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Allen Fieldhouse, filled with memories and noise, turns 50

Posted: Wednesday, March 02, 2005

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Allen Fieldhouse has turned 50, and is showing a little wear.

There are dark, sooty smudges on the outside of the building where Oscar Robertson once scored 56 points, where Wilt Chamberlain grabbed 36 rebounds and where Roy Williams' team scored 150 points against mighty Kentucky.

Renovation plans are in the works, yet many Kansas fans would prefer to leave their basketball cathedral just the way it is.

Three generations of Kansans will argue that no arena in the country is any louder or more beloved than their gently aging edifice facing Naismith Drive, a street named after the former Kansas professor who invented the game.

Most Kansas fans don't even refer to it as ''Allen Fieldhouse'' or even ''Allen.'' To them, it's simply ''the fieldhouse.''

''I'll never forget the first time I walked into the fieldhouse,'' said Williams, now coach at North Carolina, who won 418 games in 15 years as Kansas' coach. ''I had just gotten the job. It was dark and I walked in there by myself and just stood there and looked around. I thought, 'Boy, this will probably be an unbelievable place.' But I had no idea.''

Named in honor of longtime coach Phog Allen, the fieldhouse was christened March 1, 1955, with a game against Kansas State. So when Kansas State visits Wednesday night, the university will mark the milestone anniversary.

''It's one of the great venues in America,'' broadcaster Dick Vitale said. ''It's an unbelievable experience and a place with fantastic enthusiasm. You walk in here, you think about Clyde Lovellette and Phog Allen and Wilt Chamberlain, JoJo White, Danny Manning, all the great ones, all the success that's been here.''

It's a rare night when even one of the 16,300 seats is empty. Visitors are amazed by the wall of unrelenting noise.

''I couldn't hear myself talking to my teammates,'' Texas point guard Daniel Gibson said after Kansas beat the Longhorns 90-65 this season.

After the Jayhawks beat Oklahoma State 81-79 on Sunday, Kansas raised its record to 564-102 in the building.

For tens of thousands of Kansas grads, the fieldhouse is the thread that binds through the years. The band playing and crowd pulsating on frosty winter nights. Come spring, the sunlight streams through long rows of little windows way up high.

Max and Jackie Kennedy were practically newlyweds when they took their seats on the building's opening night. They sat together on that same row for virtually every home game Kansas played until two years ago. Then Max died.

''The hardest thing I had to do was walk in that fieldhouse without him,'' Jackie said.

Robertson, playing for Cincinnati in an NCAA tournament game, set the fieldhouse record with 56 points in 1958. Chamberlain owns the records for Kansas players with 52 points and 36 rebounds. In a wild game in 1989, Kansas won 150-95, the most points scored against Kentucky in its storied history.

Then there was the day the Jayhawks overcame a 19-point deficit to beat UCLA, the defending national champion.

''I didn't know if the roof was going to collapse or the lights would go out or what,'' Williams said. ''But I was scared for a minute something might happen.''

Near the end of his life, Chamberlain returned to the arena in perhaps the fieldhouse's most poignant moment. For reasons still obscure, the greatest Jayhawk of them all had become estranged from his alma mater and refused to come back for decades.

Some said he had been hurt by racial slurs as a student in the 1950s. Others believe he felt he had let everyone down during the three-overtime loss to North Carolina in the 1957 NCAA title game.

But, finally, in 1998, the big man was there, and the fieldhouse was jammed. With some difficulty, the 61-year-old basketball great made his way onto the court. He wore the same blue-trimmed letter jacket he packed away 40 years before.

''I've learned in life that you have to take the bitter with the sweet,'' he told a silent fieldhouse. ''And how sweet this is. I'm a Jayhawk and proud to be a part of the tradition here.''

Then, to the cheers of 16,300, he clasped both hands around a gift just presented to him. He held it high and slowly turned around for all to see.

Was that a bead of sweat crawling down Wilt's cheek? A tear?

Only a few close friends knew then he was battling severe health problems. In about a year, he would be dead.

''I love KU,'' he said that day. ''I love Allen Fieldhouse.''



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