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March 19, 2008

Beasley becomes focus of Omaha

OMAHA, Neb. -- Want to know what it's like to be king of a city? Where were you at, say, around 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday? The surefire Top-5 NBA Draft pick whenever he chooses to leave was shoulder deep in children -- hundreds of children that pressed hard against the railing inside the Qwest Center as the Kansas State freshman superstar passed by. It wasn't supposed to be like this. The team bus was idling outside. Everyone was waiting for Michael Beasley. Everyone, of course, including the children.

It didn't take long to realize Beasley's far-reaching impact. Actually, Omaha isn't too far reaching. It's listed at 146 miles from Manhattan. But there were kids wearing Kent State blue, Cal State Fullerton orange, USC red and, of course, the colors of that other Kansas team that also will play in the first round on Thursday. Before, during and after the Wildcats' public practice inside the beautiful arena, those kids had one thing in common: They all wanted Beasley.

"Beasley! Beasley! Beasley! Beasley!" they chanted, as if they were cheering for a buddy during a Little League game.

"Beasley!" they yelled as he dropped in a reverse dunk with his left hand during lay-up drills.

"Beasley!" they yelled again when he stood flat-footed and lobbed-in a 30-footer.

There was something different in the air. For the first time in a dozen years it was March. For K-State, that is. Of course, Beasley had played some big circuits before. MVP of the McDonald's All-Star Game? Done that. International games? Done that, too. Of course, this was Beasley's first March as a Wildcat, another stop during the season, although this was a big stop, and he was preparing for a big game against O.J. Mayo (who also possesses some documented star power) and Southern California. Big games? He didn't know any different. But even the 19-year-old and Big 12 Player of the Year noticed something wasn't quite the same on the way to the arena: Six policemen escorted the K-State team bus.

"We were running red lights and everything," Beasley said.

Running red lights -- now that's a "wow" moment for Beasley. He smiles, curls the corner of his lip like it was the coolest thing so far on the trip.

Upon sauntering onto the court, the red flags immediately went out everywhere that this was going to be a different practice. If your name was Michael Beasley, that is. "Michael! Michael!" Some longtime basketball fans looked around as if searching for the former NBA superstar who wore the No. 23 jersey. But no, the high-pitched cries were aimed at the 6-foot-10, 235-pounder in purple that at the moment was rebounding a ball for senior guard Blake Young in the three-man-weave.

"No autographs for KU fans, Mike!" a guy in purple yelled.

Frank Martin sat on the bench, watching his team, seemingly oblivious to anything going on away from the court, while assistant coach Brad Underwood periodically barked a command and players fell in line for a different drill. When Beasley went to one end of the court to shoot 3-pointers from the corner, a dozen TV cameras and photographers followed. When Beasley went to the other end of the court for free throws, so did some cameras as a gathering of children migrated toward that end of the stands.

As the scoreboard clock ticked off the final 10 seconds of the Wildcats' 40-minute practice, a buzz filled the arena. Children counted down the seconds - "Ten!...Nine!...Eight!..." while nudging for position near the tunnel with NCAA game programs and Sharpies in hand. This was it. The big moment.

Then came an audible. CBS commentators Kevin Harlan and Dan Bonner requested an audience with Beasley and Bill Walker. While the rest of the team shuffled toward the tunnel, lost in the mess of autograph seekers, the two stars sat on the edge of the press table and chatted it up with the network guys for a moment. While Beasley stuffed his hand into paper cup and unwrapped pieces of candy, at request, he retold the tale of SpongeBob SquarePants for the 1,284th time. Adults in the stands held cell phones and cameras and clicked away. No matter the only thing they captured in those photos was Beasley's back. March Madness - literally. A pack of fans - a few even wore purple -- steadily formed near the front of the stands, about 10 feet from where Beasley sat.

"Michael, sign my shoe!" a boy said, stripping off a red-and-white old-school Air Jordan and holding it in the air.

"Yeah, Michael," another boy said. "Sign mine, too."

"Michael, turn around!" a man shouted.

A few minutes passed. The crowd of children near the team tunnel started chanting his name again.

"Give USC heck, Michael!" someone yelled.

The team was waiting, and it was time to go. This would be no small task. So an official led Beasley and Walker toward the tunnel - on the other side of the court. It looked safe enough, but another mob formed near that tunnel and in the chairbacks along the baseline, separated from the court only by a waist-high aluminum partition.

"Mr. Beasley, would you please sign this ball for my son?" a man in purple asked from behind the partition along the baseline as Beasley started to pass.

One simple request. One "please." Beasley, being the kind of guy he is, was absolute toast.

He looked over, stutter stepped, and stopped. He walked and grabbed the Sharpie, he signed his name neatly across the Final Four souvenir basketball. And then it began.

Sign and move. Sign and move.

Beasley has a great 3-point touch, but this will be the move he must learn to perfect in the coming years. He started out scribbling "M… Beas…" but after about five autographs it became "M --- B ---." He must have signed close to a hundred in less than two minutes. Walker accommodated a mountain of game programs and photos as well before they reached the end of the tunnel, the children too high up in the stands for the players to reach.

"Man," Beasley laughed to Walker as they walked toward the locker room. "I was signing one thing and this guy was shoving something else at me."

A security guard approached Beasley. Beasley's eyes widened.

"Mr. Beasley," he began, "could I please have your autograph for my child?"

Another man standing inside the corridor asked Beasley and Walker to pose with his daughter's paper doll for a photo - much like the man in that cell phone commercial who takes photos of his daughter's stuffed monkey at every stop. The players smiled with the paper doll. Click. Then they headed toward the bus.

"You can tell," Walker laughed, sounding slightly winded, "that this is a different atmosphere."

Beasley nodded.

Five minutes later, Cal State Fullerton took the court for its practice.

The chanting children and camera-toting adults wearing Kent State blue, USC red and, of course, the colors of that other Kansas team, had suddenly disappeared.


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