So how do you find yourself in the Midwest?

I have a strange fascination with the Midwest… -Jason Reitman

 

Unlike many people who reminisce or get nostalgic about the Midwest, I am not from this part of the country. I was born and raised in California, and spent most of my life in a part of the country where snow was rare-to-non-existent, and a trip to the beach was a three-hour drive, not a three-hour flight.

But here I am…now a Midwest transplant for at least a little bit longer.  (Kansas City transplant to be specific; Missouri side for now, though I have lived in Kansas and may move back since I work in Kansas again.)

So, how did a West Coast guy get here?

To those who don’t know me (which probably is about 80-90 percent of people who come across this blog), for about a year and a half I was studying to be a Jesuit priest. I had just graduated from a small Catholic college in Washington state, and the August after my grduated I joined the California Province for the Society of Jesus and entered their novitiate (like a seminary, but less focus on “studying” and more focus on “living the life”) in Culver City, California, which is in the heart of Los Angeles. Typically how the process works, after a two year tenure in the novitiate, the next step in  the Jesuit formation to become a priest is to attend a university (of their choosing, though you have options) for philosophy studies and earn a master’s degree in philosophy in a 3-4 year timetable (again, I will probably talk more about the whole process of being a priest, and what separates a “Jesuit” priest from a “regular” priest in some subsequent posts). At about the one-year-point in my Jesuit novice tenure, I sat down with the person responsible for “study” assignments, which basically meant I told him what my educational and personal interests and goals were going to be during this important time in religious formation. (Did I just want to study philosophy or was I thinking about getting additional studies in another area? And how would this help me contribute to the Society and Catholic community and well…world? So yeah, no pressure, right? )

We basically had three choices: Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri, Loyola University in Chicago, and Fordham University in the Bronx.

Fordham was my overwhelming favorite followed by Loyola Chicago. I didn’t even consider St. Louis, because to be perfectly honest, I didn’t see myself in a small city in the Midwest in my future. (And I know there are those saying right now “But Chicago is in the Midwest!” I get it. But let’s face it, Chicago is technically the mecca of the Midwest, and closer in spirit to an East Coast city; it just happens to geographically be in the Midwest and get a lot of Midwest transplants.)

Almost 30 years old, I have been in the Midwest for six years. I spent two years in South Dakota, living and working on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota near the South Dakota-Nebraska border (Pine Ridge for those that needed clarification), and have resided for about four years in Kansas City (two years on the Kansas side and coming on two years on the Missouri side).

In all honesty, that is six more years in the Midwest than I ever would have thought when I was fresh out of college or even still in novitiate. But now as I enter the third decade of my life, I am finding it harder and harder to think I will ever leave.

It’s amazing how a certain place, a geographical area, can change one’s perspective over time.

I had the chance to move back to California last year, in the Spring for the upcoming Fall. I had a teaching job offer in California, San Jose, to be specific. The idea of moving back to the South Bay was intriguing to me (I worked in San Jose for about a semester in the Spring after leaving the Jesuits). I would be paid handsomely salary-wise (though in retrospect, while the figure was high, I wonder if it would have been much more than my current circumstances here in the Midwest).I would have been closer to my parents, who are getting older in years, and moved into a cozy house in the Midtown area of Sacramento. I would have been around the sports teams I cheered for in my youth (the San Francisco Giants, 49ers, Golden State Warriors, San Jose Sharks, and California Golden Bears). I would have been out of snow, and around good public rail transportation. Years ago, San Jose was a bit of a dream destination, not the absolute dream like San Francisco (I have always had a profound fondness for that city), but a good, comfortable second I would have been satisfied with.

Though I initially made a commitment months before I had to report to my job, I ended up not going. I had to arrive  in August, and from the time I accepted the job in early April, my excitement in the job started to slowly fade. Over a month’s time, I realized that though job was a tremendous offer and opportunity, I couldn’t take it.

To be cut and dry about it, well…I was not ready to leave Kansas City and the Midwest.

