After years of cold war status, the Border War is coming back in the form of actual basketball games. Missouri and Kansas announced six basketball games, two in Kansas City, two in Lawrence, and two in Columbia. Each will be an absolute circus of two teams, two cultures, two entities trying desperately to win. As far as ways to be cheered up after being humbled by freaking Vanderbilt football, this one is pretty great.
This is a rivalry for the heartland, for a part of the country that cares deeply about college athletics. The Tigers and Jayhawks are now in their third century of hating and trying to beat each other. There was actual warfare during the Civil War. The two schools started playing football in 1891, and in those early games, Civil War veterans stood on the sidelines and broke out in fights.
The origins of the rivalry seem almost prehistoric. The basketball series began in 1907, with Missouri scoring wins on back-to-back days, beating a Jayhawk team coached by James Naismith, the inventor of basketball.
This rivalry shapes some of our most vivid memories of being Tiger fans. My first Border War basketball game was the spectacular 2006 Christian Moody game. Those games in Columbia were always an event, with the arena an absolute madhouse from an hour or more before tipoff.
The Tigers were usually the underdog, but the sheer force of will from the raucous crowds would seem to keep pulling Mizzou back into those games. At that 2006 game, the score was tied when Moody was fouled in the final second. He simply had to make one free throw to win the game. He shot in front of the student section, which was loud as thunder. Moody missed the first free throw. He seemed to have a pained expression on his face. The crowd got louder and louder, frantically waving rally towels. The stands were shaking. He missed again. Euphoria. Mizzou won in overtime, and the crowd poured out onto the court, and I’ve never forgotten that night.
You probably have plenty of Border War memories of your own, like the epic 2007 football game at Arrowhead, the gritty 2009 hoops win or basketball duels from days gone by. How many times have you seen Todd Reesing with Arrowhead Stadium turf clumped to his helmet? How many of you have heard the story that Norm Stewart wouldn’t spend a dime in the state of Kansas when his teams played in Lawrence?
And of course, there were the epic 2012 games, the final scheduled regular season basketball games until this week. In Columbia, the Tigers were down eight late and the situation seemed hopeless, only to have Marcus Denmon pour in nine points in a spectacular closing kick to give Missouri the win.
Then came the return game in Lawrence. Allen Fieldhouse is a brutal venue to play in, with the crowd noise and the history bearing down and, sure, probably calls going against you. Even in hating the Jayhawks, Tiger fans would maybe admit that what makes this rivalry so great is that their neighbors to the West are a worthy foil. A good James Bond villain makes for a good James Bond movie. Wilt Chamberlain played there (and received generous “tips” from boosters for directing them where to park at football games). Danny Manning won a national title there (after choosing to play there when Kansas decided Manning’s dad, a truck driver, would make a fine assistant coach).
Wins in Lawrence were rare but special. Missouri nearly had one in 2012, building a huge second-half lead, but the Jayhawks inched and clawed with their little bird feet and scrapped until they drew even and forced overtime. A friend had poured “victory whiskey” shots that never got enjoyed, like clubhouse staff preparing for a World Series champagne celebration only to see their team blow the game. The Jayhawks won in overtime.
It was a pretty tough day, obviously because of the gutting loss (I still think about a Mizzou shot that rattled in and out that would have almost sealed the game), but also because the ferocious Mizzou-Kansas games were ending. For generations, the Nebraska-Oklahoma football games and Missouri-Kansas basketball games defined college sports in a region of the country. That final game in Lawrence was like laying to rest the end of Big Eight tradition.
Realignment hit our part of the country the hardest. All of the eight longest interrupted college football matchups are from the Big 12, with seven of the eight involving old Big Eight teams.
I love Missouri’s move to the SEC, and hopefully the South has enjoyed my debauched self roaming around their college towns. But there was obviously some tradition lost with the move. This week’s announcement was a step toward reclaiming that tradition, the tradition of trying to beat the loathed Jayhawks that is as old as Mizzou athletics.
Sure, I’d also like to see an announcement the Border War football game is also being resumed, and that’s probably coming eventually. Also, though this won’t happen, it would be cool if they’d play two basketball games a year, home-and-home, just like the old days. For generations, the two biggest annual events in Columbia each year were the Homecoming football game and the home men’s basketball game with Kansas. But I will happily take the arrangement as announced.
Wherever the games are played, there will again be fury and passion and the good kind of hate. What’s best for the sport, which is these two intense rivals playing, won out over politics and pettiness and conference realignment.
That’s a good thing for college athletics, and a good thing for Missouri fans.