Allen Fieldhouse: Part hoops mecca, part Smithsonian, all Kansas

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LAWRENCE, Kan. -- It's early February on the grounds of the University of Kansas, where barren trees, swaths of dormant, beige grass and the pale, limestone buildings have created a monochromatic tableau that looks like a picture in an old, yellowed newspaper.

Indeed, arriving for a game at Allen Fieldhouse can feel like preparing to rummage through the dusty archives of college basketball. But after a 2005 renovation there's nothing musty about this old barn. And with the defending NCAA champions holding court inside, Allen Fieldhouse is about today as much as yesterday.

Take one step inside the steeply sloped seating bowl that rises off the prairie and ashen Kansas turns to Technicolor faster than it did when that twister swept Dorothy Gale off the family farm and into the Land of Oz.

Dead of winter might aptly describe of other parts of the Heartland, but the term does not apply inside KU's storied basketball cathedral, where the heart of college basketball beats alongside the court named for the man who invented the game.

Here fans fill red-and-blue bleachers from the floor to window-lined ceiling, creating an ambiance that is so retro-perfect it feels staged. The place couldn't look much more like the set of a Disney movie.

Allen Fieldhouse is named for Phog Allen, who coached Kansas for 39 years. Capacity, which originally was 17,000 when the facility opened in March 1955, was reduced to 15,200 when Ted Owens coached here (1964 to 1983). Since 1993, the facility has held 16,300.

The salt-of-the-earth Kansans who fill the place are not prone to braggadocio, but they are not above dropping a name or two, either.

After inventing the game, James Naismith launched the program at KU, coaching the Jayhawks from 1898 to 1907, and his name is on the floor. Wilt Chamberlain played two seasons for the Jayhawks, averaging 29.9 points and 18.3 rebounds. His name tops a banner recognizing All-Americans and his No. 13 hangs from the rafters. Another banner recognizes the school's academic All-Americans, including Bud Stallworth, Darnell Valentine and Jacque Vaughn. Folks here are proud of the fact that legendary coaches Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith are both KU alums and protégés of the building's namesake.

The smell of popcorn wafts through the building's concourse, enhancing the high school gym feel of the place. Replace the Dippin' Dot concession with a Good Humor man and this place would be utterly timeless. Presumably, Kansas coach Bill Self takes a tape measure with him on the road to convince his team the dimensions really are the same in every building they visit.

Not much else is.

Allen Fieldhouse defies logic. It holds almost twice as many fans as Cameron Indoor Stadium, yet somehow feels just as intimate. And its five championship banners are six fewer than hang in Pauley Pavilion, but it has at least as much historical gravitas.

Conversely, things that once seemed incomprehensible suddenly become crystal clear amid the phog of Allen Fieldhouse. Like why Roy Williams stonewalled North Carolina the first time his alma mater tried to lure him home to Chapel Hill in 2000. Or why KU students camp out -- sometimes for days -- to get tickets. Or why peripatetic Larry Brown spent five of his prime, vagabond years firmly anchored in Lawrence.

"Kansas," Brown often said, "is special."

Allen Fieldhouse is so special it cannot contain all its own history. Outside, a statue depicting Allen -- "the Father of Basketball Coaching" -- welcomes visitors to the Booth Family Hall of Athletics, a 26,000-square-foot celebration of all things Kansas. The museum, which was dedicated in 2006 and came with a price tag of $8 million, is divided into six terrific exhibit areas and is highlighted by the building's original center court floor. When it was in use, the ref threw up a jump ball after every basket, as per Naismith's original rules.

Inside, the banners that commemorate NCAA championships from 1922, 1923, 1952, 1988 and 2008 are as stark as the prairie landscape that envelopes Lawrence. Blue, block lettering on white. Just the words "National Champions" and the year the title was won. No mention of Kansas is necessary. Is there anyplace else? Not to these people.

The KU band adds to the nostalgic feel, playing 1980s hits like "Africa," "Come On Eileen" and "Living on a Prayer" as the Jayhawks warm up. History is in the air. A Russell Stover Candies ad adorns the overhead scoreboard and outsiders get the feeling that slow-paced Lawrence is the kind of place where chocolates and Hallmark greetings are still preferred to Starbucks gift cards and text messages.

More than two-dozen banners dangle from the girders and catwalks inside the building, but one stands out above all others: "Pay Heed All Who Enter: Beware of the Phog." Set in a gothic font, the greeting reads like a sign on an amusement park ride, the kind that warns visitors they are about to embark on a harrowing thrill-a-minute ride.

Which, of course, they are.

You don't watch a game at The Phog as much as you go along for the ride, the 4,000-person-strong KU student body at the controls much of the time. Celebrated KU miler Jim Ryun, who won the NCAA indoor mile championship in 1967, 1968 and 1969, ran at Allen Fieldhouse and, coincidence or not, the students here all go the extra mile.

The pregame fun begins with fans, arm-in-arm, singing the school's alma mater, "Crimson and Blue." Then comes the "Rock Chalk, Jayhawk" chant, which is slow, methodical and chilling. "Rock chalk … Jayhawk … KU," is chanted five times -- twice slowly, then three times fast.

In a rare concession to modernity, the field house has a terrific scoreboard, upon which a stirring pregame video is presented. When Mario Chalmers hits "Mario's Miracle" from last spring's NCAA title game against Memphis, the crowd erupts the instant the game-tying shot goes through the hoop, as if they are watching it happen in real time.