In most ways, Lawrence, Kan., and Philadelphia, Pa., couldn’t be much different.
Lawrence is an idyllic college town with a population approaching 90,000, not quite close enough to Kansas City to be considered a suburb. It has tree-lined avenues with very little crime. It’s a quiet place, unless the Kansas Jayhawks win big and the celebration spills from Allen Fieldhouse downtown to Massachusetts Street.
Philly is huge, with more than six million people in the metro area. It can be rough, with a homicide rate nearly four times the national average. Its fans are vicious. We don’t have to go over the list of people and beloved holiday characters they’ve booed or pelted with debris.
Two municipalities, 1,100 miles and universe apart, have one thing in common. Basketball. As Kansas and Villanova get set to face each other Saturday in the Final Four, the cities are once again connected through hoops. It’s a bond forged through decades.
Anybody who has experienced the magic of a Big 5 game at the Palestra can appreciate the history that lingers in the Phog at Allen Fieldhouse, and vice versa.
It all starts at the very beginning, really. James Naismith invented a game, and took it to Kansas where he became the Jayhawks first coach. He taught it to a man called Phog Allen, who became the first to really coach. He visited Overbrook High School in West Philly and convinced a kid nobody could stop if he followed Allen back to Kansas he could teach him how to really play.
That’s how Wilt Chamberlain became a Jayhawk. In between the time Chamberlain went west for college and returned to Philadelphia to play for the NBA’s Warriors and then the 76ers, others followed in his footsteps, including Wayne Hightower, an Overbrook alumnus who also attended Kansas and later became an ABA All-Star.
Throughout the years, the connections never died. Twins, Marcus and Markieff Morris were Philly high school standouts who became first-round NBA Draft picks after playing for Bill Self at Kansas. Joel Embiid, who also played for Self and the Jayhawks became an All-Star with the 76ers this season.
Larry Brown, who in a coaching career filled with many stops, won an NCAA title at Kansas and took the Sixers to the NBA Finals. In more recent years he’s been mentor to both Self and Villanova coach Jay Wright, observing practices at both schools and occasionally traveling with the teams.
The Jayhawks have played plenty of memorable games against Philly teams in recent years. In 2014, Temple blew Kansas off the floor, 77-52, with Fran Dunphy having his Owls take the subway to the arena, a reminder a Philly team has to be tougher than its opponents.
In 2008, Self’s Kansas team beat Villanova in the NCAA Tournament on the way to his first NCAA championship. Wright returned the favor in 2016 as the Wildcats went on to win the national title.
As recently as a couple weeks ago, KU opened the tournament against a feisty Penn team that led most of the first half.
But Kansas and Villanova, or any Philadelphia team for that matter, have never met on as big a stage with as much on the line as they will Saturday.
Self and Wright are each in the Final Four for the third time. Each looking for a second national championship that would firmly place them among the sport’s greatest coaches ever. The winner of that semifinal probably becomes the instant favorite to win it all on Monday.
Wright and Self have become friendly rivals, contemporaries linked forever by their success on the hardwood.
Just like the cities where they reside.