Forever a Jayhawk: Remembering Kansas basketball great Walt Wesley

Iowa State v Kansas
Iowa State v Kansas / Ed Zurga/GettyImages

The Kansas basketball family lost a beloved former Jayhawk on Thursday as it was announced that Walt Wesley had passed away at the age of 79 after battling leukemia.

Wesley is perhaps one of the unsung legends of Kansas basketball.

Wesley arrived in Lawrence in 1963 thanks to the recruiting efforts of former KU head coach Ted Owens. Owens was an assistant under former head coach Dick Harp and then coached Wesley during his memorable junior and senior seasons.

“Walt Wesley is one of the finest men I have ever known,” Owens said. “He was so loved by his teammates and coaches. He was just an extraordinary man … He loved the University of Kansas and loved being a part of Kansas basketball. He touched all of our lives. I can’t say enough about Walt. He was so loved by his teammates.”

Welsey was a Consensus All-American in back-to-back years and helped lead KU to the Big Eight title in 1966. He would then help lead the Jayhawks into the NCAA Tournament alongside fellow Kansas basketball legend Jo Jo White.

The 1966 NCAA Tournament is one that lives in infamy for Kansas basketball fans who were around to watch it.

In a Regional Finals matchup against the Texas Western Miners from El Paso, Texas, the Jayhawks lost in double-0vertime after a controversial call which ruled White had stepped out of bounds on a buzzer-beating shot that would have won the game for Kansas. Wesley was the one who set the pick for White.

The Miners would go on to eventually win the national championship over Adolph Rupp (who played for Kansas under Phog Allen) and the Kentucky Wildcats. In that game, the Miners became the first team in college basketball history to start five African American players in a championship game.

Despite White getting most of the notoriety from that game, it was actually Wesley who finished as the leading scorer among both teams with 24 points. He also brought down 15 rebounds – second in the game to only Texas Western big man David “Big Daddy D” Lattin.

It was a heartbreaking finish for Wesley and a 23-4 KU squad, and it was Wesley’s last in a KU uniform.

His senior year, Wesley averaged a little over 20 points and 9 rebounds per game. That, along with his All-American nod, helped Wesley get drafted No. 6 overall by the Cincinnati Royals in the 1966 NBA Draft.

One of the highlights of Wesley’s NBA career includes setting the Cleveland Cavaliers single-game scoring record with 50 points – a record that stood for more than 30 years until none other than LeBron James broke it in 2008. However, unlike James, Wesley’s points came before the introduction of the 3-point line.

Wesley’s No. 13 jersey was officially retired in Allen Fieldhouse on Dec. 18, 2004. His name and number hang alongside White and so many other Jayhawks who made a lasting impact on this program.

His legacy will forever be remembered in the history of Kansas basketball.