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A Fan’s Notes: Small(er) Teams, Big Hoop Dreams

Frankfort Convention Center

If you find yourself stuck in downtown traffic this weekend, then you’ll know that college basketball has once again taken over our town. In this March edition of 'A Fan’s Notes,' commentator Victor Wishna gets to the heart of the madness, with a look at the one tournament that started it all.

It’s tournament time again in Kansas City. Power & Light roars, the Sprint Center overflows, and the College Basketball Experience ain’t just a museum. Of course, by the end of the weekend, the Jayhawks and Wildcats and Sooners and Cyclones and pretty much all their fans will be gone, leaving behind only echoes, and a few hundred thousand empty plastic cups.

But just as we bid a buh-bye to the 10 teams of the Big 12 (yeah, I know), dozens more are set to descend on downtown. Around the corner at Municipal Auditorium, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics—the NAIA—will host its 78th Division I Men’s Basketball Championships. From Talladega College and Wayland Baptist to Montana Western and Cal State-San Marcos, they’re coming to Kansas City.

In many ways, the NAIA is the tournament hidden in plain sight, bereft of the buzz befitting the longest-running collegiate national championship—of any sport—in the United States. It's not just that all eyes turn to the NCAA, which has literally trademarked “March Madness.” With the American League Champion Royals playing meaningful spring baseball, Sporting KC’s strike-threatened season finally underway, and even the Chiefs making free-agency noise, there's little room left on the radar for this gathering of small-school teams with big dreams.

But those who forget history… Well, they don't know much about history. I know I didn’t. For starters, the NAIA finals were first organized in 1937, at the then-brand-new Municipal, by Dr. James Naismith. Yes, it’s the basketball tournament that the inventor of basketball invented. It’s the basis for the format of the NCAA tournament and its acronymic postseason kin, from the NIT to the CIT to the CBI. Central Missouri State Teacher’s College in Warrensburg—now UCM—took home that first title.

In 1948, the NAIA became the first national collegiate organization to open its postseason to black student-athletes, two years before the NCAA and NIT. In 1980, it became the first to sponsor both men’s and women’s championships, again, before the NCAA. This year’s NAIA Women’s Tournament will take place concurrently at the Independence Events Center.

Legendary coach John Wooden got his start here. And would Michael Jordan really be “six-time NBA champ Michael Jordan” without NAIA alums Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman?

It’s also the biggest postseason tournament of its kind, when you consider that all 32 teams meet at one location for one solid week of elimination games.

Which is not to say that it’s big time. The total annual budget for the NAIA, with its 260 member schools and 23 national-championship events, is $3 million. That’s half the budget of the KU athletics department—or roughly a quarter what CBS and Turner Broadcasting are paying the NCAA to broadcast each game of its Men’s Tournament. About 40,000 fans are expected here over the course of next week—half as many who will attend just the NCAA Championship Game in Indianapolis.

And I’m guessing none of you have filled out an NAIA bracket.

But for those inside Municipal Auditorium, for one shining moment, it will be basketball’s biggest stage. Just ask the Vanguard University Lions from Costa Mesa, California. They’re the reigning NAIA champs. As Vanguard coach Rhett Soliday told the AP last year after his sixth-seeded team’s unlikely run: “This may not be a big dream to a lot of people, but it’s a huge dream to us.”

Isn’t that what’s it supposed to be about? “I am sure that no man can derive more pleasure from money or power than I do from seeing a pair of basketball goals in some out of the way place.”

James Naismith said that.

Victor Wishna is a contributing author and commentator for Up to Date.