The Christmas carol with the line “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” certainly has it right…especially if they were talking basketball in the Ozarks when they composed it.
No greater time than the post-Christmas traditions of the Blue and Gold (boys) and Pink and White (girls), not just for the one-stop shopping it presents for area basketball fans to get a look at a larger number of Ozarks teams, but for the social aspect as well. There are certain sections of Hammons Center where you know, year in and year out, you’re going to run into the same folks at the B & G.
No greater time except, perhaps, the mid-January weekend when the Ozarks is treated to basketball like we seldom see the rest of the year with the annual parade of top talent to town for the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions. The 27th edition of the three-day spectacular is January 13-15 at the JQH Arena on the Missouri State campus, and again promises to deliver some of the best teams and players from across the nation, just as it started doing with Dr. Edsel Matthews running the show when it began in 1985, right on through to the last few years under Mark Fisher’s team selection and guidance.
Many of you know about the recent history…the John Walls and Kyle Singlers and such who are still gobbling up tube time on ESPN on a regular basis in their college and pro careers. And even before that, the days of “Psycho T”—aka, Tyler Hansbrough—and Larry Hughes and Lamar Odom and Wayne Simien and…we could just go on with the more recent Who’s Who.
But I’m here today to remind you of some of the great stories in the T of C’s early days. So here’s one old guy’s ranking of his top five most memorable stories in T of C lore over, say, the first decade, give or take a couple of years…
5. Bud Lathrop. The man who spent an amazing 45 years as the Raytown South basketball coach was a story in himself every time his Cardinals would come to the tourney. Not only was he “The Human Monologue,” taking over the annual tourney breakfast/banquet with his relentless speeches on everything from life to an occasional basketball reference, but who could ever forget his traditional red suspenders? One of the truly great stories in the T of C came in 1990, when Jevon Crudup and the Cardinals beat St. Raymond’s of the Bronx in the finals just shortly after another Ray South star, Kansas signee Chris Lindley, had lost a leg in a freak accident that ended his career. Not a dry eye in that post-win locker room, for sure, and several moist ones in the arena that night, for that matter. Ray South went on to finish 31-0 and win a Missouri state title that year. And bless his heart, Bud’s post-game press conference is probably still going on…
4. Alonzo Mourning Was "The Man." Remember now, back in 1987, SMS Bears basketball was just beginning to take off under Charlie Spoonhour, we had no Springfield Cardinals and, well, pretty much we didn’t have a whole heck of a lot on the Ozarks’ sports landscape outside of the T of C. So when this 6-foot-10 kid named Alonzo Mourning came to town as a junior, and as the nation’s No. 1 college recruit out of Indian River H.S. in Chesapeake, Va., it was a really, really big deal. We’re talking, “Brad Pitt and Angelina spotted in downtown Springfield today” level of big deal. In fact, I’m biased a bit because I, as a wet-behind-the-ears News-Leader sports reporter at the time, was the first writer in the nation ever allowed to interview Mourning, the prep sensation, one-on-one. It was accomplished in a restaurant booth with his coach present at, I believe, some since-torn-down north Springfield location. And it happened only after his coach decided Springfield, Mo., was just remote enough, and as a just-out-of-college kid, I surely looked harmless. Mourning certainly didn’t disappoint on the court, swatting away shots like King Kong did airplanes back in his day. He blocked nine shots in one game here, grabbed 17 rebounds in another, and went on to great careers at Georgetown and the NBA as the first-ever T of C alum to really, really strike it big. And he was the first guy that let us all stick our chests out and say, “Yup, he was here. I saw him play.” From that point on, that’s been the central theme of this tourney.
3. The Little Team That Could. Only twice in the event’s history has a local team come out holding the championship trophy. The second time was the Kickapoo team in 2003 that was our area’s equivalent to an NBA team (and actually has an NBA player now in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Anthony Tolliver). No great shocker there. But nobody would have guessed that Mike Keltner’s Glendale Falcons would walk away with the title in 1994, or that point guard Stu Stenger would wind up being the tournament MVP for a squad that relied on chemistry and teamwork to derail more talented bunches. There wasn’t a local hoops fan who didn’t leave the arena smiling after the Falcons defeated Christ the King 55-53 in the title game. Why Stu doesn’t have that on his business cards today as a rising commercial real estate magnate, or at least a license plate that says TOCMVP, I’ll never know.
2. The Fifth Place Free-For-All. It began as just a harmless fifth-place game before a half-empty gym in 1998, and by the end, became one of the most talked-about contests in the tournament’s history, as it remains today. In fact, if you were one of those folks who habitually rolled into Hammons Center late in the third-place game to catch the end of that one and the title contest, you’re probably still lying to your friends by telling them you saw it. “It” was the scoring duel between Mariner (Fla.) sensation Teddy Dupay and Bolivar’s Scott Brakebill, when Dupay hit 13 3-pointers and scored a tourney-record 58 points to out-duel Brakebill and his meager 42 points and 17 rebounds. Granted, there wasn’t a whole lot of defense being played in the 103-95 win by Mariner, but who cared? Fans loved it, as Dupay launched bombs from everywhere, even showing enough restraint to wait ‘til he crossed half-court on some of them. In terms of “wow” factor from an individual (or in this case, two), this one will always be hard to top. Dupay’s 58 are still the tournament record, by a long shot. An amazing moment perhaps outdone only by…
1. Peeler vs. Day. Surely you know this one by now. Kansas City Paseo’s Anthony Peeler and Memphis Hamilton’s Todd Day squared off in the finals in 1988. Peeler was headed for stardom at Mizzou, Day at Arkansas, and both would eventually wind up in the NBA. But on this championship game day, it was all Day in the first half, as the lanky big guard poured in 14 points to Peeler’s zero as Hamilton took a 32-28 halftime lead. That’s right, no points for Peeler. Tournament organizers wanted to make sure someone hadn’t stuck a Peeler imposter on the floor in his uniform, because this wasn’t going the way they—or the big crowd—had envisioned. So all Peeler did was come out in the second half and score 28 amazing and spectacular points in 16 minutes, from all over the floor, to bring Paseo back to the championship. And there was a stretch of maybe three possessions in a row (covering 90 seconds or so) that were just surreal in the third quarter, I believe, where Peeler stole a pass in the backcourt on each and went in for a power slam as only he could do with his 6-foot-4 frame. Great championship games will come and go—and have—in the history of the T of C, but it will always be difficult to top this one.
Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Ozark Preps Illustrated.