It’s amazing to think to someone who hasn’t lived here or visited here much my reasons for wanting to stay in Middle America over the West Coast (or East Coast for that matter). I had college and high school friends ask me if I “was making the right decision?” I had family that questioned my desire to not be closer to home (though more extended family, not parents). Even Midwest natives wondered why I wouldn’t want to be back in California after spending so much time away, as the decision to leave the Midwest for sunny Northern California was a no-brainer to them. (This is not necessarily Native Americans, but people who grew up in the Midwest…though ironically, this personal circle also included some Native Americans).

And I get it. It bothers me at times as well, the idea that a place with a reputation for flat, endless farmland; hot, muggy, and story, summers; and cold and icy winters, would be a more enticing place to live.

And yet, there is something about the Midwest that keep me here. Something that prevents me from leaving, even when I think I would be better served personally and professionally back in an an area of the United States where I grew up, and possessed more familiar roots and connections.

If there is a reason to explain my stay in the Midwest despite opportunities elsewhere, I guess I would have to say the “lifestyle” of the Midwest is what attracts me the most here. And not just my personal lifestyle on it’s own, but how my own lifestyle meshes into the predominant lifestyle of the diversity of people here in Kansas City as well as in the Midwest. Because though people don’t like to think about it, there is a diversity here in the Midwest. Yes, some ethnic groups are under-represented in comparison to other areas of the country. And yes, this area of the country tends to be more Christian, Conservative and Republican, something I am not quite used to being from the West Coast.

However, to say that represents ALL the Midwest would be silly and misinforming. In my six years, I have discovered so much about the Kansas City and the Midwest:

  • The Latino and Chicano culture and communities in the Midwest who are growing and developing rapidly over the past couple of decades, and differ a bit in values and feel from the Latino cultures of major communities on the coasts.
  • The Middle-Eastern influence that is growing in many of the Midwestern cities thanks to foreign exchange students growing accustomed to the Midwest life as well as opportunistic businessmen who are trying to make a better living for their families here and abroad, as I have learned from my frequent visits to hookah lounges, something I never did until I came to the Midwest. (Yes, I lived in California and Washington and it wasn’t until I moved to Kansas City that I started using Hookah.)
  • The African-American communities, which despite years of injustice and discrimination in this part of the country, who continue to push forward for change in their communities and schools, while still maintaining their proud heritage and contributions in the Midwest, including their influence on the media (The weekly newspaper “The Call” is one of the oldest African-American-run newspapers in the United States), Jazz as a musical art form, as well as baseball, including the Negro Leagues (the Midwest was where it really shone; Kansas City being the mecca for it) and the many former NL players who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in the late 40’s.
  • The BBQ culture known nationally that spans from the “mom and pop” shacks in rural areas of Kansas and Missouri to the urban center of Kansas City where African-American owned BBQ restaurants helped Kansas City become the BBQ capital of the USA in comparison to their brethren in the Carolina’s and Memphis.
  • The Catholic community who credit their roots in the Midwest from strong and proud immigrants from Croatia, Slovenia, Ireland, Italy, and Poland (just to name a few), and has a closer, more familial feel in comparison to their Coastal counterparts, as evidenced by their emphasis on putting on frequent church socials, high priority in sending their children to Catholic schools, and financial and spiritual contributions to their local parishes.

I could go on and on, and I know I will go into more depth onto these topics and more in the future. There is so much to write about on the Midwest, and not just Kansas City, either (though I know I will go on plenty about Kansas City considering that is my home and where a majority of my life in the Midwest has taken place). The people. The issues. The history. The traditions. The culture. The future.

Perhaps that’s why I stayed in Kansas City and the Midwest. This part of the area inspires me, almost serves as my muse, and I still feel like I have only scratched the surface, have yet to go deep into what really makes the Midwest Life what it is, not to mention different from life on the East or West Coast. I have invested a lot in my six years in the Midwest. I have invested in my job and my students, sure. But, I also have invested in my communities, whether it has been on the reservation, in Wyandotte County, or in Jackson County. And despite that investment, I still know I can do more, and more importantly, I want to do more.

