It should be national championship night. Maybe KU would be playing tonight in the school’s ninth title game seeking their fourth NCAA title. The Chicago Tribune ran a simulation and had the Jayhawks beating Michigan State tonight to indeed grab the 2020 nets. USA Today had KU beating Dayton on a buzzer-beating shot.

Alas, there was no tournament this year so we’ll never know if Dot, Dok, Marcus and company could have won four to six games to hang another banner in Allen Fieldhouse.

With the lack of a Final Four this weekend, I reached back to my past to rediscover one of the most beloved teams of my life: the 1988 Jayhawks. I watched the Elite Eight game against Kansas State, the national semifinal game against Duke, and the title game against Oklahoma. Thank goodness for YouTube!

My memories of that 1988 tournament run are, naturally, some of my favorites ever. But it had been awhile since I watched any of these games. Back in the day I watched them often, the tapes of them some of my most sacred possessions. So reviewing the YouTube videos quickly shook free memories that had been gathering dust for years and years. I sensed when big moments were coming, I remembered exact phrases the announcers used.

That ’88 KU squad was about as star-crossed a team as you will ever find. They seemingly couldn’t get a break in the regular season, losing six players to injury, grades, or other issues. Larry Brown had to recruit two football players just to have enough bodies for practice. They lost five of six games and were hoping to end Danny Manning’s career with an NIT home game.

Then, following a 21–11 regular season, KU got every break possible in the NCAA Tournament.

First round opponent Xavier badmouthed host city Lincoln, NE and Manning. The Jayhawks waxed the Musketeers by 13 to open the tournament. Instead of #3 seed NC State, which featured seven players who got NBA minutes, KU faced Murray State in the second round and survived by three to advance to the Sweet 16.

Waiting for them was #7 seed Vanderbilt who had upset the big, physical #2 seed Pittsburgh. Manning abused Will Perdue for 38 points and it was onto the Elite 8 where in-state rival K-State was waiting after knocking off top-seed Purdue. This was likely the greatest team in Purdue history – Troy Lewis, Todd Mitchell, Everette Stephens, and Melvin McCants gave the Boilermakers four studs – and KU would have had no chance against them. In the regional championship game, K-State controlled the game for large stretches of the first 32 minutes until a KU run gave them control and they cruised to a 13-point win. Scooter Barry played the game of his life on a day when Mitch Richmond was harassed by KU’s stifling defense.

Improbably it was back to Kansas City for the 50th Final Four and a meeting with Duke, who had beaten the Jayhawks a month earlier in Lawrence. KU jumped out early, leading 14–0 and 26–4.[1] Duke came roaring back. A three-point shot that could have turned it into a two-point game spun out with about 4:00 left, and Duke never got closer than four after that.

Somehow KU would be playing for the national title. They would take on Oklahoma, who had beaten them twice by eight points in the regular season. That OU team was loaded. Harvey Grant was a first team All Big 8 player on the greatest All Big 8 team of all time: Manning, Grant, Mitch Richmond, Derrick Chievous, and Jeff Grayer. OU also had Stacey King, who would be the 1989 Big 8 player of the year and Mookie Blaylock, one of the greatest defensive guards to ever play in the Big 8. The Sooners had lost just three times, scoring over 100 points an amazing 20 times.

KU famously ran with the Sooners for the first half, 20 minutes of gorgeous basketball than ended in a 50-all tie. The second half was more deliberate, and the teams traded leads until KU stretched out a lead in the closing five minutes. A massive, last second, flip-it-and-hope shot by Chris Piper splashed through as the shot clock expired at the 4:00 mark and KU was up by six. Kemper Arena was a madhouse, sounding more like a game in Lawrence than in a “neutral” setting.

KU closed poorly, though. Manning took two-straight poor, rushed shots that missed.[2] KU missed three of four free throws. Blaylock stole an inbounds pass. But Oklahoma could not take advantage. They got the lead down to two points once, but Scooter Barry and Manning closed the game hitting five of six free throws to clinch the title. Oklahoma, a team with three NBA first round picks, had lost to Manning and a bunch of spare parts. Milt Newton took terrible shots all weekend that all seemed to crawl in. He went 6–6 in the title game. Clint Normore, one of the football players, played 16 minutes, scored seven points, and was also perfect from the field. Piper, a Lawrence High School product who was playing injured, scored eight points and had seven rebounds, which would have tied for a team-best on Oklahoma.

And Manning. Good grief! In one of the greatest title game performance ever, he scored 31, grabbed 18 rebounds, had five steals, two blocks, and two assists.

Danny and the Miracles indeed.

So many feelings went through me watching these games. Manning was so freaking good. He’s the alpha KU player of my life, the clear #1 player in modern program history. But without seeing him in action for so long I forgot how insanely good he was. He had that quick, unstoppable jump hook. When I used to play a lot of pickup ball I tried to mimic Drew Gooden’s jump hook. Gooden’s shot was great, but it was nowhere near Manning’s shot. Manning could pass, flipping quick passes through gaps in the defense. He could dribble pretty well for his size and relative to his era. He was a strong rebounder. He could block shots. What really stuck out, though, was how he was so fundamentally sound and relied on that and not great athleticism to get the job done. He was fast, he was a decent jumper. But KU has had 30 big men who were more athletically impressive than Manning. He was miles beyond anyone else when it came to the basic skills of the game.

Larry Brown coached a perfect game. On a team that had lost most of its depth, he found a way to get decent minutes out of four bench players. He adjusted his offense throughout the night, always a step-ahead of Billy Tubbs. And for a coach known for mentally wearing down his players, he pulled every correct string to get a team that had no business playing for a national title to believe they were the best team on the court that night.

I remember that night, April 4, 1988, vividly. I trust as long as I am alive I will. I realized while watching these grainy copies of old VHS tapes on YouTube how long ago these games were. They were 32 years ago! It is crazy how moments like this, about sports, can stick with you forever.

The 2008 was the greatest KU team ever. But the 1988 team will always be my favorite.

  1. In the game in Lawrence KU lead 28–6 before losing in overtime.  ↩
  2. On of my favorite images from the game came during a timeout shortly after Manning’s second miss. As he walked to the bench, Brown walked toward him, smile on his face, pressing his palms down, saying “Calm down! Calm down!” Manning returned Brown’s smile. I love that. You can see that Manning, the best player in college that year, was amped up knowing he was moments away from a national title. It was such a human and authentic moment.  ↩