Laurence Bowers brings basketball glory back to Columbia

Laurence Bowers was nervous.

It’s rare for Bowers to feel angst by the way he embraces change. He prefers one-year contracts because he wants to explore different cities around the world. Two days ago, he inked a deal overseas with his fifth team in the past five years. The upcoming season in Italy is a new experience — he doesn’t know what to expect, but that’s part of what keeps him excited.

But a day before the first ever Carroll and Bowers Alumni Game, Bowers didn’t know what to expect and it was making him anxious.

“I’m nervous,” he says. “I don’t know why.”

The attendance of the game wouldn’t necessarily dictate how Bowers felt about the event, but it was the biggest thing on his mind the day before tip-off. He sacrificed time with his wife, Feven, and their five-month-old daughter, Fiyora, to organize the alumni game after he and fellow alum DeMarre Carroll thought up the idea a few years ago.

“We tried to think of a way to get guys (alumni) to come back and support the university,” Bowers says. “I love Columbia, and I feel like there’s a lot of kids here that need excitement.”

Bowers was born in Tennessee and, as he says himself, “You can take me out of Memphis, but you can’t take Memphis out of me.” He’s played professional basketball in Italy and Israel for the past four years, but Columbia, Missouri, is home for the Tennessean during the offseason. He feels the need to give back to the city that shaped him into who he is today.

“I literally grew into a man at Mizzou,” Bowers says. “During my five years here, I received an unbelievable amount of support from fans to students that I went to school with. They embraced me as a man, not just as a basketball player.”

Bowers credits Columbia for his growth, and he knows a lot of his fellow Tigers feel the same way. It’s why he felt compelled to organize the game for local non-profits like the Boys & Girls Clubs of Columbia and Granny’s House, along with The Carroll Family Foundation. It’s also why he felt nervous a day before the event — he had an opportunity to help his community and had no idea what the response would be.

“I’m nervous that the turn out is not going to be what we expected or whatever.”

Bowers didn’t put an exact number on how many people he thought would attend, but minutes after the game, it was obvious whether or not his expectations were met.

“I’m just overwhelmed with joy that all these people showed up to support us,” Bowers exclaimed after the final whistle. “I’m so excited right now, I’ve got to calm down a little bit.”

The thousands in attendance shared the excitement with Bowers and his 26 fellow alumni, which included both former basketball and football players.

The game was the first of its kind, but it was filled with classic memories. Former guard and University of Missouri Hall of Famer Melvin Booker received a standing ovation during his introduction and hit three’s that reminded fans of when he led Missouri to a 14-0 conference record in 1994. Former guard Ricky Paulding threw down a vicious tomahawk, flashing signs of his dunks from the early-2000’s. Former forward Ricardo Ratliffe scored a game-high 39 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, took home the game’s MVP award and showed us the strength he used in his senior season to lead Mizzou to a Big 12 tournament championship.

Mizzou’s football alumni also provided moments fans wouldn’t have a chance to see on Faurot Field. Former wide receiver Jerrell Jackson caught lob after lob, throwing down dunk after dunk. Meanwhile, former linebacker Sean Weatherspoon handled point guard duties and threw up jumpers.

As the game came to an end, the players cleared the floor for Bowers, who threw down a vicious dunk for the final play of the contest.

Team Carroll beat Team Bowers 137-116, but the final score didn’t mean as much to the players as the impact of the game itself.

“It wasn’t about the win or loss for me,” Bowers, who finished with 21 points, says. “Ultimately, we all won. I’m just overwhelmed with joy that all these people showed up to support us, that all these guys came back and helped me and DeMarre put on this event.”

“Missouri is my home,” Carroll, who didn’t play, says. “We need to show other young individuals that you can be great coming to Mizzou. You can achieve your dreams, you can be in the NBA and the NFL, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”

“I became a man in this city, and the fans embraced me,” Booker says. “I was just a small kid from Mississippi, and they pretty much raised me here.”

“The whole city of Columbia, we’re still one big family,” former center Steve Moore says. “When I was done playing, the people here [in Columbia] didn’t just tell me, but they showed me that they’re here for me.”

“There were a couple of professors I saw, a couple of people in the athletic department that I knew really well, and just seeing a lot of guys that I haven’t seen in a long time. Laurence said it best — this is definitely a second home for all of us,” former guard Jarrett Sutton says.

Joining the thousands of Tiger fans in attendance were most of the current men’s basketball team, including incoming freshman Michael Porter Jr., a Columbia native who is also the highest-ranked player nationwide in his class. Bowers has known Porter Jr. and his brother, Jontay, since he was ten years old — he calls him his “little big brother.”

“They [Michael and Jontay] used to literally be in the gym too much,” Bowers says. “There were times where I’d be like, ‘Who are these kids? Get them off so I can shoot’ But, hey, it’s paying off for them.”

It’s also paying off for Mizzou men’s basketball. After the hiring of head coach Cuonzo Martin and the recruitment of several freshmen standouts, Mizzou basketball fans are holding their breath and hoping for the Tigers’ first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2013.

But months before anyone in town knew this program would be back on the map, Bowers teamed up with Carroll to craft a way to do it on their own.

“This game was well thought out before the Cuonzo era and before the basketball gods blessed us with a 6’11, No. 1 overall recruit,” Bowers says. “Cuonzo Martin came, then Michael Porter, Blake Harris, all that stuff happened, and now, I think we’re more so adding to what’s already there, and that’s good. It’s a great time for the school.”

“I’m glad that DeMarre and I got together to do something like this because our university needed it. This is what it’s all about. It’s not the glitz and the glam, but it’s about what we can do for the University of Missouri and the city of Columbia.”

As Bowers admits, the excitement for the resurgence of basketball in Columbia was already looming. But the success of the first Carroll and Bowers Alumni Game remind fans of the passion that’s always surrounded this program. Bowers is just glad that he could be a part of its resurgence.

Photos by Emil Lippe