COLUMBIA — Laurence Bowers sat in the back with his hands up in the air, his crutches to the side, and a smile on his face.
Along with the elementary and preschool-aged children in front of him at the Columbia Public Library, Bowers repeated the words and movements of librarian Sarah Howard. When she told them to close their eyes, he closed his eyes. When she told them to take a big breath, he took a big breath.
Earlier on Tuesday, the senior power forward on the Missouri men's basketball team learned he had torn the ACL in his knee. He had hurt it in a pickup basketball game the day before. His season has ended before it even began.
Bowers said he was devastated. He thinks he will recover normally from the injury, and he has a redshirt season available, meaning he can return and play in the 2012-2013 season. But the teammates he has known since first arriving in Columbia three years ago — Kim English, Marcus Denmon, Steve Moore and Jarrett Sutton — will be gone.
The hardest part, he said, was realizing he would not be able to walk on Senior Night with those guys.
English and Sutton were there sitting next to Bowers at the library Tuesday night. They had each come to read a children's book as part of the library's "Get in the Game, Read!" program. Bowers' old and new friends laughed as softball coach Ehren Earleywine read "Bark, George," and Bowers did, too, even though his eyes looked a little tired.
Howard, the library's children and youth services coordinator, had not heard about Bowers' injury until Spencer Kane, a radio host on KFRU and another guest reader, told her before the program. She did not expect Bowers to come and was surprised when the 6-foot-8, 221-pound man limped into the library hunched over his crutches. Howard thought it said something about Bowers that he had come.
When Earleywine finished and it was his turn, Bowers didn't wait for Howard to finish introducing him. He grabbed one crutch with his left hand and picked up his book and the other crutch with his right. Howard said something about how tall Bowers was as he moved forward and took the seat in front of about 25 children and parents.
Bowers said had decided to come because he felt he would be punishing the children otherwise. He had signed up for it when he wasn't hurt, and it wasn't their fault he had been hurt. Besides, his coming out would make the kids' day, even if they did not understand the situation. He felt like it was his duty to be there.
"All right," Bowers said, opening his book. "Who's the most famous mouse of all time?"
A few children murmured, but the only answer came from a deep voice in the back — one of his teammates. Bowers asked again. This time, a young boy answered: Mickey Mouse.
"That's right," Bowers said. "Well, this book is called "If You Give A Mouse A Cookie."
Growing up in Memphis, Bowers did not go to library events like this one. But he did go to a lot of camps, where people in the city "that were somebody" talked to him. He remembered Penny Hardaway talking to him and other campers, and he felt reading would be an opportunity to do something similar.
"If you give a mouse a cookie, he's going to ask for a glass of milk," Bowers read. "When you give him the milk, he'll probably ask you for a straw."
The Columbia Public Library created the event to have men read to the children. Its entire staff is female, and it wanted to get out the message that boys whose fathers do not read to them at a young age do not read when they get older.
When he finished, all of the children clapped. Bowers stood up and took a step back toward his seat. The movement caused him pain, and he winced. English noticed and followed Bowers with his eyes until his teammate sat down.
Reading a children's book had not healed Laurence Bowers' knee. Rehabilitation in the months ahead had not suddenly become easier. He did not even have a cookie, milk or a straw to show for it.
But moments after taking his seat, he did have a librarian tell him to close his eyes and take a deep breath.
"I'm hurt about the timing of the injury," Bowers said. "But this was definitely a semi-relief."