King recalled fondly

By Tom Keegan,, Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The memory of losing a game, even one in triple overtime for the national title, Monte Johnson can deal with 50 years later. It’s losing so many friends from that 1957 Kansas University basketball team that spins Johnson’s head. Johnson and former teammate Lynn Kindred had visited Maurice King in the hospital Friday, and Johnson said he thought King was looking better. That’s why he was surprised to get a call Monday informing him of King’s death after a battle with cancer. He died in his home in Kansas City.

Seven Jayhawks played in the ’57 national title game won by North Carolina, 54-53. With King’s passing, Ron Loneski is the sole survivor among them. Lew Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Gene Elstun, Bob Billings and John Parker preceded King in death. “It’s getting a little scary,” said Johnson, former basketball player and athletic director for Kansas. “I know it was 50 years ago, but still, it’s a little eerie.”

Monte teamed with Chamberlain in the Final Four and Monte’s son, Jeff, a walk-on, teamed with Danny Manning on the 1986 Final Four team that some consider to be the school’s most talented ever. Humor can be such a valuable tonic in times of grief, and Monte received a dose of it from Jeff in a telephone conversation when the son said, “Dad, I’m sure glad you didn’t play in that game.”

Monte Johnson said he and King joined former KU player and assistant coach Jerry Waugh and Chamberlain’s brother-in-law, Elzie Lewis, for a day in Lawrence last month, when they walked onto the Allen Fieldhouse court, walked through the Booth Family Hall of Athletics and shared lunch.

In recent months, Johnson said the normally quiet King expressed the opinion that once coach Dick Harp pulled Lew Johnson from the starting lineup in ’57, team chemistry never was quite the same. King went to his grave convinced Kansas would have won the national title, Monte Johnson said, had Lew Johnson remained in the starting lineup. “Maurice had a long career with Hallmark, was retired and enjoying life, and then about a year ago was hit real hard by cancer,” Johnson said. “He was one of the nicer people you would ever want to meet.”

Johnson said it was difficult to get under the skin of King, one of two African-American players on the team, but he recalled one time an opposing player managed to do so. “On the court, I can remember times because of his race that white players on the other team would say things to him, and he usually could deal with it,” Johnson said. “During the regional, a redheaded guy from Oklahoma City was saying stuff the whole game. Late in the game, he said in the huddle, ‘Coach, I can’t take it anymore.’ Dick Harp said, ‘Oh yes, you can. Don’t do anything to him.’ After the game, the redheaded guy couldn’t get to him fast enough to congratulate him. I think he was afraid he would have to meet him outside. And Maurice would have had a lot of help from us to settle the score. We all loved him.”

John Cleland, another former teammate of King’s at Kansas, said, “He was just a class guy. He always had a smile on his face. I don’t ever remember him complaining about anything. The truth is, he had some things to complain about. There was still rampant prejudice in a lot of parts of the country then.”