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Opinion >  Column

Rob Curley: What happens when your two hometown teams lead the nation?

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 26, 2018

The loyalty questions started as soon as the 2017 NCAA Tournament bracket was released.

Within minutes, my phone was ringing. “You know, Robbi, it looks like the Jayhawks will face Gonzaga in the national championship,” was the very first sentence I heard.

It was my Mom. She calls me Robbi. So does everyone else from Osage City, Kansas.

Well, actually, she calls me Robbie with an “e” on the end. But at some point, I decided we should conserve on vowels.

I’m super close with my Mom. Always have been. It’s not unusual for us to talk on the phone every other day, if not every day. Back when I was in high school and college, it wasn’t a stretch to say she was probably my best friend.

That meant I knew her next question: “Who are you rooting for?”

It sounded a whole lot less like a question than it did a statement.

I had been here before. Actually, fairly recently.

When I was the editor of the Orange County Register, my beloved Kansas City Royals were going to face the Anaheim Angels in the 2014 American League playoffs. I lived right next to Angel Stadium. I probably went to at least 25 Angels games a year. When I wasn’t at the games, I watched them on TV. Mike Trout was my favorite player.

And I was totally rooting for the Royals in the playoffs. Blood is thicker than water.

Speaking of blood …

The Curleys – at least the Osage City Curleys – bleed crimson and blue. We were raised as pure Rock Chalk Jayhawks. We know Muggles when we see them, and more importantly, what color they typically wear.

Most of my family lives in a tiny town where it isn’t exactly easy to root for a cartoonish bird with an awkward-shaped blue body, a well-coiffed red head, a smiling yellow beak and oddly formal dress shoes with matching buckles.

Nope, our hometown in east-central Kansas loved purple. We were surrounded by Wildcats.

In the hall of our old high school was a huge photo of one of our former students who went on to play basketball at Kansas State in the 1960s. Our friends whose parents actually went to college got their agriculture degrees at K-State.

Because of our grandfather’s enigmatic but intense dedication to the University of Kansas – he had never gone to college there, nor had anyone in our family – we were all Jayhawks. We had season tickets to everything. We didn’t think twice about driving 65 miles on fairly scary, two-lane, ice-covered roads to get to Allen Fieldhouse on game nights.

Who’s afraid of a little snow on the prairie? Especially when Kentucky’s in town.

As a kid, I dressed as a Jayhawk for Halloween. I wrote history reports in elementary school about James Naismith. I knew that you spelled Phog with a “ph” and not an f.

None of this mattered now. My Mom wanted an answer. “Who are you rooting for in the tournament, Gonzaga or KU?”

No one wants to let their Mom down. So, I told her the truth.

“We both know a whole lot has to go right for that happen. In fact, it almost certainly won’t happen.”

Then I quickly changed the subject. It worked.

More importantly, I was right. It didn’t happen. Gonzaga held up its end of the bargain, but the Jayhawks fell to Oregon in their Elite Eight matchup that year. I can’t remember if I felt sad or relieved. Probably a little of both.

My newspaper career has taken me all over the nation during the past 20 or so years. With the exception of about three years at the Washington Post when I was a season-ticket holder for George Mason University, my love of college basketball was mostly quenched by watching the game on TV.

Until we arrived in Spokane.

If you look in my closet now, there are way more things in there that say Gonzaga than say Kansas. Mostly out of practicality, I guess. I love them both, but I don’t make it back to that glorious old barn on the edge of KU’s campus much anymore.

I can name the starting lineup for the Zags, who will likely come off the bench and who is hurt. I might be able to name two current Jayhawks. Maybe. But please don’t ask me how to spell their names. One is a real doozie.

Despite a roster here in Spokane that looks like it was put together by the United Nations, I can spell all of the Bulldogs’ names. And pronounce them. I can totally write Przemek without looking it up.

As I was starting to make a name for myself as a web developer for large media organizations in the early 2000s, I quit working at a national newspaper chain so I could work at the Lawrence Journal-World. You can probably guess the reason why.

Working at that tiny but mighty family-owned paper in Kansas was the most amazingly creative time in my life. And I had season tickets to KU basketball. Really, really good ones.

