When KU, K-State and Shockers fans get together it’s — well, complicated
ST. LOUIS — The houses of Capulet and Montague have nothing on the house of Kater, where hearts and minds — to say nothing of the closets — are divided not two ways, but three. Bruce Kater attended the University of Kansas for a spell before finishing his undergraduate work at Friends University, which is wife Ann’s alma mater as well. One of their kids went to Kansas State; another attended Wichita State.
"I have purple, I have gold, and I have blue," Bruce says. "In fact, we used to go to the KU-K-State basketball game when my daughter was there, and I would really wear my blue shirt with a purple shirt over top of it. And then at halftime, with KU, we knew they were going to win, so I’d pull off the purple and I’d be wearing blue through the second half."
Bruce wears a blue Jayhawk T-shirt as he strides along the concourse at Scottrade Center on Friday; Ann, at his side, has a K-State purple top. They both plan to cheer for the Shockers when top-seeded Wichita meets Cal Poly later in the day.
"They’re all great," says Bruce, a Wichita native who now lives in Springfield, Mo. "And we root for every one of them, as long as they’re not playing each other."
There’s a collective sense of pride along Clark Avenue, a blend of three different colors and one odd, communal heartbeat. Kansas, a state that makes up 0.9 percent of the population in the United States, has somehow accounted for 9.3 percent of the teams playing in Friday’s second-round games at the 2014 NCAA Tournament — and 37.5 percent of the St. Louis pod.
So here they are: Family, friends, neighbors and, to some degree, complete strangers, all thrown into the same pot. Kansas, the 2 seed in the South, plays Eastern Kentucky to end Friday’s afternoon session; a few hours later, Wichita, the 1 seed in the Midwest, plays the Mustangs, followed by ninth-seeded K-State versus Kentucky to cap the evening.
Jayhawk fans gleefully refer to Wildcat fans as "little brother," and prefer not to acknowledge the Shockers (or their fans) at all. Kansas hasn’t played Wichita State since 1993; the Shockers haven’t met K-State on the basketball court in a decade.
Will the KU posse cheer for Cal Poly, the ultimate underdog? Will Shockers fans root for the glamour of Big Blue Nation or a chance to settle old scores with K-State?
"There are going to be, I think," Bruce says, "more people that are going to root for everybody than you would get in most other places."
It is, as they say on Facebook, complicated. Take Blake Beymer, who hails from Lakin, Kan., roughly 40 minutes east of the Colorado border, a lifelong Jayhawk who graduated from Wichita State in 2001. It was a 10-hour drive to St. Louis to watch his two favorite teams share a building, a trek that warranted an overnight stay in Columbia, near the University of Missouri.
"I didn’t sleep at all," he says, grinning. "It was an awful night."
This isn’t a road trip; it’s a pilgrimage. Blake’s father, Gary, sits to his left, flashing purple flip-flops with a giant K-State Powercat logo on the straps. Blake’s mother, Dixie, removes her shoes. The nails on the left foot are painted black — the big toe black and gold, in honor of the Shockers. The nails on the right foot are blue — the big toe crimson and blue, in honor of KU.
Gary and Dixie say their home leans purple in the fall, given K-State’s success in football, and blue in the winter, when KU tends to dominate the hardwood. Blake’s older brother adopted the Wildcats, little bro went with the Jayhawks. Lines were drawn, blood was spilled, and that was that.
"Dysfunctional," Gary says, wiggling his toes. "You might say dysfunctional."
Yes. Yes, you might.
"It’s all K-State," Blake says of tiny Lakin, population 2,200 and change. "It’s a disaster zone for me."
St. Louis, though … well, it’s something else.
"I think this is great," Blake says, pointing at the floor. "I’m going to run into people I know. It’s going to be great that everybody is at one site. Because, my God, when is this ever going to happen again?"
That’s a good question. A damn good question. You pose it to Eric Sexton. He grins.
"We love the University of Kansas and Kansas State," Wichita State’s athletic director says. "They are great partners in our state. I mean, our governor talks about being the ‘Governor of the Great State of Basketball.’ And so they’re both programs that we have a high level of respect for. And of course, we always look to have competition that we have a high level of respect for."
Sexton is actually a distant cousin — a "shirttail cousin," he chuckles — of KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger.
"His cousin is married to my wife’s sister," Sexton explains.
As for Kansas State athletic director John Currie …
"No, no," Sexton laughs. "That would have been kind of crazy."
My God, when is this ever going to happen again? Wichita coach Gregg Marshall is ready, willing and eager. K-State coach Bruce Weber, whose team has played in Wichita two of the last three years, just not against the Shockers, says he’s open-minded to at least considering the idea.
Kansas coach Bill Self, um — not so much.
"We’ll play Missouri before we’ll play Wichita State," Bruce Kater says, chuckling.
And Self would sooner pierce a sensitive body part than play the Tigers again.
"Well, there ya go," Bruce laughs. "It’s probably that if Wichita State beat KU, it would be such a shameful experience."
Shameful? Really? Against a Top 10 program?
"Now they are," Bruce says, chuckling again. "Now they are. I think I know what you’re saying, but I still think KU is going to have an aversion to playing Wichita State for a while. And if we lose, we’ve got everything to lose."
One odd, communal heartbeat. Three completely different agendas.
"We’ve talked to a ton of people out here, and they’re all saying the same thing as we’re saying," Bruce says. "We’re rooting for each other. Absolutely."
And if Wichita would meet K-State on Sunday?
"Wellllllllll," Ann says, smiling. "That might be an issue."
Like we said: Complicated.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.