My fondest sports memory as an underclassman at the University of Oklahoma had absolutely nothing to do with football.
It involved a 1995 OU men’s basketball game, which seems apropos considering the current Sooners squad is ranked No. 1 in one poll, No. 2 in another and is coming off an epic, triple-overtime loss at Kansas that, if anything, actually burnished OU’s reputation.
It might sound like blasphemy or as if I’m trying to be ironically cool by saying a basketball memory topped all my football memories as an OU student and budding sports journalist. After all, football rules the roost in collegiate athletics, particularly at OU. Even the most forlorn football bowl game will often garner higher TV ratings than a regular-season matchup of college basketball blue bloods.
Don’t believe me? On Nov. 30, 2014, a basketball game between Kansas and Michigan State, two of the premier teams in the country, was watched by 935,000 people. On Dec. 19, 2015, a football bowl game matchup between Arkansas State and Louisiana Tech drew 1.45 million viewers.
The 1980s and ’90s were a different time. College basketball was thriving, particularly at OU, where football was sputtering. During my span as an undergraduate, for example, the Sooner football teams were a combined 28-26-3. The program went without a conference title or a double-digit win season from 1988 through 1999.
Into this abyss of mediocrity stepped the OU men’s basketball team. Headed by Billy Tubbs’ century-scoring clubs and followed by Kelvin Sampson’s army of grinders and overachievers, OU basketball was arguably the athletics show on OU’s campus from the late ’80s until the dawn of the 21st century.
There were many great and exciting teams:
- the national runner-up group in 1987 that featured NBA players Stacey King and Mookie Blaylock;
- the ’89-’90 squad that featured a “Skeeter Meter” (for the scoring totals of Sooner standout Skeeter Henry) and went into the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 1;
- the out-of-nowhere 1995 team in Sampson’s first season that had both an undefeated home record and two home-court stormings by the OU fans;
- the uber-satisfying win in 2000 to close out the old incarnation of arch-rival Oklahoma State’s beloved Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Yes, OU basketball was hip, successful and the biggest show in town.
The past few days have shown it can be again, but it won’t be easy.
College basketball seems to have fallen off the popularity cliff the past few years — empty arenas dot the country, and anemic television ratings are the norm. The sport has seemingly sold its soul to control-freak coaches, off-campus, made-for-TV games and boring on-court action. While the NCAA Tournament in March is still usually electrifying and garners huge TV numbers, a regular-season matchup involving anything less than elite squads is unlikely to attract more than the most hardcore hoops fan or a school alumnus.
However, starting with OU’s win over No.11 Iowa State on Saturday in front of a sold-out Lloyd Noble Center that sounded to some like the loudest they’ve ever heard the place, to the nail-biting gladiatorial combat at Kansas on Monday highlighted by senior guard Buddy Hield’s 46-point outburst, good times are back for OU basketball and OU fans in a way we haven’t seen in decades.
Speaking of decades ago, remember that aforementioned favorite OU sports memory of mine? It happened Feb. 20, 1995, when the Kansas Jayhawks rolled into town with the No. 1 ranking. The Sooners were in the midst of a revival after a few seasons of being up and down, but nothing prepared those in attendance for what happened that night.
It involved Kansas head coach Roy Williams going face-to-face with a group of rowdy OU students; the OU band director losing his mind during a timeout and spontaneously running around the arena screaming for the crowd to get excited; the OU baseball team sitting together in a section wearing coal miner hats in support of erstwhile teammate and basketball star Ryan Minor; a last-minute 3-pointer from OU power forward Ernie Abercrombie; the OU crowd joyously rushing the court after the 76-73 win; an OU student reporter losing all semblance of journalistic integrity and joining the court rush and seeking out Abercrombie’s father to tell him, “Thanks for having a great son!”; and, later that night, an OU assistant coach dancing on the bar at O’Connell’s, waving at the TV screen as highlights of that night’s game were shown.
Two notes occur to me after pulling myself out of the reverie of the past:
- That OU student reporter ended up ranking that game as his greatest college sports memory as a student.
- These are the types of memories THIS year’s OU basketball team can create for a new crop of fans.