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November 17, 2013

Powered Up: Perfection Reflection



George Brett, Frank White and the Kansas City Royals made me a sports fan. Norm Stewart made me a fanatic.

Your allegiances are formed early as a sports fan. Mine were with the Chiefs and Royals because I grew up in Kansas City and with the University of Missouri because pretty much every member of my family that went to any amount of college did so in Columbia.

If you're my age, and you grew up as a fan of Missouri, football was something that passed the time until college hoops tipped off (so you can't say Missouri and Kansas fans never had anything in common...it's just that one of those has changed).


While my once or twice annual trips to Columbia to watch a football game generally ended in a bloodletting by the likes of Oklahoma, Nebraska or Miami, Tiger hoops was what really made me love all these silly games.


The first Missouri teams I really remember watching were led by Derrick Chievous. The Band-Aid man is still the best player I've seen wear the black and gold. That might have something to do with the fact that he's the first superstar I remember, but it's not an argument that is difficult to back up.


From there, Doug Smith came to town, followed by a kid from my home town named Anthony Peeler. Missouri made a run from 1980-1990 when the Tigers would have had a solid argument as the best program in a conference that could annually make an argument as the best in college basketball. Don't get me wrong, others would have a claim to that throne as well, but Missouri was in the discussion.

Then Dr. Detroit and playing loose with the rules landed the Tigers on probation, cancer struck Stormin' Norman and Missouri was 60-33 over the three seasons from 1990-93. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't quite what we'd gotten used to. As Jed Frost told me while I was doing interviews for the Perfection series that ran over the last six days, we all got a little bit spoiled for a while.

The 1993-94 season had a roster full of eight seniors. Jevon Crudup had been a big-time recruit (even though he was generally thought to be the second-best player on his own high school team) and Kelly Thames was pretty highly regarded. The rest of that team, honestly, did not carry much fanfare. Frost had graduated from Park Hill four years before I did as pretty much the best hoops player my school had ever seen. He was a walk-on at Mizzou, which told me just about everything I needed to know about exactly how good you had to be to play at that level.

Anyway, we all know, and as the series chronicled, the start of that season wasn't pretty. Really, through January 4th, when the Tigers lost to Notre Dame, the only sign they would be really good was the triple overtime win over Illinois. I remember watching that game at my parents' house, getting a phone call with the Tigers down seven and about 45 seconds left. I said I would call back when the game was over. Forty-five minutes later, I still hadn't returned the call.


Honestly, I don't remember watching a lot of the games individually as Mizzou moved to 13-and-0. A lot of the fun of doing this series was hearing guys recount the comeback at Stillwater, the Booker-led win in Lawrence, Thames' big game against Iowa State or the O'Liney-Adkins shootout in Norman.

By the time Nebraska came to town, the Tigers were appointment viewing. I had a friend over watching that game. As soon as Erik Piatkowski's shot spun out (like many of the guys I talked to, I wasn't a physics major, but I know enough to know that it didn't make sense the shot didn't go in), my friend and I got in the car and drove to Metro North Mall. We each bought a shirt. On the front, it said "Big 8 Champs." On the back was a picture of Truman stepping on a jayhawk's neck with 14-0 in big, bold letters. Somewhere along the way, I lost that shirt. I wish I hadn't.

For three games during the NCAA Tournament, I had friends over. We watched the Tigers toy with Navy, play one of the best games I've ever seen in beating Wisconsin and survive the one-man wrecking crew that was Adrian Autry to top Syracuse. I didn't invite anyone over for the Arizona game. I watched with my mom. I'm still pretty sure if I hadn't changed my routine, the Tigers would have gone to the Final Four (it's the same superstition that still leads me to use the same urinal if the Chiefs are winning, to not leave my seat if the Royals are doing well...I know it's stupid and you cannot convince me that it doesn't matter). It took me a long time not to hate Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves (I tried to reach both of them for our series, but had no luck).


In the end, like many of the players I talked to, what I remembered for a long time about that Tiger team was that awful final day in LA. That was Missouri's best chance to remove its name from that hideous list "Most tournaments played without reaching the Final Four." It was also Norm Stewart's best chance to get the credit he really deserved for the phenomenal job he did on the sidelines at his alma mater for 32 seasons.


Eventually, fans get over losses and in time, the fun of that run replaced the heartache of losing in the Elite Eight. That team had done something that no team had done for 23 years. They had done it with, as Kelly Thames said, a team that not many people seemed to think was very good. It was a joy to watch.

Three weeks ago, most of that team returned to the Hearnes Center to a reception that all of them said was shocking. The outpouring from the Missouri fans that weekend was pretty special. I talked to Crudup about his Raytown South teams, to Melvin Booker about how we weren't old enough that his kid should be ready to go to college, to a lot of guys about that 1993-94 season.

My favorite statement in writing Perfection came from assistant coach Bryan England, who I've gotten to know over the last few years because his son and mine have played baseball and basketball with and against each other. England told me the players on that team were telling his teenager all kinds of stories while they stood in the tunnel at Faurot Field waiting to be introduced during the football game.


"That's why you're on a team. You win some, you lose some, but to be able to have that relationship and tell those stories 20 years later."

That team is why I'm a fan. Twenty years later, that team is still at the top of my list. None has ever been more fun to watch. No legacy has lasted through the years like that one. What a team it was. What a year. Hopefully, a few of you have had as much fun reading about that season as I had writing about it.



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