight-set victory in 1996 against rival Missouri. Admission is free, but it wasn't in 1989 when fans had to fork over a few bucks for two bands, Shooting Star and Nace Brothers, that played before practice.

   But what has been a constant since 1986 are the skits, ranging from clever to clunky in execution. Players lip-synched to Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible" in 1989. There was an elaborate spoof of "Survivor" at the height of the show's popularity in 2000 and a parody of VH1's "Behind the Music" in 2004. In the Letterman tradition, players have read basketball-themed Top Ten lists. And even the coaches have gotten into the act. Last season, Coach Bill Self was in a taped sketch where he did a well-conceived and received Ron Burgundy impression.

   At some point between the skits and the opening tip, players and coaches alike have participated in what can be described as their own version of "So You Think You Can Dance." More often than not, they can't.

   When Roy Williams coached at KU, the crowd couldn't help but laugh and cheer when he tried to get his groove on at midcourt. But it has become one of those traditions at Late Night where both the men's and the women's players get to show some of their personality on one of college basketball's biggest stages.

   In last year's scrimmage, two of the NBA's top three draft picks made their Allen Fieldhouse debuts. Andrew Wiggins scored 12 points for the Blue team, while Joel Embiid had seven points playing on the Crimson squad. This year is the first Late Night for several incoming freshmen, as Self reloads with a talented class that includes Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre and Davonté Graham.

   Late Night hasn't had its shortage of other great moments.

   The arena practically shook when the national championship banner was unfurled in 2008. In Self's first year at Kansas in 2003, the 1988 national championship team held a 15-year reunion, and Brown walked on to the Allen Fieldhouse court to thunderous applause.

   "I spent five of the greatest years of my life in this building," he said.

   And then he added something that is a staple of pre-game videos at KU: "There's no better place to coach, there's no better place to go to school, there's no better place to play."