And that’s why I have created this blog. To chronicle my experience as I continue to dig deeper and deeper into my experiences with “This Midwest Life.” Furthermore, I also intend to tell stories of and about the people here in Kansas City and the Midwest. (Though to be honest, my stories will probably be more predominant; sorry, I am not a professional journalist, just an amateur one at this point). Some stories will be short memoirs. Some stories might be fictional. Some stories might be simple reviews or reflections. And some stories might blur all those genres together in some weird, chaotic fashion that I can’t even begin to describe.

Just like I have learned from my own experiences, the Midwest is a surprising fusion of all kinds: transplants and homebodies; old and new; traditional and modern; conservative and liberal; backward and forward thinking; slow and… less-slow (well, I guess that is one thing I can say about the Midwest: life is a little bit slower here than on the Coasts; though I hear it is faster than in the Deep South).

I hope that’s what “This Midwest Life” will try to portray: a glance into the life and culture and diversity and mystery that is in the middle of the country, i.e. the glorious Midwest.

What six years in this part of the country can do to a person.

A Tale of the Kings, Tiny and Two Cities: The Kansas City-Omaha Era

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“I wonder if the NBA will ever come back to Kansas City…”

During the first month in my move to Kansas City, I went to a bar nearby in Kansas City, Kansas called “Chicago’s“. It was a small bar that just served alcohol, no food (as typical with most bars in the Strawberry Hill area), and was mostly frequented by alums of Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kansas, one of the oldest Catholic high schools in the State of Kansas.  At the bar, I got into a conversation with somebody who was a heavy NBA and Oklahoma City Thunder fan (weird for me because I went to Gonzaga and most fans were Sonics fans and the Thunder brought up so many bad memories for them), and he said the quote above, and followed up with positive affirmation that it was going to happen soon in the near future.

“We built the Sprint Center, it’s a NBA-style arena. The downtown area, though not my thing, can attract people before and after games. It’s a sure thing man. They have to bring a NBA team back to Kansas City!”

Back then and to this day, I do agree with him in some regards. The Sprint Center is an arena that can adequately host a NBA franchise (or NHL franchise, should Kansas City ever want one) and is a considerable upgrade over the Kings’ former home, Kemper Arena. The Power and Light District is a good venue for NBA fans to get a bite before weekday games and a drink after them. And with the opening of the KC Streetcar, there is an avenue of public transportation that could ease game day parking anxiety for fans. If there ever was a time for Kansas City to acquire a NBA franchise, the next few years would be it.

However, I do not remain hopeful a NBA franchise will come back to Kansas City, even though I did buy this Charlie Hustle shirt a couple of days ago. For starters, the NBA is probably doing as well as it ever has in its organizational history. The game is slowly becoming the most global sport in the world, especially with FIFA and soccer having all kinds of organizational issues. NBA superstars are becoming household names, and their popularity and imprint on social media and the web has made the league more accessible to fans than other professional sports like the NFL and MLB which seem like “Insiders-only” clubs. (Though the NFL is a lot worse than MLB). And teams are playing good basketball, much better than the college variety that is being seen today. The Warriors clearly are one of the NBA’s best teams, but if you look around the league, there is growing parity, as multiple different teams have made the playoffs within the past five years. Competitively, the NBA is as good as it has ever been, and that has made it a hot ticket with not only passionate basketball fans, but casual fans who are looking for sporting excitement during the Winter and Spring months.

But, with all that being said, these factors hurt the prospect of a NBA franchise coming to Kansas City. With the game being better than ever, franchises are less likely to sell or move from their current locations. As of this moment, every NBA franchise seems to be on solid footing in their current location, and with revenue in the league getting higher and higher each year, NBA owners would be foolish to move during such a renaissance in the league’s history. And with that being said, expansion doesn’t look to be the best idea for the league either. There is a considerable diversity and depth of talent in the league, as each NBA team has a marketable Superstar they can build their franchise around. (With the exception of maybe the 76ers…but hey, maybe Dario Saric and Ben Simmons can reverse that trend!) Expansion would only dilute the talent pool in the league, and make the league less competitive, which wouldn’t help the national or global imprint the league currently has.

