And thus, it ends.
This isn’t going to be another post rehashing the hows and whys of the end of the Kansas-Missouri rivalry. I’m not going to advocate for the continuation of it, nor argue who is more at fault for its demise.
No, this post is about that special feeling you get each year when the schedule comes out and you circle the dates your school plays your arch rival. It’s about dreading going to school in fourth or seventh or tenth grade the day after your team loses a rivalry game. It’s about trying to contain your grin and not gloat too much when your team gets the win. It’s about your group of high school buddies getting together to watch games, separated by rooting interests on the couches. It’s about that same group of friends going off to college and sending each other smack-talking letters and filling up each others’ answering machines before and after games.1 It’s about visiting those friends and sitting alone amongst the enemy, quietly celebrating as your team pulls ahead. It’s about getting into arguments with strangers in bars in the middle of June about a game that took place six months, or even six years, earlier. It’s about walking with pride along the streets of Kansas City with your team’s gear on. It’s about bragging rights over Thanksgiving break after a football win, or all summer after a sweep in basketball. It’s about re-watching games two, three, four times because you beat the team you hate the most. It’s about spending an entire day reading every article you can find on the Internet after a huge win. It’s about commiserating with friends, complaining about officiating and how that other team always gets all the lucky breaks. It’s about making lunch bets with coworkers, woofing at your neighbor as you’re collecting your morning paper, or avoiding a loved one who happened to go to the wrong school for a few days after a loss. It’s about an endless list of things like that which make rivalries fun and maddening and different from every other game on the schedule.
And now that’s all gone.
Kansas has a terrific rivalry with Kansas State. The rivalry with Texas that has grown since Rick Barnes arrived in Austin has been more important than the Missouri rivalry most years. But neither of those is as nasty, bitter, stomach-churning, and, yes, fun as the Missouri rivalry.
If the rivalry has to end, even if temporarily, this year’s two regular season contests were a fantastic way for it to go out. In both cases the visiting team had the game won. Kansas led by eight with 2:00 to play in Columbia. Missouri led by 19 early in the second half in Lawrence. Each time the visitors failed to make the one, last, winning play. The hosts rallied, and when the teams walked off the court for the final times, the home crowds were delirious with joy, not just for beating their arch rival, but for doing so in an odds-defying, jaw-dropping, gut-punching manner. It’s as though the basketball gods, knowing there is no absolute right and wrong in the dispute between the schools, wanted each set of fans to leave feeling as good as they could about their team.
After Saturday’s game, people shouted, “The rivalry must go on!” One epic game hid two truths: the rivalry hasn’t been close for most of the last decade2 and what we saw Saturday was about a lot more than just two schools from neighboring states ending a long-term relationship.
This year’s Missouri team is fantastic. Every once in a while a team that looks like it shouldn’t work on paper defies the odds. Missouri is one of those teams. Despite lacking size and depth, they are a terrific combination of talents that fit perfectly together. Last year’s team was entertaining. This year’s is powerful and dangerous. While perhaps not as well balanced as the teams from the early 2000s, to me they seem like the best Missouri team since the early 90s.
And while KU’s season gets lost in the history of the program, a team that relies on two players for almost everything and has no margin for error will at least share the conference title, open the final week of the regular season in the top five, and are in position to claim a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Little of that seemed possible 12 weeks ago.
Fans of both teams are going to look back on this year’s editions fondly, independent of who is and is not on next year’s schedule. I’m not sure a lot of fans appreciate that yet in the wake of the emotions of Saturday.
My relationship with sports is changing. I’m preferring sports and games where I can watch more casually, less emotionally. I have a harder time controlling my mood swings during games, and find it easier to not watch. From a certain perspective, the rivalry could be ending at the perfect time for me. It’s easier to step back when something you love is disappearing. And while I’m comfortable with and supportive of KU’s choice to not pursue a non-conference meeting with Missouri for the time being, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to miss those days, and the feelings that came with them.
Rock Chalk, SEC bitches.