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December 12, 2012
Family helps Bowers bounce back
Long after the final buzzer sounds, they linger. About 20 rows up in section 117, right above the tunnel from which Missouri players emerge after leaving their locker room, they wait for their man. After the game is over, the interviews are done, the No. 21 jersey is stripped off, Laurence Bowers walks back on to the court.
He walks up some thirty stairs to greet the group. It's bigger than it used to be.
"I always had family here, but not in this large amount," Bowers said. "It's my last year. Senior year, they definitely want to seize the moment. They know how hard I worked to get back on the court and they're just here to support me every step of the way."
Hugs are exchanged. High-fives given. Smiles--always with Laurence Bowers there are smiles--abound.
The group has given itself a name. After every home game, Laurence Bowers reunites with "The BB's."
The first B is for Bowers. There is Nancy, Laurence's mother, who recently turned 51. There is Arlyn, Laurence's uncle, who played at Arkansas from 1988-91.
The second B is for Brown. Laurence's sister, Amelia Brown, is 15.
The BB's are tough to miss. At Mizzou's last game, a 68-38 win over Tennessee State, there were homemade signs, most noticeably a cutout of the letters "LBO," Laurence's nickname. There was the homemade t-shirt Nancy wore, a picture of Laurence dunking screen printed on the back with the phrase "Bow Down" beneath it. But more than ever before, the BB's are tough to miss due to the sheer number of them in Section 117.
"Laurence has got a lot of people who love him," Nancy Bowers said.
Chief among those people is Nancy.
Nancy organizes the trips from Memphis. Sometimes they take their own cars. Sometimes Nancy will rent a van. Aunts, uncles, cousins, his sister. Whoever wants to come, the BB's make the five-and-a-half hour drive from Memphis to Columbia to watch Laurence play.
"I've always supported my son," she said. "Even last year when he wasn't playing, I made sure I showed up at some of the games in support of the team. This year we all plan to make a lot of the games."
Nancy was there last year. She would cheer for Marcus Denmon and Kim English and Steve Moore. As those Tigers played their final season, winning 30 of 35 games, Nancy Bowers cheered. Her son sat on the bench in a suit.
Last year was supposed to be Laurence Bowers' senior season. He had played 99 games in his first three years. He had averaged 8.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and blocked 123 shots. He had been a part of 77 wins, three NCAA Tournaments, a Big XII tournament title and an Elite Eight. His first season under Frank Haith would be his last--along with English, Denmon and Moore as the remaining members of the Class of 2008--in a Tiger uniform.
On October 3rd, 2011, 39 days before the first game of his senior season, Bowers tore the ACL in his left knee during practice.
"I was about to turn 50. I had had a birthday party on October third when he called me," Nancy Bowers remembers. "He said, 'Mama sit down.' I'm like okay, and that's when he told me about the ACL.
"I don't who cried the most, me or him."
"When he first called me he was sad, crying," Arlyn Bowers said. 'Me being an ex-ballplayer, I knew I had to step up, give him the confidence he needed. I told him everything happens for a reason."
As Bowers sat, Missouri won. As Bowers hit the weight room, his teammates hit shots. The Tigers went 30-and-5, winning the CBE Classic and capturing the Big XII Tournament Championship in their final season in the conference. Bowers became Missouri's biggest cheerleader.
"He was very vocal last year on the sideline," Haith said. "Believe it or not, and I say this sincerely, he helped us win games last year on the sideline."
When Phil Pressey's final desperation heave bounced away at the QWest Center in Omaha, Nebraska, Missouri's season came to a shocking end. Norfolk State, a 15 seed, moved on. Missouri, a two seed, went home. It was the end of the road for English, Denmon and Moore, as well as fellow seniors Ricardo Ratliffe and Matt Pressey.
It was not the end for Bowers. He had redshirted, vowing to return for his second senior season at Missouri.
"I've always told both of my kids to stay positive and strive for excellence," his mother said. "He's always said, 'Mama I'm coming back.' I said, 'I know you are baby.'"
"I wanted to finish my senior season the right way," Bowers says now. "I didn't want to go out with people wondering what could have happened, how good a player he could have been. I came back and said to myself I was going to try to lead like Marcus and Kimmie. So far, so good."
Not just good. Better.
"I feel like it. I've improved my overall game," Bowers said. "I worked on extending my range a lot, just handling the ball a little bit more. I felt like my first three years here I was kind of like an athletic garbage man. This year I feel like I'm showing my versatility a little bit more, helping Phil out breaking presses and just trying to do whatever coach needs me to do. I'm a senior, I'm a veteran and I know that coach and the team need my 100 percent effort every game."
Through nine games, Bowers is averaging 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds, both career highs. He is shooting 58.2% from the floor and 57.9% from three-point range. He has made 11 three-pointers, more than he did in his first three seasons combined.
"He's a better, I don't want to say player, he's more gifted offensively than what I saw on tape. He's really expanded his game," Haith said. "He's definitely a more skilled offensive player than what I saw on tape."
Like everything else with Laurence Bowers, the transformation started with his family.
