Nation's oldest hoop tourney searching for new vitality

The notion that everything's up to date in Kansas City doesn't necessarily follow for the unique college basketball tournament that's held here each year. Though still one of the premier small college events in the country, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) tournament, which opens in Kemper Arena Wednesday and runs through March 18, has been clinging to musty memories for reassurance. It has a trunkful, too, collected since the championship was pioneered by basketball's inventor, Dr. James Naismith, in 1937, which makes it the oldest college shootout in the country. (The National Invitation Tournament came along in 1938 and the NCAA followed in '39).

Seniority is one thing, visibility quite another, and in recent years the NAIA tourney has receded even farther into the shadows of the burgeoning NCAA tournament, the major college championship that monopolizes national attention.

Not content to lead a grandma's attic existence, NAIA officials have decided to throw open the windows and let in some much-needed fresh air.

The association has solicited outside public-relations help from the same people who successfully marketed the Kansas City Comets, the city's indoor soccer franchise. A big push has been made to attract corporate sponsors and increase group ticket sales.

And within the next month, a full-time coordinator will begin working out all the details of next year's 50th anniversary celebration, a timely peg for the NAIA's beefed-up promotional efforts.

Talks are under way with ESPN for possible national television coverage. A parade, commemorative medallions, souvenir posters, and a host of reunions are in the planning stage. An all-time tournament team also will be selected.

Electors will have no shortage of name players on the ballot. Among the stars from previous NAIA tournaments are current pros World Free (Guilford), Jack Sikma (Illinois Wesleyan), and Terry Porter (Wisconsin-Stevens Point), and such retired greats as Willis Reed, Luke Jackson, and Dick Barnett.

During pre-integration days, the NAIA tournament once was the place to see some of the top black players, who enrolled at predominantly black schools. Those days have ended, however, and the playing quality has slipped in the process. The NAIA has also been hurt by the proliferation of televised pro and big-time college games.

Still, basketball nuts enamored of the NAIA's special charm return each year like swallows to Capistrano. ``I recognize them because they sit in the same seats year after year,'' says Charlie Eppler, the NAIA's director of communications. ``They don't care who is playing. They come early, buy a program, get familiar with the teams, and then pick a favorite.''

Among the most legendary fans were Ruth and Josephine Baity, a pair of retired Kansas City schoolteachers who used to lock up their house and move into a downtown hotel across from Municipal Auditorium during tournament week. They'd pack a lunch and spend virtually all day spectating.

Thirty-two district champions converge on Kansas City each year for a whirlwind men's playoff, and this year the 16-team women's playoff will be in town simultaneously. It's a two-ring basketball circus, with first-round men's tip-offs scheduled from 9:30 a.m. to 10:45 in Kemper Arena and the women going at it in the convention center. After a four-day elimination marathon, a one-day break is taken before the semis and finals for both men and women are played in Kemper, to which the event moved in 1975.

Crowds have not flocked to the new site, which is a bit too big and isolated from downtown to attract the fans who were so fond of the cozy, but outmoded auditorium. NAIA officials would like to keep the tournament in Kansas City, however, since the event has become a Kansas City tradition and the NAIA is housed here. St. Louis has approached the association about becoming host of the tournament, and the NAIA might consider a move if new promotional efforts don't bear fruit, but not until the 50th anniversary concludes.

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