In a blog post titled “One Bad Loss” Paul Pierce shared his memories of the one that got away in 1997, and for Pierce, ’99, KU’s epic upset loss to Arizona still stings.
“Our team was just about unstoppable that season — we started the year 22-0,” Pierce noted. “ESPN was calling us the national title favorites. Our only loss during the regular season was against Mizzou in double OT, and we beat them by double-digits the next two times we faced them.”
The 1996-97 Jayhawks featured a line-up many consider the best in KU’s storied history, including future NBA stars like Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz and Scot Pollard, along with Jacque Vaughn, Jerod Hasse, Ryan Robertson and Billy Thomas to boot.
“We entered the 1997 NCAA tournament that year as the No. 1 overall seed and won our first two games convincingly. In the Sweet 16, we were set to face No. 4 Arizona. We had beaten them the previous season in the Sweet 16, so I felt like we were ready.”
But fate has a funny way of manifesting itself, and as KU relished the role of Cinderella in ’88, it would experience the madness of March in ’97 running headlong into eventual NCAA Tournament Champion Arizona, which had a date with destiny. Despite a thrilling comeback, KU would fall by three points, as a last-second shot clanged off the rim. As bad as the loss was for the rest of the team to take, it might have been harder on Pierce. Like all champions, Pierce wanted the ball in that clutch situation, and he remains haunted by those final seconds in which he never touched the ball.
A University Daily Kansan clipping captured the heartbreaking loss
“Coming all the way back from a big deficit and me not having a crack at the final shot made it hurt that much worse. I just remember crying in the locker room after that game. All of us were crying — the entire team was completely devastated. To us, it was a wasted season.”
KU Alumni and fans also shed tears along with Head Coach Roy Williams, who would call it the most painful loss of his coaching career. But as Pierce concluded, that’s why they call it March Madness.
“The tournament is unforgiving. If you have one bad game, that’s it. Throughout my career I’ve had many losses, but all these years later, this is one that still stings.”
Pierce’s full post, including pictures and video clips, can be read online at theplayerstribune.com. Danny Manning’s reflection on the ’88 championship, titled “It’s Over,” was featured earlier this year.
David Johanning, f’94, was a member of KU’s basketball team from 1990-92, although these days he is arguably more recognizable as the managing partner and longtime bartender at The Sandbar, a downtown Lawrence dive bar popular with college students and KU alumni. Unfortunately, Dave’s famous face was bloodied one year when the Jayhawks played in Manhattan. After last night’s loss and controversial court-storming by fans in Manhattan, he agreed to share his tale, originally posted on the Sandbar’s website, with KU alumni. Dave is also married to Debbi Johanning, digital media content manager for the KU Alumni Association. If you have a favorite Manhattan memory, you can share it with us at email@example.com. –David Johnston
The Sunflower Showdown is always a heated rivalry, and Dave’s playing days more than twenty years ago were no exception. One year, however, Dave came home with more than a win.
“I can’t remember if it was ’91 or ’92, but I think it was my junior year. We won the game, and afterwards the students started throwing crap at the court. I got hit on the forehead with something—to this day, I don’t know what it was. Maybe a quarter, a piece of ice…who knows.
Anyway, my forehead had a bleeding gash on it, and Coach Williams actually told the trainer not to fix it up right away. He wanted the media and everyone else to see the blood on my face so they wouldn’t minimize the whole incident.
Of course the trainer fixed it before too long, but at least there were a few pictures of it, to prove I really did get hit. There’s still a small scar on my forehead from it.
I think someone else, maybe Rex Walters, got hit with something the next year.”
This picture of Dave with his young cousin, who grew up in Manhattan and later attended Kansas State, was taken shortly after the game.
On Feb. 28, Adidas announced the new “camo” uniforms KU would be wearing this postseason along with six other teams, and KU alumni and fans immediately took to Twitter to air their feelings. For a tradition-rich program like Kansas, change doesn’t come easy. History shows that KU uniforms favor a classic look that’s always in season. And while men’s basketball uniforms have evolved over time—with shorts getting longer and tops ever tighter—KU has avoided the gimmicky trends lesser teams try (we could highlight Baylor as an example). Yet every now and then, the Jayhawks have debuted some short-lived looks that are worth remembering. Cue the runway music.
1983-84 Crimson and (Navy) Blue
Most fans know that KU basketball teams wore predominantly crimson before the traditional blue became more popular in the 1960’s. In the early 1980’s, however, KU wore dark navy blue uniforms, similar to Team USA Basketball colors worn at the Olympics that decade. The look didn’t last long, as Coach Larry Brown brought back royal blue jerseys just in time for a KU basketball resurgence.
1985-86 Red Scare
With Danny Manning on board in 1986, the Jayhawks looked better than ever, fielding what many fans consider one of the best KU teams in history. A trip to the Final Four in Dallas was made even more memorable when KU chose to go “old school” by bringing back crimson jerseys. The look was jarring to fans, and perhaps to the Jayhawks, who lost to Duke in a heartbreaker. The red jerseys remained unpopular with superstitious fans until “alternate” jerseys became a trend in 2003.
1987-88 Solid Gold
For one game in KU history—and only one—the Jayhawks took the court in yellow uniforms. Yellow, of course, is the color of the Jayhawk’s beak, so it seemed only fitting, right? Well, the game was a victory for Coach Larry Brown, but the look was a loss, with angry alumni and fans crying foul over the uniforms that many thought resembled something arch-rival Missouri might wear. Brown got the message, and the togs were retired permanently. And the “gold game” opponent became the answer to a favorite trivia question among fans (A: Western Carolina).
1989 Kansas University
For Coach Roy Williams’ first season, the Jayhawks took to the court with a new look that ruffled a few feathers. Reminiscent of North Carolina’s double-arching type surrounding the numbers, KU donned jerseys that read “Kansas University” for the first (and only) time. Probation meant KU was unable to defend its national title in the NCAA tournament, so the season—and the jersey—was quickly forgotten. But at least one iconic image endures. Who remembers the shot of senior Milt Newton dunking a gift-wrapped ball for the BMA Holiday Classic poster?
1996 Font Circus
A new Nike contract brought a new, stylized font that was well received by fans. Called “Circus” by those in the know, the typeface came to symbolize Kansas basketball during an era that featured stars like Paul and Raef, Kirk and Nick, and Drew and Wayne. When KU leaders established new visual identity standards for KU logos, colors and type in 2005, featuring a new jersey font called “Trajan,” a vocal minority pushed to preserve the circus font, wearing decidedly anti-Trajan t-shirts.
2008 Back to the Future
With KANSAS emblazoned on their chests in brand new “Trajan” type, the Jayhawks won their fifth NCAA National Championship in 2008. Mario’s miracle ensured the new look would be cherished by KU fans for years to come, and uniform outfitter Adidas got the message loud and clear, keeping the uniform scheme relatively consistent with few changes over the years that followed. At least until this season. The all-blue uniforms worn by KU against West Virginia definitely got the attention of fans and color commentators.
Given KU’s tendency toward traditional uniforms, don’t expect the new Adidas “camo” uniforms to, well, blend in.