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Will Mizzou-KU rivalry have same spark as Border War resumes?

Keith Ramsey, Cole Aldrich
Tyrel Reed, Matt Pressey
Missouri Kansas Basketball
Kim English
SEC Media Day Basketball
Midnight Madness Kansas
Posted at 8:49 PM, Dec 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-09 21:49:03-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — He’s not sure exactly what year it happened. He can’t even remember whose jersey it was.

All Scot Pollard remembers is exiting the University of Kansas men’s basketball team’s bus for a game at the Hearnes Center in Columbia against their bitter rival, the University of Missouri-Columbia.

A Tigers fan had hung a Jayhawks jersey from a noose. As KU’s players stepped off the bus, he lit the jersey on fire.

That’s how Pollard, who played at KU from 1993-97, remembers the Border War rivalry, which will be renewed after a 10-year hiatus from competitive games at 2:15 p.m. Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence.

“That’s different,” Pollard said. “That’s not what you expect when you pull up to the opposing arena.”

Midnight Madness Kansas
Serving as the evening's emcee, Scott Pollard tossed his tuxedo jacket to the ground and tore off his shirt to get the crowd going during Late Night in the Phog in Allen Fieldhouse on Friday, Oct 15, 2010, in Lawrence, Kansas.

Pollard remembered unruly fans throwing things at Jayhawks players at Kansas State — “in our other home arena, because I never lost there,” he said with a wry smile — and once at Oklahoma.

It all paled in comparison to the vitriol spewed during games against the Tigers.

“Did batteries get thrown at us at every arena we went to? No, it was a little different at Hearnes,” Pollard said. “When they had the Antlers that actually hurled racial insults at players — yeah, that was actually different than going to other buildings. It was much different when it was Missouri and it was much different back then.”

The Border War battles with Mizzou tend to blur together for Pollard, but he remembers the pressure of walking in the Hearnes Center with its high walls and rowdy fans seemingly right on top of the court.

“There were so many great (moments) and so many great games in my four years there, both during the season and during that tournament, that made that rivalry so special and made it easy to play,” Pollard said. “You didn’t need any motivation other than, ‘It’s Missouri. We’ve got to go beat these guys.’”

He said former KU coach Roy Williams and his foil at Mizzou, Norm Stewart, played up the rivalry. He suspects they were actually friends away from the court.

“But as far as we knew as players, they hated each other with a passion,” Pollard said. “There was nothing they wouldn’t do to beat the other guy up, like physically they wanted to assault each other. That was the message we got.”

Missouri Kansas Basketball
Kansas fans during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Missouri Monday, Jan. 25, 2010 at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan. Kansas won the game 84-65.

Missouri’s relative success — nobody has won more games than the Tigers against the Jayhawks, who own a 172-95 record in the series entering Saturday — helped fan the flames.

“It was always the biggest game because they actually beat us every once in a while,” Pollard said.

An education major at Kansas, Pollard studied history in college — including the Civil War tension between Kansas, a free state, and Missouri, a slave state. So, he was intimately familiar with the roots of the rivalry beyond the basketball court.

“The fact that this rivalry began with actual bloodshed does make it, in my opinion, the greatest rivalry that does exist,” Pollard said.

But after Mizzou’s move to the Southeastern Conference in 2012, which ground the rivalry to a halt aside from an exhibition game in 2017 for hurricane relief, Pollard doesn’t believe the Border War will ever return to its former fist-fighting heyday.

In fact, he thinks it was a mistake for the Jayhawks to restart the rivalry with a Tigers program that has struggled since leaving the Big 12.

“We beat Missouri in basketball now? Big deal,” he said. “It’s not a conference game. It doesn’t really matter much. But if they beat us? Man, that’s a great win for Missouri’s basketball program. No offense, but that’s just the way it is. It’s a huge win for Missouri to beat Kansas in basketball right now the way it stands, but it doesn’t do Kansas any good to beat Missouri. It’s just a game that we should win.”

Former Tigers forward Kevin Puryear, a Blue Springs native who grew up despising the Jayhawks, doesn’t see it that way.

SEC Media Day Basketball
Missouri player Kevin Puryear speaks during the Southeastern Conference men's NCAA college basketball media day, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, in Birmingham, Ala.

“I grew up in an anti-Kansas household, so I’m always pulling for the Tigers,” he said. “Win or lose, I’m a die-hard.”

As a young basketball fan, he lived for the Border War games.

“It was a to-do every year,” Puryear said. “It was must-see TV. I would say my favorite memory would probably be ‘09 when Zaire (Taylor) hit that last-second shot, that last-second pull-up jumper. Then, when Marcus Denmon just went completely unconscious in 2012, that was incredible, too.”

Zaire Taylor
Missouri's Zaire Taylor shoots the game winning basket with 1.3 seconds left in an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas on Monday, Feb. 9, 2009, in Columbia, Mo. Missouri won 62-60.

Puryear played at Missouri from 2015-19, so he took part in the exhibition game — scoring four points with five rebounds in 22 minutes — but he missed out on games that mattered against Kansas. That makes him amped for the Border War’s return.

“That’s one thing that I wish really would have continued when Mizzou made the transition to the SEC,” Puryear said. “Nonetheless, I think it’s great now that we have the six-year contract because it’s good for the fans, it’s great for the players [and] coaches. Even when it transitions to the Kansas City area, I think Kansas City pretty much is split down the middle when it comes to Mizzou and KU fans, so I think that will be an environment that people will really enjoy.”

He understands that a new generation of players haven’t seen the teams play a meaningful game since Feb. 25, 2012, when Thomas Robinson blocked Phil Pressey at the rim and crushed Mizzou’s hopes for a conference title — “clearly a foul, by the way,” Puryear said.

But while today’s players may not be familiar with the rivalry, he expects the fans to provide plenty of energy and inject life into the Border War again.

“After looking at the Instagram posts and tweets over the last couple of days, I think it’s very much still alive,” Puryear said. “The main difference now is you’re not really competing for the top spot in the Big 12. That’s really the only dynamic that’s changed, but I firmly believe that the rivalry is still there.”

Kim English
Missouri's Kim English celebrates as he walks off the court after his team defeated Kansas 74-71 in an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012, in Columbia, Mo.

Pollard isn’t so sure. A loss to Missouri would look terrible in Kansas’ postseason resume, but that’s all that he sees at stake other than braggin’ rights, which MU now plays for against then University of Arkansas in football each year.

Make no mistake, the eighth-ranked Jayhawks are eyeing another Big 12 crown and a national championship, while the Tigers may struggle to finish .500 this season.

“To me, this is a game that has taken all of the luster out of what was once the greatest rivalry in sports,” Pollard said. “... I hope that these guys get fired up and take care of business, but none of them could have any real frame of reference that’s going to make it any more meaningful for them than any other game on the preseason schedule.”

Nonetheless, Pollard will tune in and he expects his animosity to be rekindled fairly quickly. Once a Jayhawk, always a Jayhawk.

“This history is always going to be there, and it’s never going to change,” Pollard said. “Do I want to win this game? Of course. We should win this game. I always want to beat Missouri. That’s never going to go away. In that respect, it is special, because it is a game that doesn’t need any extra hype.”