There are certain sights and sounds that heighten tension before major sporting events. Then Stacey King comes along, strutting among the crowd and signing autographs less than an hour before a tipoff for No. 1 to remind everyone that no more than a game is about to take place.
"It makes you feel like you're not a snob," said the central figure for Oklahoma, which was top-rated before being upset by Missouri, 97-84, Saturday. "Or you're not too good to come down off cloud nine. I promised my mother that if I ever got in the limelight, I'd do everything I could to uphold that image."
If the 6-foot-10 King is not quite the most dominant player in college basketball, if he might be only the second or third player chosen in the NBA draft, no one more enjoys the trappings of his sport.
"I once was a little kid," he said.
King has grown in lots of ways. Out of football, for one. In the classroom for another. Had there been a bit more thought during recruitment, he said, the uniform of choice might have been Maryland's.
"If I'd re-evaluated and taken my time just a little bit more," he said, "I'd probably gone there. The reason I didn't go there was that (Len) Bias would have been a senior my first year. I'd have gotten to play with him just one season.
"Then they'd have been hurting, with leadership and everything. So I figured if I went there, no way would the team after he left be able to stack up to his last one."
Bias left a powerful imprint on King.
"I met all the superstars of college (during recruiting)," he said, "but he was the only one who really stood out, in my mind, because of the fact that he didn't have a big head. Wasn't arrogant. He never got in places 'cause of his name, always paid for things, never even took me to clubs where you drank.
"He was like a brother type. He'd tell me what to look for in a school, told me if I didn't come to Maryland to take my time and evaluate everything. He told me things that made me think a little more."
Naturally enough, King still remembers where he was that awful afternoon in June 1986.
"Washing my car back home in Lawton," he said. "My mom (who had become friends with Lonise Bias) comes out of the house just crying: 'Len is dead. Len is dead.'
" 'Len who?' " I said. I got a lot a friends named Len. I just froze when she told me. Later (when the cause of death was announced as drug-related), I was devastated. I didn't know what to think."
King's experience at Oklahoma has been both rocky and thrilling. He went from being academically ineligible the second semester of his freshman season to making the dean's honor roll as a sophomore. He started the first 14 games as a sophomore, then didn't play at all the next 14 and considered leaving.
"Near the end (of that inactivity)," King said, "Coach (Billy) Tubbs came to me and said: 'Keep your eyes bright. Your time is coming, and make sure you have sunglasses on because it's going to be bright.' "
As a junior, King was a second-team All-American in one poll. He averaged 22.3 points and 8.5 rebounds on a team that won 35 of 39 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament final before losing to Big Eight rival Kansas.
His--and the Sooners'--goal this season seems simple: win one more game after making the Final Four. Actually, there is quite a lot of precedent for Oklahoma at least getting to the finals again.
North Carolina won the NCAA title in 1982 after losing to Indiana the year before. Houston was runner-up in 1983 (to North Carolina State) and 1984 (to Georgetown). And Georgetown was a finalist in 1985.
King looked around Oklahoma's impressive 10,871-seat Lloyd Noble Center the other day and said: "I feel like I'm a pioneer." He meant in terms of excitement and national glitter, Oklahoma having been very good under Dave Bliss in the late '70s but nothing more than regionally special.
"Since I've been here," King said, "attendance has gone up every year. I'm part of that. They'll have to build another arena (if the Sooners win the national title this season and continue at the most rarefied level of college basketball). Lloyd Noble won't be big enough to hold all the people."
The debates about King by NBA officials concern his pro position, whether he has the shooting range for power forward or the bulk and more than one move necessary for the pivot.
King would like to settle the argument. Not that his opinion will count a whole lot before or during the draft, but King insists he's a forward.
"If I had to play center in the professionals, I could," he said. "I could do it. I could get big enough (he's listed at 232 pounds) if I pumped the weights.
"But I'd be more comfortable at power forward. I've got too much quickness, I run the court too well to be a center. I'm in the mold of Tom Chambers or Larry Nance. Centers in college who are now power forwards.
"Akeem (Olajuwon) plays center but he's really a power forward. I see myself in that mold. But I wouldn't shy away from center. Long as I play, I'm happy."
That happiness is evident before, during and after games. He mingles with the crowd long after most players have retreated to the dressing room and tightened their game faces. By that time, King also has placed a good-luck call to his mother.
In Oklahoma's surge the last two seasons, King has been an effective down-low complement to outside threat Mookie Blaylock and a few others. In addition to scoring, King last season also became the first player in Big Eight history to block more than 100 shots.
Still, he says, with just a trace of disappointment: "I've always been a football player. I love football better than basketball. It just so happens I got too tall to play it."
While he was getting too tall for football, there was doubt that he would grow to be exceptional at basketball.
"I really didn't think I could play at this level until I was a senior in high school," he said. "The summer of my senior year I played AAU ball, in places like New York and L.A. and against players like J.R. Reid and Tommy Hammonds.
"That's where you find out how well you stack up. Players 6-10 and 7 feet. Pervis Ellison. Those type guys. I came back knowing I could really, really play against anybody. . . . I wasn't an All-America in high school, but I told my mother before I left Oklahoma I would be."