"The summer before he hurt his knee he was ready. He was doing the things we are seeing now," Arlyn Bowers said. "That long layoff, he kind of needed a refresher."
So Arlyn Bowers got in his car. He drove the five-and-a-half hours. He grabbed his nephew and he went to work.
"I came up a couple times and got in the gym with Laurence and trained him actually. Everyone wonders how he's all of a sudden shooting and scoring all these points," Arlyn said. "I took it upon myself to come up there and show him how he can get the ball and score in this offense. Showed him skill work, facing the basket, triple threat position, worked on his midrange game."
"He's actually a better player now that he hurt his knee."
For Arlyn, it was just the latest practice session with Laurence. Those have been going on for about 13 years now, since Laurence was nine.
"We're like father and son. His mom was the one that turned him on to basketball. She called me one day said you need to come see your nephew play. I said this kid can play," Arlyn said. "She asked me 'Can you take over for me?' Right then and there that was the day we started. He was a little bitty dude. We've been on the warpath ever since."
The knee injury, it seems, was a blessing in disguise for Bowers. Before that, when he was fully healthy, there was another injury. This one wasn't physical.
On March 23rd, 2011, some seven-and-a-half months before he would tear his ACL, Laurence Bowers fought back tears as he passed reporters camped outside of Mizzou Arena.
Bowers was born on April 19, 1990. His uncle had played two seasons at Arkansas by that point, where Mike Anderson was an assistant coach. Laurence Bowers had known Mike Anderson his entire life. And now, Anderson was leaving him.
"He said he was gonna miss him and he understood why he left and wished the best for him," Nancy Bowers remembers. "(Laurence) was gonna go ahead with the program."
Arlyn Bowers was already doing research.
"When they announced that coach Haith was coming, I was already on top of him watching how he played, watching his teams at Miami. I told Laurence, 'This coach's system is gonna fit him better than coach A's did," Arlyn said. "Laurence could never get inside the offense and show what he could do. It was just a lot of running and gunning.
"I told him, 'This guy, his system is gonna fit you and people are gonna see what you can do.'"
They're seeing it now.
"I think it comes with the coaching staff that he's got now because they recognize the talent that he has. They gave him the confidence to do it. Coach Anderson, I don't know if he ever recognized the talent. Laurence always has had that talent. They recognize the talent that he has and they use him.
"Laurence had never taken on a role like this ever since he's been playing basketball. He has never been the man."
The emphasis is on the last two words. This year, Laurence Bowers is THE MAN.
"I'm not a selfish guy. If I've made a few shots, I want to get my teammates involved so I'll swing it," he said. "Most of my shots, it's just great ball movement. I'm just the beneficiary.
"It's just going in knowing that my team needs me to be that much more of a big player than I've ever been. I kind of put more pressure on myself."
He doesn't have a courtside seat for it, but even Bowers' former coach is taking notice. Arlyn Bowers still talks to Mike Anderson on a regular basis.
"Coach A knew the type of uncle I was and how I push and drive Laurence," Arlyn said. "He told Laurence that he was going to be all-conference before he left. He's not surprised."
Anderson will have two chances to see Bowers in person this season. With Missouri's move to the Southeastern Conference, the Tigers and Razorbacks will play two league games this year.
"I ain't gonna miss that game for the world," Arlyn Bowers says with a laugh. "I could be laid up in the hospital and I wouldn't miss that game."
Not that the BB's will miss many games anywhere. They're going to Oxford for the Ole Miss game and Starkville when the Tigers play Mississippi State. Laurence's grandmother cannot usually make the trip to Columbia, but she will be in Nashville when the Tigers face Vanderbilt. Wherever Laurence plays, the family will follow.
"Coach always tells me, you only got 13 games, you only got 12 games. You shouldn't take any game for granted so that's my approach to it," Laurence said. "I've been here for a long time and sitting out last year, it makes you so much hungrier. It makes you appreciate the game that much more. I go out and give it my all every time out."
And right beside Bowers will be his personal peanut gallery, watching every game they can in his Missouri swan song.
"His determination just wows me. He has that go get 'em attitude of 'I'm gonna do this,'" Nancy Bowers said. "I just constantly encourage him."
Bowers and his family have learned in the last year that nothing is a given. The next game is not guaranteed. He knows he has this season. Beyond that, they all hope there is more basketball to come.
"The NBA always been a dream of his. He done got through the hard part. He's graduated, he's gonna have his Master's before he leaves," Arlyn said. "His dream is about to come true."
If he makes it on the next level, Nancy Bowers says "half the city of Memphis will probably be there" to watch him play.
But that is all in the future. For now, Laurence Bowers has business to take care of at Mizzou. In Section 117, they'll be watching.
"Oh man, I be up there almost in tears. All the hard work I put in in the gym with him, all the time, the effort, I'm actually seeing it," Arlyn Bowers said. "I'm seeing the true Laurence Bowers. I just be up there almost in tears."
There are no tears from mom. Not yet, anyway. Nancy Bowers is busy organizing road trips. While his uncle goes on and on about Laurence Bowers, his mother needs far fewer words:
"I'm just very, very proud of my son."
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