This was evident back in 1995, when the league expanded to 30 teams with the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies. The league really didn’t have enough talent, and though the Raptors were able to climb toward respectability  eventually, the Grizzlies struggled to find talent, and this inevitably led to their move to Memphis, as they could not generate enough fan interest to support their lackluster on-court product. If the league were to expand to two more teams, the same issue would rear its ugly hand, and it could be decades before the league adequately recovers competitively (the late 90’s and early 2000’s saw a lot of competitive imbalance due to expansion).

And lastly, there are other cities they right now would be more attractive sites for the NBA than Kansas City, as painful as that it is to write. Seattle is the front runner for relocation and expansion as they have the right figurehead (Chris Hansen) and fan base to attract a NBA franchise. Other cities like Anaheim (which almost got the Kings before the Maloofs decided at the last minute not to sell), and possibly Vancouver (with basketball now more popular than ever in Canada, the idea of a second franchise again in Vancouver makes sense; David Stern, in one of his last years as commissioner, also remarked that moving the franchise out of Vancouver was one of his biggest regrets). So, Kansas City isn’t exactly top on the queue of possible “relocation” or “expansion” spots, and that should deter any NBA fan in Kansas City of dreaming about the possibility of professional basketball being resurrected in Kansas City in the near or even distant future. Yes, Kansas City has the resources, but it may just be that the NBA and Kansas City will never be the right fit, which is unfortunate as Kansas City is becoming one of the more landmark and major cities in the Midwest, and it could expand the game’s popularity in the “Heart of America”.

That being said, even though the future for the NBA in Kansas City looks bleak, there is a rich NBA tradition in the city as one of the major franchises during the 70’s and 80’s. And one of the cooler things that happened in their history was their “joint-city” franchise from 1972-1975 when the Kings were known as the Kansas City-Omaha Kings. So, let’s take a brief look back at the history of this franchise when they were truly the “Heartland’s” NBA franchise.

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The Kings franchise began in 1948-1949 as the Rochester Royals out of Rochester, New York. In just the franchise’s third year of existence, the Royals won the NBA Championship in 1951, which has been the only championship in franchise history. In 1956, the Royals moved to Cincinnati where they became the Cincinnati Royals. During their 15-year run, the franchise was mostly led by former Bearcat and future Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, who averaged 29.3 ppg, 10.3 apg and 8.5 rpg in his 10 seasons with the Royals from 1960-1970 (he finished his last four seasons in Milwaukee). The franchise in Cincinnati experienced some success, as they made the playoffs six straight seasons from 196-1967 during the peak of Robertson’s career. However, they never made it past the conference finals, and after Robertson went to Milwaukee, the Royals suffered a couple of miserable seasons before they decided to move further west to Kansas City.

Because of the baseball team already being the Royals, the NBA team renamed their franchise the Kings in their move to heart of the Midwest. Originally, the Kings were supposed to play in three locations: Kansas City, Omaha and St. Louis. However, the plans for St. Louis fell apart shortly before the 1972-1973 season their first year in Kansas City and Omaha. The Kings split their games during their first two seasons between Municipal Auditorium in downtown Kansas City and the Omaha Civic Auditorium. While a classic arena, Municipal, even at the time, was hardly a NBA venue, as it only seated 7,316 people for games (nearly 2,000 less than the Omaha Civic Auditorium).

Now to people nowadays, the idea of a split-city franchise seems unheard of. With how big public funding is with arenas, and how much economic impact a NBA franchise has on a city, today, such a thing wouldn’t exist. Cities invest too much in their sport franchises to “share” with another city, and the splitting of revenue from merchandise and taxes would be an accounting nightmare. However, back in the day, when the NBA was still trying to compete with college basketball for fans and revenue, this was a lot more common, though in more minor instances. For example, the Boston Celtics used to regularly play games in Hartford, Connecticut (to reiterate the Celtics’ legacy as “New England’s Team”), and the Clippers used to split their home games between Los Angeles and Anaheim (the Clippers toyed with moving permanently to Orange County for a while as their Anaheim crowds consistently outdrew their Los Angeles ones). Even the Golden State Warriors are called “Golden State” for a reason, as they originally were going to split their home games between Oakland and San Diego after they moved from San Francisco (though they ditched this idea before even implementing it and simply made Oakland their exclusive home).