While in Lawrence, our band of nerdy newspaper ninjas built one of the Internet’s first mega sites for a single team. It was named the best sports site in the world, beating the seemingly indomitable ESPN for the title.

For the past two years, The Spokesman-Review has quietly been building a massive website for Gonzaga basketball. At one point this summer, it suddenly hit me that our Zags site here in Spokane was even larger than the site I once got to help build for the Jayhawks.

It’s likely the largest site – at least in regard to pure amounts of pages and content – of any site I’ve built dating back two decades.

This year, a few people in our industry began to notice what we had built for Bulldog fans.

In a national contest this summer for special online sections built by newspapers across all of North America, our Zags site finished behind only the Washington Post. This fall, it was a finalist for best sports site in the world, along with ESPN and two other sites.

Only this time, we couldn’t beat ESPN. I know ESPN is the “worldwide leader in sports” with a broadcast campus in Bristol, Connecticut, that’s literally larger than Gonzaga’s actual collegiate campus. They have 8,000 employees, which means ESPN has more office receptionists than we have total employees at this newspaper.

Still, it made me a touch sad. Mostly because I thought we would win.

All you had to do was watch last week’s Gonzaga game against the Duke Blue Devils to know that in Spokane, we aren’t afraid to take on Goliath. We also aren’t surprised when David wins.

On Monday, the Associated Press named the Zags the No. 1 team in the nation, jumping over Kansas. That meant the Curleys’ favorite team was No. 2.

When my Mom and I talked on the phone Monday, she literally couldn’t believe Gonzaga was ranked over Kansas. For her, this wasn’t about personal pride. It was simple logic.

The Jayhawks began the season as the No. 1 team in the nation. Not only have they not lost yet this season, they’ve beaten good teams.

“How in the hell do you take it away from a team that hasn’t lost?” she said with a mixture of exasperation and disbelief. I knew she was fired up because she never cussed on the phone. In person, yes. She’s a fantastic cusser. Just not on the phone.

“They took it away from us and gave it to Duke,” she said. “They should have never taken it away from KU. You should get to keep it until you lose.”

That’s sound reasoning. I agreed with her. I also reminded her that the Zags hadn’t lost, either. And they had just beaten No. 1-ranked Duke, giving most of our country something else to be thankful for on Thanksgiving.

When I was younger, my favorite two teams were Kansas and whomever Duke was playing.

For most people, with age comes wisdom. That’s probably not true for me, as most of you who read my columns can attest, but age has certainly given me some perspective.

One thing that is clear to me now is that loyalty comes in many colors. And complicated feelings are a part of that.

When I saw on Monday morning that Gonzaga was the nation’s new No. 1 team, I was so stoked. I posted Jim Meehan’s breaking story about the Zags’ zenith to every social-media site I could think of.

Then I started feeling a little anxious. Maybe even a little dread.

Being a lifelong Jayhawk fan has taught me that being No. 1 in November or December is nice, but it doesn’t mean much. It’s certainly fun for dunking on other teams’ fans, but in some ways, it just seems to cause more problems than it’s worth.

Gonzaga wasn’t going to sneak up on anybody this year.

Before the season even began, everybody knew there was a very special team in Spokane. But the lights inside The Kennel just got a whole lot brighter for all of those upcoming nationally televised games on our local campus. There are about 350 teams in NCAA Division I basketball who would love nothing more than to knock off the new Top Dogs.

Beating top-ranked Gonzaga would make most of their seasons. It would define some college careers. This is all a fancy way of saying the already large target on the Bulldogs’ backs just got even bigger.

Still, the Zags’ No. 1 ranking on Monday morning had my heart racing more than when I shotgun a six-pack of Mountain Dew. It was then that I realized I was excited because I cared about this team.

Not because it was my job.

I was a fan.

It felt great.

By Monday evening, I saw a Facebook post from one of my Mom’s friends. “You’re a Curley, Rob! Your grandfather would not like this support of the Zags.”

Well, at least she called me Rob and not Robbi. And who says you can’t have two favorite teams?

It appears my chances for a great March just doubled. Unless …

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