February 25, 2014
By Mark Janssen
A stroll through the hallways of Ahearn Field House last week brought back some vivid memories and had me scurrying home to fetch an old newspaper story that I penned many, many moons ago.
Filed under "W" for "The Walk," the tale was with former Wildcats reflecting on "The Walk" from the K-State basketball dressing room in the lower northwest corner of Ahearn, down the hallway, and weaving up two sets of six steps into the storied, at first dirt and then tartan, floor of Ahearn Field House.
Anyone - that's anyone - who ever had the honor to witness a game in the Wildcats' legendary hoop home remembers the anticipation of the arrival of their purple and white clad team as it trotted onto the, at one time, elevated playing floor.
Just listen to Rolando Blackman to feel the passion. You'll hear what it was like and you'll feel what it was like as he reflected in softly spoken, yet tremendously powerful, words that came from the soul.
"It was the walk of the gladiators. That walk to get to the arena was one of my greatest feelings ever," said the Wildcat All-American and member of the All-Century team. "You were going into the stadium. You could hear the people getting louder, getting louder, getting louder and getting louder. It was the walk of the gladiators."
If you were a part of those Ahearn years, do you have goose bumps yet?
Of the walk, K-State's all-time leading rebounder, Ed Neely, said, "It made my hair stand on end. There's never been another feeling like it. Playing for the Chicago Bulls was a wonderful experience, but never was there anything like 'The Walk.'"
Lon Kruger reflected, "Thinking about it still gives me chills. With our crowd, there was an obligation to play as hard as you could."
What you've just read came from players in the 1980s and 1970s, but the legend of "The Walk" started well before that.
Jack Parr, an All-American in the 1950s, said, "I remember each and every walk through the hallway to the steps. Just knowing you were going into such a supportive environment, a place of such great excitement was so very special. You could just feel the vibrant nature of the place."
Not to mention a vibration that carried into the steel rafters absolutely unmatched by Big 6/7/8 standards.
Ahearn opened its doors with the 1950-51 season and the Wildcats made it their basketball home through the 1987-88 season. K-State won 379 games, or better than 81 percent of the games played from Dec. 9, 1950, through March 5, 1988.
Of the opening game, a 66-56 win over Utah State, Dick Knostman, a member of the All-Century team, said, "We still had to dress over in Nichols and ride a bus over to Ahearn. We wore capes. We looked like a phantom team."
And of the last game, a 92-82 victory over Norm Stewart's Missouri Tigers, Kruger, who was Kansas State's coach, said, "That last time couldn't have been any louder. It was a magical day."
Overall, K-State enjoyed six undefeated home seasons in Ahearn. While the capacity shrunk from 14,028 in the early years to 11,220 in its final years due to new fire codes, All-American Bob Boozer said, "We made life miserable for a lot of teams in that place. Our fans would raise the roof."
Mike Evans admitted that the K-State teams were really good, but he added, "There were times when you were tired as a player and didn't feel like you could take another step, but when you stepped out in front of those fans, you had renewed energy that came from the crowd. Their expectations were so high that you just had to perform for them. They willed us to victories."
But with each and every game the night, for the players and the fans alike, started with "The Walk."
With flashing eyes, Evans, a two-time Big Eight Player of the Year, said, "The band played 'Sweet Georgia Brown' when we came up those steps and out onto the court. And then when Curtis Redding arrived, we came out clapping our hands to the theme from 'Car Wash.'"
"It never got old," said Chuckie Williams. "It was always special. The noise was tremendous; the excitement unmatched."
Blackman, who played in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks and later in Madison Square Garden with the New York Knicks, added in a tone of awe, "Every night was like an NBA playoff game. It was all consuming... all consuming."