That being said, Kansas City-Omaha was really the only NBA franchise that had the two city identity, even if it only lasted for a few years. And to be honest, the idea really was a smart one. With Kansas City and Omaha being both border cities, the Kings were not just catering to two cities (like in the Clippers’ situation) or even two states (like the Celtics), but rather four states (Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa). By being in Kansas City AND Omaha, the Kings really were trying to be the Midwest’s NBA team, and even though it was short-lived, the three years undoubtedly had some kind of impact in generating NBA fan interest in communities where the NBA, let alone basketball in general, is not necessarily enticing or a priority.

(And another underrated contribution: the Kings in Kansas City-Omaha introduced the name underneath the number, as seen below; even to this day, the Kansas City Omaha Kings jerseys stand the test of time in terms of their aesthetic value)

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The Kansas City-Omaha Kings struggled in their first two years, finishing 36-46 under head coach and former Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy, and then 33-49 in a year where the franchise saw three different head coaches. Cousy stepped down after a 6-14 start, they had 4 games led by interim coach Draff Young (which they lost all 4), and then the year was finished by Phil Johnson, who went a respectable 27-31 for the remainder of the year.

In Johnson’s first full season though, the Kings tasted their first morsel of success in the Midwest. In Kansas City, the Kings went from playing at the old Municipal to the newly opened Kemper Arena, state of the art at the time, and a much bigger venue than either Municipal or the Civic Auditorium in Omaha (Kemper sat 16,785 people). Because of access to this new arena in the West Bottoms, the Kings only played 11 games in Omaha during the 1974-1975 season, a significant downgrade from the previous two years, and a sign of things to come: the Kings decided to play solely in Kansas City and dropped the “Omaha” from their name the next season.

But in their last year as the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, they went 44-38 and made the playoffs, where they matched up against Bob Love, Jerry Sloan and the Chicago Bulls, whom they lost to in 6 games. However, it was the first winning record for the Kings in their history in Kansas City/Omaha area, and it set the wheels in motion for what would be more lasting on court success in Kansas City in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

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The Kings had some good players during their run in Kansas City and Omaha. They had Jimmy Walker, who was a standout at Providence College and Sam Lacey, a double-double machine in the post for the Kings. Also, in 1974-1975, they had two future NBA coaches on the team in Rick Adelman, who eventually would coach the Kings to their most successful period in franchise history in Sacramento, and Mike D’Antoni, the architect of the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns.

However, no player was more important during the Kansas City-Omaha days than Nate “Tiny” Archibald.

Archibald was originally drafted in 1970 in the second round when the Kings were still the Royals in Cincinnati in 1970 out of the University of Texas El-Paso (which was formerly Texas Western, which was profiled in the film “Glory Road”). Archibald was a New York streetball legend who made his name on the playgrounds throughout the city, especially in the South Bronx. Unlike some high school players out of New York, Archibald’s high school accomplishments did not match his playground ones, as he only played one and a half-years of basketball at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, and nearly dropped out of high school completely due to truancy. However, despite getting cut as a sophomore from the varsity team, Archibald eventually became a team captain and All-City player, though his poor academic performance during his early high school years ended up hurting him from getting more major college offers.

Tiny was the epitome of the “streetball” city player, as he was known for his strong dribbling ability and toughness on the court despite his size, and one had to wonder how he would mesh in the middle of the country where there were more farms and corn than concrete and basketball playgrounds. He didn’t have any local ties to any of the colleges (like Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Iowa, Iowa State, or Nebraska), which is how many expansion franchises cater to local fanbases. However, Archibald played some of his best basketball in Kansas City, especially during the franchise’s time in Kansas City and Omaha, and Kings fans seemed to endear to him, despite his unfamiliarity to them, since day one.

