Behold These Tigers
You can't really blame the nation's pollsters and pundits for adopting a show-me attitude about Missouri. Yeah, sure, the Tigers' 99-83 thumping of Oklahoma last Saturday left them 22-2 for the season and 12-0 in the Big Eight, and it put them only two wins away from becoming the first team in 23 years to go unbeaten in the Big Eight regular season. As a result, Missouri held on to its No. 6 ranking in this week's AP poll, but until a fortnight ago the Tigers weren't even in the Top 10. And that was because of the blinking neon line on their record, a 120-68 blowout at the hands of Arkansas on Dec. 2. "I can't much blame people for doubting us because of that," says 6'2" senior guard Melvin Booker, "but we bounced back and showed our character."
No one personifies Missouri's resilience better than Booker, who arrived on campus as an unheralded recruit and very likely will be the Big Eight's Player of the Year this season. Before Booker even got to play a game in his freshman year, he suffered two jolts. One occurred when the NCAA placed the Tigers on two-year probation. The other happened the same day, when Booker had to maneuver across a creek on a rope as part of an ROTC class. The rope broke, dumping him into the water. Booker lost three front teeth in the fall and underwent five hours of oral surgery to repair the damage. After the surgery the dentist told Missouri coach Norm Stewart, "That is one tough kid you have there."
Booker's toughness is manifested in other ways. He has scored 10 or more points in the first half only five times this season. But he has scored 10 or more in the second half 16 times. The Tigers' Feb. 20 win over Kansas in Lawrence was vintage Booker. Missouri trailed by nine points with 10:27 to go, but in the final 8:26 Booker scored 17 of the Tigers' 28 points to lift them to an 81-74 victory. Booker finished the game with 32 points, and Jayhawk coach Roy Williams said, "He is sensational. All those recruiting experts...it just shows what they know, because he was not very highly recruited out of high school. But he has passed just about every guard in college basketball at times."
Booker, who grew up in Moss Point, Miss., came to Missouri only because Tiger assistant Rich Daly saw something in him that escaped the notice of Mississippi, Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi, none of which offered Booker a scholarship. Noting that Missouri had been ranked No. 1 for a while during his senior year in high school, Booker says, "I kept wondering why no school in my own state wanted me but the top team in the nation did."
As tough as Booker is, his coach may be that much tougher. Since surviving a bout with colon cancer in 1989, Stewart hasn't been quite the same Stormin' Norman of old, but he's still a feisty presence on the sideline. Whether the 59-year-old Stewart is appearing in a ridiculous-looking chef's hat for a bit on a Kansas City TV station, polishing off a greasy cheeseburger and chili with his staff at Booche's pool hall in Columbia or joining his wife, Virginia, to play host to an engagement dinner for their daughter, Laura—all of which he did the day before the game against Oklahoma—Stewart seems determined to enjoy each day to its fullest. "When I found out that I was going to end up on the right side of the green grass, I began appreciating things a little more," Stewart says. At the moment his major off-court project is to supervise Norm's Special Challenge, a statewide three-point-shooting contest that is expected to raise $400,000 this year for cancer research.
"The way Coach Stewart handled his cancer shows what a tough person he is," Booker says. "He really bounced back, and that's pretty much what we try to do on the court. We try to do what he did, just keep fighting."
When it comes to the Tigers' fighting the good fight, Stewart worries about their lack of height. Missouri's strongest inside player is 6'9", 241-pound Jevon Crudup, who may one day be a power forward in the NBA but is forced to play center for the Tigers. In a practice last week Crudup began shooting jumpers instead of working on his inside game. "No more paint for me," he yelled to Stewart. "I'm a perimeter man now." Stewart rolled his eyes and ordered Crudup to resume working on his power moves.
But just because Mizzou is short doesn't mean the Tigers are small. "I don't know if I've had a shorter team, but I've had a lot that weighed less," says Stewart. Of Missouri's top eight players, only Booker and 6'5" guard Julian Win-field weigh less than 200 pounds. The Tigers like to throw their beef around, too. Their picks are tougher to fight through than any block thrown of late by Missouri's hapless football team. In fact, Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs gripes that the Tigers get away with so much roughhousing on defense that the Big Eight referees seem to be calling games by "Norm's rules" instead of the ones in the official rule book.
On Saturday it didn't do much for Tubbs's already sour disposition when Mark Atkins, a 6'5", 230-pound senior guard, came off the Tigers' deep bench and knocked down 7 of 11 three-point attempts to bury the Sooners' upset hopes. Atkins is a former juco player, as is junior walk-on Paul O'Liney, who scored 21 points playing in place of the injured Win-field. "I love to come off the bench and get the team jump-started," says Atkins. "I may be a sub, but I'm not a weak link." Also contributing to the cause is freshman whiz Kelly Thames, a 6'7" Scottie Pippen play-alike who helped stop the Sooners with 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists.