Forget the Free Throws. How KU Really Won the Final Four

Since my husband was out of town, I kind of invited myself to watch the NCAA championship game last night with some friends, Cynthia and Tim.  Our sons played soccer together for years.  We know how to lose really well together — cheering futilely during thunderstorms, ice storms, and heat waves, and trashing the other team in low voices so their parents don’t try to get into fistfights with us.  We have big mouths and strong loyalties, but we aren’t crazy.

I offer to bring something to their house.  Cynthia says no.  That might upset the “balance” they had Saturday, when Kansas beat Carolina.  “For you to bring something would alter the tradition,” she emails me.  “We can’t risk the consequences.  So just bring yourself.”

I begin to worry.  Consequences?  Balance?  Tradition?  This is looking serious.  What if I do something wrong?

So I just bring myself, wearing the Kansas T-shirt my son — a KU senior — gave me.  The group that gathers includes three KU alumnae, Cynthia, her sister Sarah, and her friend, Mary, as well as Cynthia’s husband, Tim, and Mary’s husband, Chad.  The husbands aren’t KU alums, but they don’t want to die a miserable death or sleep alone for the rest of their lives, so they know who they’re cheering for.

Pizza arrives.  It’s exactly the same kind of pizza the group ate during the North Carolina game.  Why mess with tradition?

I sit on a chair and try not to upset the balance by my presence.  I decide not to tell the group that I’m concerned about the game, since 1) Memphis looks pretty damned invincible to me and 2) KU has better-looking uniforms.  Watching the basketball finals over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a definite trend:  The team with the better-looking uniforms usually loses.  I loved UCLA’s uniforms — a gorgeous shade of blue — and what happened to them?  They got blown out of the water by Memphis.  I may not know much about basketball, but I can pick up significant trends.

We watch the game.  KU is ahead at the half, so everyone is convivial.  I try to call my son, who’s in Lawrence.  It sounds like there’s either a party or a freight train in the background when I call him.  He screams he’ll call me back later, after the game.

Memphis comes back after the half.  They build up a lead.  The mood in the TV room is tense and surly.  Cynthia is sure the refs are biased against Kansas.  Tim decides to concentrate on the Memphis free-throwing so he can undermine the team’s self-esteem.  Sarah picks up her needlework.  Mary receives constant text messages from people around the country.  Chad says, “Well, this is a good game.  You wouldn’t want a blowout, would you?”  Silence.  Everyone would prefer a blow-out.

Memphis goes up by more.  Cynthia tells Tim his free-throw psych-out strategy isn’t working.  Sarah leaves the room so the tide will turn.  Immediately, Memphis scores a three-pointer.  Sarah is called back into the room.  Clearly, her presence is necessary.

I suggest we talk about politics so we can relax.  Since we’re all Democrats, we talk about Hillary and Barack.  The instant after Tim says something about Barack, KU starts to do better.  “Saying ‘Barack’ is the key,” I tell the others.  Since they’re all in a state of semi-hysteria, they actually listen to me.  Memphis steps up to the free-throw line.  “Barack, Barack, Barack,” we chant.  Memphis misses.

After several successful minutes — because of our chanting, obviously — we debate the wisdom of saying “Barack” too frequently.  Clearly, it has magical powers.  But for offense or defense?  For both?  Will we dilute its power by using it too often?  Barack, Barack, Barack.  Memphis misses a free throw and KU scores a miraculous three-pointer to tie the game.  Barack, Barack, Barack.

You know the rest.  Kansas wins.  We chant Barack all the way — although Tim does point out that his free-throw psych-out was certainly effective, so he should get some credit, too.  Barack, Barack, Barack.  I leave, happy.  I haven’t upset the winning balance at Cynthia and Tim’s house.  I think I may be invited back again.  That’s what happens when you help win a game.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

3 comments… add one
  • Sarah Link


    As someone not steeped in Kansas tradition, you may have missed Mary’s brilliant transformation of “Barack, Barack, Barack,” to “Barack Chalk, Jayhalk. Ask your son to explain it. Otherwise, you captured the evening beautifully.


  • ChrisAnnethemum Link

    Loved your blog and share with our fam. Here’s the website for a Barack Chalk Jawhawk tee shirt!

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I forgot to mention that at least one person in the group was heard to mutter, “Now I’m really voting for Obama.”

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