In his first season as a Kansas City-Omaha King, Archibald proved he was one of the league’s superstars, which helped put the Kings, (and consequently Kansas City and Omaha) on the national media’s radar. He made the All-Star team that year and led the league in minutes played, field goals made, field goals attempted, assists and points scored (he averaged 34 points per game and 11.4 assists per game). Archibald was a one-man team of sorts and he did so from the point guard position and as one of the smaller men on the floor on a night in and night out basis. Archibald regressed a little bit the following season (not a surprise considering all the turmoil going on with the coaching situation), but in the final year as the Kansas City and Omaha Kings, Archibald was the key component to the Kings 44-38 record and appearance in the playoffs. He scored 26.5 ppg and averaged 6.8 apg, while playing all 82 games. In the playoffs, Archibald was the Kings’ best player, as he averaged 20.2 ppg during the six-game series.

While he continued his success on the court as the Kings made the move on a permanent basis to Kansas City, one could argue that Archibald saw his best years when they were split between Kansas City and Omaha. When you watch highlights of Archibald, he continues to amaze, and it’s easy to see how he influenced the game today. His ball handling skills, his jump shot, his scoring ability, his speed on the court. Archibald had a grasp of the game that not many players, let alone point guards, have had in NBA history. We hear all the time of players like Pete Maravich and Jerry West and Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson impacting point guards of today. That being said, Archibald also deserves to be in that mix, especially when you consider his size, his impact on professional basketball in the Midwest, and his ability to overcome a lot of odds and roadblocks in his personal life to be successful. Tiny is in the Hall of Fame for a reason and the video below should be further reason why.

It’s fun to watch him play back then. The way he creates with the ball, the way he cuts through defenders on the way to the basket, the way he scores with such versatility and ease, and how he displays such bravado on the court and humility off of it. It reminds the younger generations that there were entertaining one-man shows in the NBA prior to Jason Williams and  Stephen Curry.

It’s too bad there are not more tapes and highlights of Archibald in the NBA vault.

1972-73 Kansas City-Omaha Kings basketball team. Seated (l-r): Sam Lacey, Don Kojis, Ron Riley, Capt. Tom Van Arsdale, Ken Kurrett, Sam Sibert, Johnny Gree. Standing (l-r): Trainer Joe Keefe, coach bob Cousy, Dick Gibbs, Toby Kimball, Mike Ratliff, Matt G

Professional basketball most likely will not be coming back to Kansas City anytime soon, if ever. And the same could be said for Omaha as well, which doesn’t have any professional sports franchise other than a minor league baseball team. And yet for three seasons, NBA basketball was played in the Midwest between two cities and among four states. For three seasons, the Kings were not just a city’s NBA team, but an overlooked geographical area’s, and they produced some memorable teams and some memorable players. Yes, there were no championships in Kansas City-Omaha, nor were there any championships when the franchise was solely in Kansas City. And that is too bad, especially since championships can save franchises financially and spiritually (fans won’t want to part with a team that won a championship for their community).

But, Kansas City and Omaha Kings fans were a witness to professional basketball. They were a witness to the playoffs, where the Kings won two home games in front of the raucous Kemper Arena faithful (they used alternate home and away games every game rather than every two like today). And they were witness to a Hall of Famer playing the best and most entertaining basketball of his career in the Heart of America, the Midwest, typically seen as the “Flyover States.”

For three years, Kansas City and Omaha had something truly wonderful, not to mention something people currently in Kansas City and Omaha will never see in those cities again.

I know Kings fans say they envy those Kings fans who were around when the Kings were in Kansas City. I know I can say I envy those Kings fans who will be there for the new arena opening this October in Sacramento (though I know I will see a Kings game at some point in the new arena, so my envy is not that high).

But I think those currently in Kansas City and Omaha, especially those who grow up here in the post-Kings era, can definitely say they envy those who were Kings fans from 1972-1975. Because they missed out on so much, and will never get that opportunity down the road in Kansas City and Omaha. Those three years were a simply a comet of basketball wonder in the Midwest.

And I envy that, even as a Kansas City transplant.