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Kansas City Hosted Longest-Running College Basketball Tournament In U.S., Until The Coronavirus Hit

Greg Echlin
Kansas City has hosted the NAIA basketball tournament dating back to the 1930s, making it the longest-running college basketball tournament in the U.S.

The 83rd annual NAIA men’s basketball tournament was canceled last week as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. It was supposed to start Wednesday and run this week through next Tuesday. 

As the NAIA’s signature small college event, it shines the light on schools that don’t normally get much publicity. But the tournament’s cancellation raises some long-term concerns among NAIA officials. The NAIA has since also announced the cancellation of its spring championships, and several schools have already sent their student-athletes home for the semester.

NAIA president and CEO Jim Carr says the current pandemic could very well tinker with the survival of small colleges around the country.

Credit Greg Echlin / KCUR
NAIA officials say the cancellation of the annual basketball tournament was the right move, but they worry about the long-term effect on schools.

“Students are home for the spring and everyone’s going online,” said Carr. “I think it’s going to change people’s attitude about coming back in the fall, so if you add all those headwinds in with fewer students retaining into the fall, there will be some schools who won’t make it.”

Still, Carr said the cancellation was necessary after Kansas City mayor Quinton Lucas declared a state of emergency amid the ongoing global outbreak of the virus. 

“Pretty much everybody had decided to cancel Thursday morning (March 12), when all the major athletic associations and conferences had called off their events,” said Carr. That included the Big 12, which was set to hold its annual men's and women's basketball tournaments in downtown Kansas City. 

Still, it pained Carr to make the call. The NAIA's is the longest continus running college basketball tournament in the U.S. It's played games at Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium dating back to the 1930s. The last time the tournament was canceled was during World War II. 

“It’s certainly something that our student athletes have worked hard for years and certainly over the last several months to get into this place,” said Carr. “It hurts from that perspective first and foremost.”

What long made the NAIA tournament different from the more high-profile March Madness NCAA tournament was its format: The champion had to win five games in no more than a span of seven days, compared to the NCAA's tournament, which lasts a more than three weeks. 

Two years before he died in 1998, former Louisville standout Jack Coleman recalled the grind of that stretch when the Cardinals won the 1948 championship in Kansas City.

“That tournament to me, as I look back on it, was the hardest week that I ever spent playing sports," he said.

Louisville now is the only college basketball program with NAIA, NIT and NCAA championships. But over the decades, scores of other schools like Louisville have left the NAIA for the bigger, more lucrative NCAA.

That’s been a problem for the NAIA, even before the coronavirus. 

With 251 members, it’s down considerably from its peak year in 1991-92 when there were 435 members. The NAIA’s current membership is 99 fewer than what the NCAA’s 350 members in Division I basketball alone.

Before it was canceled, Mid-America Nazerene University of Olathe had earned an at-large bid as the “local host” in this year's tournament. Coach Rocky Lamar said not playing in the NAIA tournament was more difficult for his players to deal with than a season-ending loss.

“They lost the tournament because of this coronavirus,” said Lamar after his team finished the season with a 20-12 record. “They were just broken-hearted and there was nothing I could say to them.”

Like Carr, Lamar is also worried the coronavirus pandemic will affect the future of small colleges like his.

“It’s very difficult right now,” said Lamar. “You have to come up with very inventive ways to make sure that you keep the doors open.”

Plus, other changes are on the way for NAIA basketball.

Next fall, all NAIA schools will be combined from two divisions into one.. Though the basketball tournament field will expand to 64 teams, only 16 will advance to the national tournament in Kansas City.

Lamar said the majority of NAIA basketball coaches don’t agree with that break in tradition.

“I wish we could’ve convinced the powers-that-be that we could have still done this and have it be a 32-team tournament,” said Lamar.

The NAIA tournament has been around since 1937 and the tradition of a five-game run to the championship created the reputation that it was the toughest college basketball tournament to win.

But with this year’s tournament cancellation there may be an even tougher challenge ahead for some NAIA schools.

Credit Greg Echlin / KCUR
Municipal Auditorium in downtown Kansas City has hosted the NAIA basketball tournament annually for more than 80 years.

Greg Echlin reports on sports for KCUR. 

Sports have an economic and social impact on our community and, as a sports reporter, I go beyond the scores and statistics. I also bring the human element to the sports figures who have a hand in shaping the future of not only their respective teams but our town. Reach me at gregechlin@aol.com.
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