On the bench to On the Boards: March Madness in Seattle theatre

Apr 3, 2017, 5:40 AM

Lane Czaplinski admits March can be a distracting time of year. It’s not the overseas travel to book a Bygdedans dance troupe for the summer season or the hobnobbing at another sponsor dinner in his perpetual effort to keep On the Boards solvent for another season.

More photos from Lane Czaplinski

Those things happen every month when you are the artistic director of Seattle’s preeminent, avant-garde theater. March is different because it’s also the college basketball holy season. Czaplinski’s love for basketball runs deep; he admits that he steals time away from theater duties to immerse in March Madness on his phone.

But what most patrons of On the Boards don’t know is just how deep – and unusual – that hoops connection is for Czaplinski (pronounced CHAP-LIN-SKI). Twenty seven years ago, Czaplinski was a 5-foot-11, 180-pound, semi-broke English major entering his senior year at the University of Kansas.

He’d landed his first role in a campus play but as summer cooled into fall, he could see the end of his time on college. Worse, he didn’t see much of anything beyond it.

“My prospects were, um, minimal,” he said recently, laughing. “Then I got the call.”

The call. This is where Czaplinski’s story turns into narrative so rare in big-time college sports, people initially don’t believe him when he retells the tale. It’s the type of call that still mildly shocks the 47-year-old even after nearly three decades. It’s the type of call that when it happens in a movie, the music changes.

It was the men’s basketball team’s new head coach, Roy Williams. Czaplinski recalled. “He wanted to know if I could practice with the team.”

Kansas basketball

To understand University of Kansas’ central place in the college basketball universe, some comparisons are in order. Kansas is to college basketball what the New York Yankees are to Major League Baseball, what Harvard is to college, what Apple is to technology. (Kansas fans would say that it is all three rolled into one.)

The inventor of basketball coached there. Kansas was famous in the 1950s with Wilt Chamberlain, in the 1960s with Dave Robisch, in the 1970s with Darnell Valentine, the 1980s with Danny Manning, in the 1990s with Paul Pierce and in the 2000s with Nick Collison, Andrew Wiggins and Frank Mason.

Kansas has produced more than 70 professional basketball players in the United States alone (not to mention the dozens who have played professionally overseas). Kansas, UCLA, the Universities of North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana and (more recently) Duke University are basketball royalty in the United States.

For six decades, Kansas has been a finishing school for some of the finest players in the world.

And as it turns out, for Lane Czaplinski too.

Playing for the Jayhawks

To be clear, it isn’t as if the University of Kansas call came completely out of the blue. Czaplinski was something of a star point guard at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Mo. — a state basketball powerhouse. Czaplinski’s dad, George, was the head basketball coach there and a former star player in his own right.

His dad had coached Larry Drew, a former NBA player who now is an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Former college coaches Dean Smith and Bobby Knight would stop by the house during coaching clinics. His dad’s high school players would watch game film in the family living room.

“I grew up in a hardcore basketball culture,” he said. “I was the classic coach’s son.”

But Czaplinski was no Larry Drew. Small (5-foot11 at the time) and slow, Czaplinski received exactly zero scholarship offers his senior year in high school. When he decided to enroll at nearby Kansas, he figured his playing days were over.  Even so, he went to an open try out for the school’s junior varsity team.

The JV team, one of the additions Williams brought to his new school, is a no-scholarships and all walk-on team. They used the Allen Fieldhouse on off days and played games against junior colleges and obscure military academies to mostly empty arenas.

For Czaplinski, the JV team was a chance to stay in shape and work on his game while he figured out what to do in college. By his junior year, he was the team’s leading player. The summer before his senior year, he no longer was eligible to play on the JV. He again assumed his playing career was done.

He turned his attention to the theater.

“When I come back (for his senior year), I’m basically hitting every margarita special in town and I’m a literature major and just reading a bunch,” he said. “And I found out (theater) auditions are happening for the university.”

Czaplinski thought, “Well that’s kind of interesting. Maybe I should audition for a play.”

Then two weeks after landing a part in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, the phone rang. It was Coach Williams. The varsity Jayhawks team needed a player to fill out practice. Could Lane swing by?

“I figured they just needed a player for practice,” he said. “I didn’t think anything of it.”

But what Czaplinski didn’t know was that Williams was in a bind. Behind the scenes, a star guard on the varsity squad had been declared academically ineligible. The start of the 1991-92 season was days away. Williams needed another backup guard.

Without Czaplinski’s knowledge, Williams had called the JV coach, Mark Turgeon. Who is the best player you have? Williams asked. Turgeon – who today is the basketball coach at the University of Maryland – said it was Czaplinski.

After a few days of practice, Williams pulled Czaplinski aside.

He asked if he wanted to stay with the team for the season. Days after that, Williams made him a co-captain.

“It was surreal,” he said.

Reached before a recent tournament game, Williams said Czaplinski was a natural leader even though he was not the best player on the court.

“He was very smart, he really knew basketball,” Williams said. Now the coach at the University of North Carolina (which is playing for the national championship today at 6:20 p.m. against Gonzaga University), Williams said he made Lane a co-captain of the team because he was the type of player who wasn’t, “me, me, me, but we, we, we.”

And so began the season with Kansas among the favorites to win the national championship. And Czaplinski literally had a front-row seat. He’d practice against future pro players Rex Walters and Adonis Jordan and then take his seat on the bench for games.

Which, of course, delighted the rowdy student section at Allen Fieldhouse. Like many student sections in college basketball, Kansas student fans each year pick a couple of players deep on the bench to chant for. And Czaplinski became a favorite.

“People hung around, I think, just to see if I’d ever get in a game,” Czaplinski said.

Williams remembered it the same way. “They’d chant for him,” he said. “It’s happened everywhere I coach. Student bodies will try to get someone in a game. Sometimes, I’d turn around and tell the fans, “Hey, let me coach.

“And sometimes, you’d put the player in.”

Czaplinski’s legacy

Czaplinski’s stat line for the 1991-92 season: 16 total points (.8 points per game), seven assists and two rebounds. He played an average of 2.5 minutes a game.

After being reminded of Czaplinski’s stats for the 91-92 season, Williams was asked if that’s the real reason why he has enjoyed a Hall of Fame career as a college basketball coach following Czaplinski’s time on the Jayhawks.

“I would say that Lane was a major contributor to any success that I have had,” Williams said laughing.

Czaplinski, who will be leaving On the Boards at the end of April, said every now and then a Kansas fan will remember his time on the team, including a barista in Seattle who had attended Kansas.

“You have to understand,” he said. “Kansas fans are crazy. He recognized my name.”

And oddly, it’s that name that will make Czaplinski’s narrow fame endure. Czaplinski noted that the student section never did figure out how to pronounce Czaplinski. Instead, they instead chanted, “Lane, Lane, Lane.”

But it turns out Czaplinski, alphabetically, has its merits. In the athletic department at the University of Kansas, is a wall of fame of sorts, a shrine to all of the basketball players who have earned a varsity letter.

On prominent display is the plaque for most famous Jayhawk hoopster ever, Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain. And anyone who takes a photo of the Chamberlain plaque gets an added bonus. Directly adjacent to it, as close as teammates on a bench, is another plaque:

“Lane Czaplinski, 1992.”

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On the bench to On the Boards: March Madness in Seattle theatre