Small crowds sent bad message

By Steve Sell
January 27, 2014

The 2014 McPherson Invitational was the best tournament that nobody saw.

It was a special year for the event, as it celebrated its golden anniversary. You ask anybody, anywhere around the state what the best midseason tournament in Kansas is and more than likely McPherson will be mentioned in the Top 3. It has had the top teams in Kansas history take part (including the greatest of all time, the 1977 Wichita Heights Falcons), not to mention some players who went on to make their living playing in the NBA.

Tournament organizers certainly did their part as they brought in arguably the best top-to-bottom field I can ever remember and I’ve been doing this for 35 years. Except maybe for Carroll and Buhler, the other six teams legitimately could have won. The five 6A schools on hand all made state last year and returned many key performers. Carroll has been a 5A power for years, while 4A schools McPherson and Buhler have two of the best traditions in state history.

But those 2,000-plus crowds anticipated for Friday and Saturday dried up to dust when McPherson High was upset in the first round by Wichita North, which surprised everyone with its play throughout the week.

Thursday’s loss dropped the Bullpups into Friday’s 3 p.m. Sunshine Bracket game against arch-rival Buhler. I can understand the crowd not being overly large, considering people have work obligations. There was a good student turnout, but by McPherson standards it was one of the smallest crowds in quite some time.

But on Saturday, I was having to pick up my jaw when the fifth-place game against Blue Valley West started. There were a couple of hundred people, tops. Even the loyal MHS student section was smaller than normal, though it did its best to make its usual noise.

Blue Valley West is a top-notch team, despite its record. It has several players back from a team that finished second in 6A last year. This could easily have been for the championship had the teams not stumbled in the first round. It was the kind of game the Bullpups needed, to play a large-and-talented team, as it elevated their play and brought out their best. MHS played easily its best game of the year and should take a lot of confidence into the second half of the season.

This McPherson team, by the way, is one of the most enjoyable to watch in my 35 years. It conjures up memories of the old Jay Frazier teams, where teamwork and execution sometimes trump talent. MHS took out its axes Saturday and showed it could go all Paul Bunyan, chopping down the big tree.

I mentioned on the radio at the start of the game about the crowd and I did have some people tell me later in the night they showed up by half because they felt bad that the team had no support. And they were glad they came, because it was one of the tourney’s best games.

My point is this sends a terrible message to our kids. When they’re playing for championships, it’s all good and everybody wants to be a part of it. The Roundhouse rocks like none other. 

But if they’re not playing for first, it’s like they’re being punished. We should support our team, win or lose. I’m sure the players took note of all the fans disguised as empty seats on Saturday. They normally feed off their crowd and it causes the opponent to cower. But there was no homecourt advantage. The Bullpups had to create their own excitement.

I know it’s a lot of basketball to take in, 12 games in three days, not to mention the expense. But this tournament is a money-maker for the athletic department, as monies taken in allow the Bullpup teams to take those nice trips to Kansas City to make them better. There’s no question a lot of money was left on the table when the Bullpups lost in the first round. It was only the second time that’s had happened in the last 30 years. The Bullpups winning that first game is the key for the tournament to be a financial success. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on kids ages 15 to 18.

But give Wichita North credit. It spoiled the party. 

I had several coaches tell me during the weekend that they had told their players to expect an atmosphere like none other, that the Roundhouse would be electric because that’s what this tournament always produces. But to see a few hundred for the championship game was embarrassing and it reflected badly on our historic tradition. Lawrence Free State and Shawnee Mission East deserved better. They put on a great show, even in anonymity.

Hopefully normalcy will return next year and MHS will be playing for a championship. Everything will again be festive and exciting. Fans will flock to the Roundhouse.

But for one year, McPherson fans dropped the ball.