In the big scheme of things, basketball surely was meant to be seen and played just this way.
No pomp. No halftime rah-rah. No Curt Gowdy. Just wondrously devoted basketball fans and hundreds of the most-unheard-of coaches, players and schools in six grueling days of single-elimination battle. When you lost - that's it - back to Newberry, S.C. or wherever.
Ah, yes, this must be the 40th annual NAIA National Basketball Tournament and 32-team no-sleep marathon backyard hoopfest. In blessed obscurity amid Kansas City's breath-taking stockyards, this devinely unrestrained festival yawned to life at 9:30 Monday morning in reassuringly typical NAIA style.
Tournament officials forgot to bring basketballs for the opening game.
But who noticed? Understand, this tournament hasn't lasted for 40 years because folks pay attention to minute detail and big-time protocol. People from all over come to this space-shuttle like Kemper Arena because only here can you park your Winnebago then watch basketball from 9:30 a.m. until after 1 o'clock the next morning without leaving your seat. Six days of hard-core, nonstop basketball. Straight, no chaser.
And the schools that finally make it here are definitely the have-nots, the Third World if you will, of college athletics.
"This is the last bastion of amateurism," said basketball superscout Marty Blake, who leans toward exaggeration, "Kids in North Dakota will mortgage their belongings and sell apples for weeks to get here." Not true, but tall basketball tales are even more a part of this tournament than the games themselves.
However, some are true and worth repeating.
Paine College of Augusta, Ga., is a tiny (enrollment 700) school, champion of NAIA District 25, and a prime example of a hopelessly outclassed bunch of ballplayers who get beat by zone defenses and cultural shock.
But their coaches, like Paines's squat and eloquent Ernest Tolbert, make their team's inevitable shellacking much easier to bear.
"Oh no, we're just happy to open up this tournament," Tolbert said before his Lions faced Wisconsin-Parkside in Monday's eye-opener, played in front of a crowd affectionately known as the Dawn Patrol.
Like everyone, Tolbert "is just thrilled to be here," but when he tells you that his annual basketball budget is less than $6,000 and he gives no scholarships, well, you begin to understand.
But the crowd is neither surprised nor saddened when Paine bites the dust by 47 points, 112-65 - it wasn't as close as it looks - and fortunately, the debacle brings out the quotable Tolbert.
"Yes, we were king of all we surveyed," Tolbert said of his backwoods conference, "but we didn't survey all that much."
Tolbert's boys didn't get to stay for the entire tournament because finances were tight, but the team did get to fly twice, which was some consolation. "Why yes," Tolbert nodded, "I guess this was the first time some of my boys have ever been in a plane."
Quiz; where would you find Mount Marty, Tri-State and Campbell Colleges? If you said Yankton, S.D., Angola, Ind., and Buies Creek, N.C., you'll probably receive an at-large berth next year.
A lot of sportswriters are here and so many of them are trying to capture moods that the task becomes somewhat discouraging if you haven't copy-righted your old anecdotes. But actualy, the NAIA tournament is best portrayed by the array of unique, disjointed scenes.
Like the sight of Campbell College's lone cheerleader, a large orange teeshirted Great Pumpkin figure, clapping wildly for his Campbell Camels at 1 a.m. with more than 15,000 empty seats looking on.
Or watching a legless University of Missouri at Kansas City, cheerleader root for his Kangaroos while performing headstands on a skateboard.
And then there are those who reminsce.
In 1957, John McLendon coached the first back team, Tennessee State, ever to win the tournament. He and Rube Benton, a boisterous good ol'boy who has written 30 years of sports for the Kansas City Call, laugh about the days when McLendon's teams weren't even allowed to stay in downtown hotels.
So McLendon can sympathize with the have-nots, at least some f them. As he sat watching Paine College get bombed, he said from courtside: "I usually like to sit higher up 'cause it makes the game look so much better, but Lord, I would've had to be in the stratosphere to make that last team look good."
But it is the immensity of it all that brings people to the NAIA.
"This thing's a basketball feast," said a Kentucky fan. "It would be impossible for anyone to ever come here once."