Friday, May 18, 2007
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
The first call came from St. Louis, the second from Kansas City. By the time Norm Stewart put down the phone, he knew his program was about to take a giant leap forward, but he did his best to contain his joy. "We're very pleased with both Steve and Jon," he said in an act of staggering understatement. He had just received commitments that would change the course of Missouri basketball.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Monday, May 14, 2007
The new building featured a space-age Tartan floor, an exotic gray court that the players loathed. The rubbery surface prevented them from sliding, and it dampened sound such that they could not hear the ball bounce, a disorienting experience for players who grew up on hardwood. Despite the new environment and crowds often well below the 12,600 capacity, the Tigers maintained the home-court edge that had become a hallmark of the Stewart era and rode it to the best start in half a century. Against Ohio, before a packed house, John Brown christened the building with a midrange jumper, and he and five other Tigers—Al Eberhard, Mike Jeffries, Orv Salmon, Gary Link, and sophomore Felix Jerman—tallied double figures. Attendance dropped sharply after opening night. Only 7,714 fans saw Brown collect thirty-five points and fifteen rebounds in a win over Purdue that moved the Tigers to 4–0.
Friday, May 11, 2007
Thursday, May 10, 2007
It was the start of a long, slow fade for Sparky Stalcup. In his first ten years at Missouri, his teams finished second in the conference five times. But after Norm Stewart's graduation, they would never again place higher than fourth. Though his clubs were not devoid of talent, Stalcup could not match the enormous firepower that found its way to Lawrence and Manhattan. Part of that was due to his personal fabric. When it came to recruiting, Stalcup was ethical to a fault and even a bit naïve to the way the game was changing. He believed to his core that basketball should be just one piece of the university experience. He believed in students who played basketball, not basketball players who dabbled in education. "A school like Missouri will not relax its educational requirements for the sake of getting an exceptional athlete," he said. "The era of the dumb athlete is fast drawing to a close." He abhorred the corrupt recruiting practices that became more prevalent in the 1950s and railed against them. He believed that under-the-table payments were being made to the best big men, the kinds of players that were changing the game. He blamed alumni for brokering deals and blamed coaches for turning a blind eye. He feared for the integrity of the game.
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
In 1938, enrollment at MU had surged past five thousand. By 1943 it was down to
fifteen hundred as men went off to war. But even as other activities around
campus and the country were curtailed, college athletics—including Big Six
basketball—carried on to help boost morale on the home front. Even so, Kansas
coach Phog Allen undoubtedly was right in his assessment that "not many people
will take a wartime championship seriously. With us here athletics are simply
incidental to the war effort."
That effort had decimated the Tigers. Thornton Jenkins, Pleasant Smith, and others should have led Missouri's fight for a Big Six title. Instead, they were engaged in a fight of infinitely greater consequence. And with a dwindling student population, George Edwards's immediate challenge was not to win the conference; it was simply to field a team.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Few athletes are as largely forgotten as those who played basketball before World War II. Everyone knows legends from other fields of play: Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Joe Louis. But ask even a knowledgeable basketball fan to name a handful of great pre-war players and you're likely to receive a blank stare.
There are good reasons for this, not the least of which is basketball was a second-tier game in those days, far less popular than baseball, college football, or boxing. It also lacked a national stage, with the NIT and the NCAA Tournament coming into existence only in 1938 and 1939, respectively. Finally, and no less important, players from that era have been eradicated from the record books. Slower play, shorter seasons, and freshman ineligibility guaranteed this. Players simply could not score enough points during games, seasons, or careers to compete with more recent athletes, and statistics like rebounds and assists were not officially kept. This amnesia is unfortunate, especially for Missouri basketball loyalists, because the Tiger players of that era rank among the most accomplished in school history.
Yet more anonymous than the players of that era are its coaches, even the great ones. As evidence, try asking Missouri fans to name a coach who took over the Tiger program in his early thirties. Some will pick Quin Snyder, who arrived in Columbia in 1999 after serving as an assistant at Duke. Others might choose Norm Stewart, who returned to his alma mater in 1967 after six years as head coach at the State College of Iowa. But few—probably none—will mention Walter Meanwell, who became Missouri's coach in 1917 at age thirty-three. That is more than a little ironic because while Snyder and Stewart came to Columbia looking to build legacies at a major program, Meanwell arrived already established as the finest coach in the brief history of college basketball.
Monday, May 07, 2007
From modest beginnings came magical things. Inside a little gymnasium on the edge of campus, a few young men formed a team and founded a tradition that would provide a century's worth of thrills. The rich history of Missouri Tigers basketball
begins with them, players who toiled for little more than the pride of their
school and a love of the game, but whose efforts would come to mean more than
they could ever have imagined.