The hottest ticket in town: Wildkats season has fans coming out in droves
Mar. 2—The hype around this season started well before it began, almost immediately after last season's Final Four run ended.
Nearly the entire team returning. Another year of development for emerging star Flory Bidunga.
Fans saw the writing on the wall and reacted accordingly. They bought season tickets.
Lots of them.
The Kokomo High School Athletic Department sold 2,500 all-sport passes ahead of this basketball season. The office usually sells a few hundred.
"Last year was a surprise for some people," said Athletic Director Nick Sale. "I think that led into the hype this year. The excitement was expected when you have a Final Four team return."
The Wildkats haven't disappointed.
Memorial Gymnasium has been the place to be this season with its loud crowds, a high-flying 6-foot-10 national recruit and a team that's writing itself into the storied history of Kokomo basketball.
The last three home games of the regular season saw 5,000 each with the matchup against Lewis Cass drawing 5,100 people.
Memorial Gym will again be the place to be tonight — so long as you can find a seat — as the Class 4A No. 5-ranked Wildkats face the Harrison Raiders at 6 p.m. It's the first step toward a hopeful state title appearance.
"I think they've carried that target well," Jim Callane, former Kokomo coach and athletic director, told the Tribune earlier this week. "They've been fun to watch."
At the center of it all has been Bidunga. Year two with the Kats has seen the continued development of the junior's game.
The polishing of Bidunga's game started this summer, where he performed well against some of the nation's premier talent while playing for Indiana Elite, an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team based in Indianapolis.
The top college coaches in the country took notice, and if you looked closely in the crowd during a home game this season, you were likely to spot some recognizable faces.
Twenty college coaches have visited Kokomo, all to get a look at Bidunga, who has quickly become one of the most coveted recruits in the 2024 class.
Sale said there has been a college coach at every home game. They often fly into town via Kokomo Municipal Airport.
That list includes Kentucky's John Calipari, Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Auburn's Bruce Pearl, the entire coaching staff from Indiana University and Purdue's Matt Painter.
"They're all super friendly," Sale said. "They're great when they're here. It's pretty cool for the community."
Painter has been a frequent face in the crowd, taking in games at Tipton and Huntington North. Sale said Purdue's student section, The Paint Crew, bought tickets for people to attend Kats games.
Bidunga isn't the first high-profile player to come out of Kokomo, and he surely won't be the last. But the presence of coaches like Calipari and Izzo begs the question, has KHS and Memorial Gym ever seen a season like this one?
For former coach and athletic director Ron Barsh, this year stands out.
"I've never seen the hype around this at all," he said. "It starts with Flory. He's not from here. He's 6 feet 10. We've had people come to the gym, but nothing like this."
This year's team is the 53rd Barsh has watched or coached.
There was hype around former greats Jimmy Rayl, the 1959 Indiana Mr. Basketball who played at IU and professionally, and 1955 Indiana All-Star Jim Butcher, who played at Montana State. Kokomo has a long list of Indiana All-Stars, the most recent being Tayler Persons in 2014.
But what takes the hype around Bidunga to the next level, according to Sale, is the presence of social media. It's not long after each game before one can find a highlight reel of the junior throwing down dunks and swatting shots online.
Sale said KHS received 40 media requests for the sectional tournament.
Those who have followed this year's boys team said Bidunga's personality has fed into the hype and attention. Often, the kid from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is found smiling on the court.
Is he having as much fun as it seems? Those who know him say yes.
"Flory's personality is such, he's like a magnet," Callane said. "Kids wait for him [after games] to get his autograph."
"Flory is the most beloved person on the court, off the court, in school," Barsh added. "He's a great ambassador for Kokomo."
That ambassadorship was on display when the Kats traveled to Huntington North last week. In the crowd was Huntington fourth grader Sukami Sunderman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo wearing a Bidunga jersey. The two met after the game and posed for photos.
But it's not just Bidunga. People are drawn to the entire Kats team.
Kids stick around after the game to get autographs from all the players.
"They want to be like them," Sale said. "That's fun. Sometimes it's hard getting out of the gym."
Participation numbers for summer camps are expected to increase this year.
"We've had a great senior class that's been successful across all sports," Sale said. "The impact of this team could last a decade."
Callane likened it to the Lady Kats teams of the early 1990s that repeated as state champions. He said the city had a sort of love affair with those teams.
"I think this is pretty close to that," he said.
It's brought back fans, while others tune in from other parts of the country via livestreams.
"I've started seeing people in the crowd I haven't seen in 10 years," Sale said.
A group from Washington, D.C., flew into Kokomo for a weekend of games earlier this season.
Expect a packed crowd for tonight's tip-off. Best believe the energy will be there, fueled by the band, cheerleaders, dance team and the student section with its theme nights and dunkometer that ranks every Bidunga dunk.
"They get into it," Sale said. "They're a great group of kids."
Tonight's theme is a white out. Fans are encouraged to wear white.
Spencer Durham can be reached at 765-454-8598, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Durham_KT.