The year I was born was the last time a team from the Missouri Valley went to the Final Four and thirty three years later the MVC is going again. This time, its my beloved Shockers. I grew up in Wichita during the 80’s and was first captured by the Shocks when Xavier McDaniel would soar through the air with gravity-defying dunks at the “Roundhouse.” As I grew older, and learned to play, I watched players like Sasa Radunavic as the MVC became one of the most physical conferences in the nation. In the 90’s I became a ball boy for the Shockers and remember the last game we played against Kansas University in 1993. In 1995 I left for Boston where I completed high school, then off to NYC for a decade, San Francisco, Los Angeles, The Adirondacks, and in 2010 my wife and I moved back to Wichita. I was home.
While I was away I stayed connected to my Shockers as best I could…which was tough outside of Wichita before the golden age of the internet, because we didn’t get much national airtime during those years. I listened to radio reports, drove an hour to a bar in Anaheim to see a game on TV, called my dad for scores, and did whatever it took to remain a loyal Wichita State fan. In 2006 I drove across country to see the Shocks lose to George Mason in the Sweet Sixteen…it was my wife’s first WSU game ever. Then, Mark Turgeon left…and my Shocks looked doomed to fall into despair again. However, they hired this guy named Gregg Marshall from Winthrop who sounded very exciting. I’d been excited about coaches in the past…but every time they do well…they leave. The first thing I did was shoot Coach Marshall an email welcoming him to Wichita and our program. He wrote back! Not a form email from some intern but a personal email from the coach of the team. I was needless to say, impressed. In 2008 I got married in Bolton Landing, NY and we came to Wichita soon after for a party to celebrate with all our friends from Wichita who were unable to make the trip to NY. My dad, Bud, had become great friends with Gregg Marshall and invited him to come. I had no idea he was there when I got up and gave my speech about Wichita and why I’m proud to be a Wichitan. In that speech, of course, I noted my Shockers and how much they have inspired me along my travels. Gregg pulled me aside afterwards and officially introduced himself and his wife Lynn to my wife Kate and me. We talked about a plethora of things (including basketball) but I could tell one thing for sure, I liked Gregg Marshall and there was something different about him.
In 2009 I was passing through Wichita for work and Gregg invited Kate and me to be honorary coaches for the first game of the season! HUGE honor! We sat on the bench with the team, were in all the huddles, went to the locker room, and celebrated a victory together. It was amazing! It was my first game at Koch Arena and Kate’s first game in Wichita. In 2010 Kate and I moved to Wichita for a number of reasons including a job, a want to start a family, a want to be closer to our families, and season tickets to the Shockers certainly was on my mind. That year I didn’t miss a single home game! In January we gave birth to my son Max and in March he saw his first game at Madison Square Garden where the Shockers won the NIT with their winningest season in WSU history. It was my favorite Shocker moment of all time. I will never forget celebrating with the players after the game, hugging the seniors, Gregg holding my son Max for pictures and calling him his “lucky charm,” and knowing I was there to witness history…and somehow feel like a part of it.
By 2012 I had gotten to know the players personally and that was even more special. I traveled with the team to away games, texted back and forth with them, and had the honor to get to know them off the court. To say they were the perfect example of student athletes would be an understatement. These guys were amazing. I will never forget the night before we beat Creighton in Omaha when I had dinner with Joe Ragland and Ben Smith (who were the players of the game the next night) and learning so much about who they were in their personal lives. We celebrated together in the locker room after victories, laughed on the plane, and cried together when our NCAA run ended at the hands of VCU. It was a special time for Wichita…but it wasn’t over.
This year was touted as a “rebuilding year,” but we have a Marshall for a coach and he doesn’t rebuild…he reloads. Picked fourth in the Valley I set my sights on being a positive fan no matter what and always offering the team the bright side of things. I had two hopes in my mind…beat Creighton and win the MVC Tournament. However, they didn’t feel like being the fourth team in the Valley and losing was extremely infrequent. When they did I tweeted all the positive things they did and reminded them how much Wichita loved them. On 11/12/12 I got a tweet from Cleanthony Early saying “Your tweet inspired me!” That was when I started realizing how special this team was and that it was always like this because of the makeup of the team, the city, the program, the everything. Gregg invites families into the locker room after every home game, surrounds his players with love, and does everything he can to remind the boys what they are a part of while including the fans as the eternal 6th man. It is not normal. It is not how other programs operate. This is Wichita. This is Shocker Nation.
I know every player on the team, and that is not bragging rights because I share that right with every Shocker fan in Wichita. That is how things are out here on the prairie. When my son Max turned two the guys lined up to sign his shirt, hold him, high-five him, and make him feel like he was part of the team. It makes a father tear up to know that there are role models out there like these boys. They are our ambassadors to the world and they have stepped into the spotlight and handled the responsibility with humble poise. They are heroes already and will forever go down in history. The wins to get to the Final Four belong to them as well as every player before them, every fan with a story just like mine, and a city that supports them through every win and loss.
