UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky must beware ‘The Phog’ in visit to Kansas’ basketball shrine

National championship banners hung in the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse prior to a matchup between Holy Cross and Kansas in December.
National championship banners hung in the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse prior to a matchup between Holy Cross and Kansas in December. AP

Even the most ruthlessly competitive, refuse-to-lose basketball person can be reduced to sentimental sweetheart. The same is true of the cynical newshound on alert for sanctimony and expedience. Ditto the rabid fan who sees only good and evil on the court.

Just mention Allen Fieldhouse.

The home arena at Kansas, where Kentucky will play Saturday, inspires poetic tribute in a sports world filled with hidden agendas and obsession with $ucce$$. ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, nobody’s fool when it comes to college basketball’s dark secrets, used words like “magical” and “mystical” to describe Allen Fieldhouse.

“It is a spiritual journey into that building, if you love the game of basketball,” he said.

34Number of consecutive games Kansas has won in Allen Fieldhouse

When told this kind of ethereal language was a departure from his signature devotion to bottom line analysis, Fraschilla chuckled and said, “I worship two gods. The one on Sunday, and then the one with the round orange leather.”

Fraschilla likes to call Allen Fieldhouse “the St. Patrick’s Cathedral of college basketball.” He is hardly the only parishioner who has worshiped there.

For Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports, Allen Fieldhouse is a time machine.

“You feel like you are walking into the 1930s,” he said in an email message. “I mean, James ‘Freaking’ Naismith’s name is on the court!”

It is a spiritual journey into that building, if you love the game of basketball.

Fran Fraschilla, ESPN analyst

Dave Dorr, a retired Hall of Fame sportswriter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said Allen Fieldhouse “is the closest thing to a college basketball cathedral there is.”

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas reached back to another sport’s touchstone.

“It has the same meaning to basketball that St. Andrews has to golf,” Bilas said in an email message. “When people visit AFH, they get it.”

Opposing coaches also pay homage.

TCU Coach Trent Johnson, who played against Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse in 1976, wants his players to be aware of the history. It helps that KU has built a Hall of Fame nearby and plans another new structure that will house the original rules of basketball as devised by Naismith, who, of course, invented the game and then happened to be Kansas’ first coach.

“Every time I take my team back there, we go to the Hall of Fame,” said Johnson, who formerly coached at LSU. “It’s a history lesson for them.”

For Texas Coach Shaka Smart, whose team lost at Kansas last weekend, his thoughts about Allen Fieldhouse are fresh.

“There’s just a really, really special feeling there,” he said. “You can tell the connectivity between the fans and the students and the players. At any home court, that’s probably the most important thing. That everyone is really feeling the same thing and on the same page in helping the team win.”

I consider Allen Fieldhouse to be the single best place in America to watch a college basketball game.

Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News.

Kansas Coach Bill Self has a cartoonish win-loss record of 200-9 in Allen Fieldhouse. His Jayhawks teams have won more Big 12 Conference championships (11) than lost home games (nine). Yet, he, too, set aside mere winning and losing in trying to capture the essence of Allen Fieldhouse.

“I have heard other people say and I believe it,” he said. “The building has soul, and the walls still sweat.”

Allen Fieldhouse, which cost $2.5 million to construct, was dedicated on March 1, 1955. It was named for Forrest Claire “Phog” Allen, whose two stints as Kansas coach came in 1907-09 and 1919-1956. Known as the “Father of Basketball Coaching,” Allen’s players included the founding father of Kentucky basketball, Adolph Rupp, and the most revered North Carolina coach, Dean Smith. He also coached future presidential candidate Bob Dole.

Although the building has been renovated, restrooms and concession stands upgraded, entry ways made more accessible, Kansas has kept changes inside the arena itself at a minimum. One such change is the installation of 1,580 chair-back seats. Everyone else in Allen Fieldhouse (capacity 16,300) sits on wooden bleachers. And the fortunate sit oh-so-close to the court.

“The basic old field house is still there,” said Bob Davis, who is retiring this spring after 37 seasons as play-by-play man on radio broadcasts of Kansas games.

3 The number of times John Calipari has beaten Bill Self since Self’s Kansas team beat Calipari’s Memphis squad in the coaches’ first-ever meeting in the 2008 NCAA title game.

Any conversation about Allen Fieldhouse seems to quickly turn to some historical footnote. “When I was a little kid,” Davis said, “the first game I saw, Wilt played.”

Youngsters, that’s Wilt Chamberlain, arguably the most dominant force in basketball history (he averaged 50 points a game one NBA season).

Like Raquel Welch and Cliff Hagan, Allen Fieldhouse has aged well. In 2014, Athlon Sports asked 12 well-known media people to vote on the top 10 college basketball arenas. Nine voted Allen Fieldhouse No. 1, two others put Kansas’ arena second on their ballots. Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium was a distant second as no other arena received more than one first-place vote. (Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse and UK’s Rupp Arena finished third and fourth.)

“I consider Allen Fieldhouse to be the single best place in America to watch a college basketball game,” said one of the voters, Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News.

DeCourcy recalled attending the final Kansas-Missouri game in 2012.

“As we approached tip-off, the fans were so ear-splittingly noisy that I laughed out loud at the absurdity of it,” he said. “And I literally could not hear my own laugh. I’ve never had that happen anywhere.”

Curry Kirkpatrick, a retired writer for Sports Illustrated, recalled a once-in-a-lifetime game he covered that pitted Kansas against Arizona. Two top 10 teams. One giant reversal of momentum. Kansas led by 20 in the first half. Arizona won by 16.

“And, of course, the place went from a roar to nearly total silence,” Kirkpatrick said in an email message. “Never forget it. Even all the Kansas ghosts were obviously stunned.”

Those ghosts figure to be present when Kentucky plays at Kansas on Saturday. They will be summoned by the fans’ Rock Chalk chant. The ghosts will want Kentucky to get lost in the Phog. Or as a banner in the rafters reads, “Pay heed, all who enter, beware of ‘the Phog.’ ”

Kansas fans are not especially hostile to visiting players. They gave Oklahoma star Buddy Hield a standing ovation after he scored 46 points in a three-overtime loss against Kansas this month.

“They don’t eat their own,” Davis said of Kansas fans.

If Allen Fieldhouse could talk, it surely would be a blabbermouth. So much history, so many standout players and coaches to remember.

“Oozing legend,” Kirkpatrick said of AFH. “A bucket-list experience for any true fan.”

Someday, of course, Allen Fieldhouse must give way to a newer, shinier, garish arena that will mask its lack of soul with sensory confection.

That day remains in the unseen future.

When asked if there had been talk about building a new arena, Bob Davis, the Kansas radio man, seemed startled by this heresy.

“No!,” he blurted. “None!”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton