Every time the University of Colorado men's basketball team hosts the University of Kansas two hours before kickoff in the Super Bowl, you can count on an audience of, say, dozens. Street-corner preachers in sub-zero weather draw bigger crowds. So do doctors advertising specials on pre-frontal lobotomies. More Boulderites are watching third-round ice dancing from Vienna on the boob tube than are sitting in the Coors Events Center. They say male Buff hoopsters have stunk up the joint for so long that the towel boys don't even go to the games anymore.
Well, a funny thing happened at 2 p.m. on Sunday, January 26, two hours before the Super Bowl. Almost 12,000 fans crammed into the Events Center--the second sellout in a row--and began cheering their newfound heroes. Then CU came within an eyelash of taking out the undefeated Jayhawks--eleven-point favorites and the top-ranked team in the country--before scoring just seven points in the final eight minutes and falling 77-68.
It was Colorado's first loss of the season in Big 12 play. The team's overall record stood at 15-4.
Have we suddenly been hurled into some kind of parallel universe? Are those extraterrestrials running around out there in the black-and-gold shorts? Or have scheming geneticists on the Boulder campus jacked up the DNA codes of the actual CU players, recasting them as winners? Does General Patton, the head coach, threaten his soldiers with summary execution if they don't beat Oklahoma State?
Who knows? But basketball fever suddenly has all of Boulder, Denver and selected mountaintops in its grip. For the first time in more than 27 years, the Buffs were ranked in the Top 25--eighteenth in the Associated Press poll, twentieth on the USA/CNN list. They may still be looking up at Kansas and Kentucky, but they're looking down at traditional powers like North Carolina, Texas and Marquette.
Eat your heart out, Koy Detmer. For the first time since the invention of the sneaker, rejuvenated hoop fans in the shadow of the Flatirons also have real hope of landing a berth in this year's NCAA tournament. For more years than anyone can remember, NCAA--in the Boulder basketball sense, at least--stood for No Colorado Abominations Allowed. This year, barring a complete collapse, the Buffs are even money to finish second behind the Jayhawks in their expanded conference and land a spot at the Big Dance. They haven't heard the band play since March 1969.
How dramatic is the turnabout? Well, for one thing, the Buffs, as of last week, had won all four of their conference road games this season. Big deal, right? Sure is. Between 1982 and this year, they won exactly 5 out of 105 league games on the road. When CU beat Kansas State 69-60 on January 29, that also gave them seven victories in the month of January, their best mark since 1941-42, under CU head coach--and we're not kidding here--Frosty Cox. Their sixteen wins so far in 1996-97 are already seven more than their total for the previous year, when they even managed to lose an exhibition game in overtime to Marathon Oil, an industrial-league team.
Astonished basketball observers point to January 16, 1996, as the turning point up in Boulder. No, that wasn't the night a team of gurus from Sunshine Canyon dropped by to burn incense in the locker room. It was the night that embattled coach Joe Harrington--73-86 in six mostly abysmal seasons--finally resigned after an especially tough overtime loss to Southern Utah. Assistant Ricardo Patton took the reins, and before you could say "multiple misdemeanors," the new man started talking about winning, and he started laying down the law about bad behavior. Most dramatically, the team's second-leading scorer, forward Mack Tuck, was not asked back this season even though the Buffs were in sore need of baskets.
Instead, General Patton imposed tough love on his charges. And he started making them play a little defense--a concept familiar only to Ceal Barry's CU women's team in recent years. The results have been radical: After giving up 81 points per game in 1995-96, the Buffs have shaved that to 69.3 PPG this year. CU scoring and rebounding are about the same, but Patton's army is committing almost five fewer turnovers each outing this year.
Meanwhile, the kid who didn't get away, sophomore guard Chauncey Billups--the pride of Denver's George Washington High School--has developed into one of the nation's best players, scoring almost nineteen points a game. Patton's offensive also features a pair of senior forwards at the height of their collegiate powers: Martice Moore scores ten a game and pulls down 5.5 rebounds; another Denver product, Fred Edmonds--"Fredmonds" to his pals--averages thirteen points and 6.5 boards. Bench scoring is also way up--and so is belief. With their win last week in Manhattan, Kansas, the Buffs--regarded as Big 8 roadkill every time they stepped onto the floor--won their initial four conference road games for the first time in 33 years.
After the Buffs took down Missouri in Columbia on January 7--something they hadn't done since Dr. Naismith nailed up the first peach basket--even Tigers coach Norm Stewart was mightily impressed. "They're playing as hard as I've ever seen a Colorado team play, and they just keep coming at you," he said. "They never let up...People forget that Chauncey Billups is one of the best players in the country. Just watching him ought to be worth the price of admission."
This year, Colorado winning at Mizzou is one thing. Beating Kansas here, there or anywhere is quite another. But not even that daunts this revitalized bunch. "The thing is, now we expect to win," Edmonds said last week. "That's why the Kansas game was a big disappointment. We're not satisfied anymore with coming close. We know we can do the whole job." CU visits Lawrence on February 15 for a second shot at Jacque Vaughn and the Jayhawks.
By then, the game just might loom larger than the Super Bowl.
As if people around here don't have anything better to worry about--like whether O.J. will have to take a job selling vacuum cleaners--the burning topic for debate in local saloons and opium dens seems to be the color scheme of the new Denver Broncos uniforms.
Predictably, the combatants are divided by length of residence. Old hands in these oxygen-starved parts--which is to say citizens who once had speaking acquaintances with both Randy Gradishar and Mattie Silks--generally argue in favor of the Donks' current Halloween-orange jerseys and that big "D" (stands for "Downhearted" these days) on the side of the helmet. Tradition--that's the thing. And the ongoing license to paint the front of your house the same shade as a forest fire.
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Denver's newcomers--which includes anyone who will go within fifty yards of sushi and all owners of NordicTracks--believe that the manner of dress over at Mile High Stadium doesn't matter very much. If Broncos owner Pat Bowlen chooses to encase his employees in navy blue, then navy blue it will be, and damn the ghost of Frank Tripucka. Hey, if Bowlen wants each player to wear chain mail, a snowshoe and a roller skate, that's also his prerogative.
Inside any uniform, these folks reason, the heart of a man apt to freeze up in the playoffs still beats--and barely.
That brings us to the third force majeur in the Great Uniform Debate. In several watering holes we've visited lately--rude places where mugs of Coors Light and sports-related insults sail past your ear with equal frequency--there's another, more enlightened view. This says that instead of wearing those privates-grabbing knickers with the little pads in them, a polyester jersey with a number on the front of it and headgear General Rommel would like, the Broncos would do better to make a completely different fashion statement. To wit: If there's still shame in the world, John Elway, Anthony Miller and every last special-teams flash-in-the-pan on the club will turn in his old duds and opt for oversized, ankle-length black raincoat, dark, brimmed hat of Sicilian origin, and false mustache and beard.
So disguised, this view states, the players would finally get relief from the hot public gazes of angry fans who once believed in them, as well as enough rest to begin thinking about screwing up next January, too. And the year after that.