Max talks about them every day and practices to be a basketball player like them and “play for Coach.” When we sit at the table for dinner he protests (as all two-year-olds do) and we get him to eat his veggies by telling him that’s how Carl Hall got to be a beast. He takes a big bite and says, “That’s a Cle bite!!” I give him a high-five and he says, “Noooo…that was a CARL HALL BITE!!!” Then he growls like a wild animal because “Carl Hall’s a beast!” Nick Wiggins was amazing with him on his birthday and Ehimen held him like he was his own son – Max loved being seven feet up in the air. After every game in the locker room Ehimen and Max still wave to each other. Max and I always make a special point to talk to Ron Baker and Evan Wessel since they were injured – or as Max says “they got an ouchy hand and ouchy foot.” Tekele made my day as a father when Max and I stopped by practice one day. Tekele had a few seconds between drills and was catching his breath when he saw us standing under the hoop. He popped his fist out to Max for a bump and asked, “What’s up Max?” Max gave him the bump and watched as he took off down court for the drill then returned down court and dunked right above Max and gave him a wink. Tekele doesn’t know it but Max has talked about it every day since when I tuck him in to bed at night. Demetric got his 100th win on Max’s birthday but in the locker room he was more intent on wishing Max a happy birthday than celebrating his own success. CJ, Fred, Jake…my two-year-old knows them all by name, EVERY player on the team, Derail, Zach, Kadeem…everyone. Carl and Cle are Max’s heroes though Malcolm has become quite popular in the past few weeks. However, there is no one Max is more enamored with than “Coach.” Max will tell you plain and simple, “When Max grows up he’s gonna be a Shocker and play for Coach!” That’s a two-year-old! That is what affect this team has.
In the past two weeks I have heard these questions over and over again, “Who are the Shockers?” -and- “Where is Wichita?” The Shockers are members of the Missouri Valley Conference (or “The Valley” as we call it) which is the second oldest conference in the nation. Wichita is pretty much located in the center of the United States and the largest city in Kansas where we build airplanes, have an agricultural economy based around wheat, have one of the nation’s the highest quality of life to cost of living, and the largest amount of entrepreneurs per capita in the nation. We are thinkers and doers, and if a great idea got funded it may have started in Wichita. Yes, we have large buildings and a bustling downtown but we prefer to slow things down so we can enjoy life with friends. We use the word “love” a lot around here because we are passionate. Though Wichita’s politics seem conservative to the outside eye I have never met a more accepting group of people in all my travels across this country (and I’m quite liberal). We are good at what we do and we work very hard. We also give back because we love our city and our community. We wear black and gold because of the golden waves of wheat this city was founded on and remember our history including when WSU was the Fairmount College, Wheatshockers in 1906. On October 2nd, 1970 we lost our football team in a tragic plane crash. We have focused on basketball and other non-football sports since. This is our 10th appearance in the NCAA tournament, our 5th Sweet Sixteen, fourth Elite Eight, and second Final Four. Our women’s basketball team made their first NCAA tournament appearance this season and our volleyball team went to the Sweet Sixteen as well.
So, why should you root for us? There are four teams left in the nation and if you are a fan of one of the other three remaining you should be rooting for them. If you are not…join the Shockers of Wichita State and be a part of history. ESPN, CBS, and so on will give you plenty of stats to review and get to know our players on the court…but you should root for us because of who we are off the court. Our motto this year is “play angry” because it was Antoine Carr‘s advice to the team…because they are such good kids. They embody sportsmanship. We are Rudy…we don’t give up…but we are not the underdog and we are not Cinderella. We are the unknowns and we don’t think we are better than anyone…we just know we can beat anyone. “Not satisfied” is another thing you’ll hear…we are not satisfied. As much as I want to see a Final Four banner in our arena next year I would rather see a National Champion banner. We are not looking back at our wins…we are only focused on the game we are about to play. There was no party when the team came back from LA because there is still work to be done – we’ll celebrate when its all said and done. We have a tough road ahead of us but that’s the way we like it. We don’t have a superstar who will go off for 30 points a night…the whole team is a superstar and we win together. Our bench is amazing and we truly go 10 deep. Everyone plays their role and we find a way to win.
My son Max, as you read above, was the lucky charm the year the Shocks won the NIT. His autographed ball stands in his room as the constant reminder that he was there the day the Shockers ended the season with a win. I told Gregg this year, “Look out, every time we have a boy the Shockers win a title.” My wife and I brought our second son, Dodge, into the world on 3/1/13…a month ago on the first day of March. Its been a shocking year of college hoops fraught with upsets and March Madness…let’s make it the most shocking season of all. No matter what, my bags are packed and I’m taking my two sons with me to Atlanta to witness basketball and Shocker history. We’re going to the Final Four and my whole family is going together to root for our Wichita State family.
On Twitter use #WatchUs to join the Shocker conversation and root for the home team. Go Shocks! I am not an official representative of Wichita State or its athletics department and the opinions expressed in this article and on this site are my own. I’m a fan…and I think you should be too.