COLUMBIA —For Laurence Bowers, basketball has changed.
His No. 21, black-and-gold uniform is replaced by a Men's Wearhouse dress suit. Laurence Bowers, the senior forward who loved leading the Tigers into the locker room at halftime, is now the last one walking off the court.
vs. Villanova (5-2)
WHERE: Madison Square Garden, New York City
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A torn anterior cruciate ligament has taken him out of the game.
“It's knowing I can’t put on that jersey," Bowers said. "I can’t check into the score table. Knowing I won’t hear my name called in the starting lineup. Knowing I can’t dunk and help the crowd go wild.
“Just knowing you can’t play. Period.”
Last season, Bowers led the Tigers in rebounding and was the team's second leading scorer. At 6-8, Bowers and senior Ricardo Ratliffe are the Tigers tallest returning starters.
In the wake of Bowers' injury, coach Frank Haith has installed a four-guard lineup.
So far, it has worked. Bowers has sat on the sideline and watched as Missouri has its best start, 7-0, since 2006. Since he is not contributing to the scoreboard, he considers his position on the team differently.
"I kind of feel like a coach," Bowers said. "I get upset at calls and yell at my teammates to do stuff out there."
While he experiences his team's frustrations from the coaches side of the bench, he gets high with the joy as well. When Missouri beat California to claim the CBE Classic title, he joked that he almost re-tore his ACL.
"I jumped out of joy and excitement," Bowers said.
He's found a new way to lead his team, and while on the bench, is still bettering himself as a player.
“My basketball IQ is getting very high,” Bowers said. “Obviously I'd rather be out there, but I’m seeing what the coaches see.”
His girlfriend, Feven Melake, sees a new man.
“He's definitely at heart a different guy than before the injury,” Melake said. “More disciplined, more determined. He knows what he wants now, and he's not taking anything for granted."
Bowers remembers that October morning when he learned his season had ended before it even began. He sat on the bench in front of his locker in Mizzou Arena, his face held in his hands, sobbing.
Minutes before, assistant Missouri men's basketball coaches Ernie Nestor and Todor Pandov along with trainer Pat Beckmann had given him the results of his MRI — a torn ACL.
Bowers made a direct line to the locker room, to his locker, where he sat with the pain in his heart worse than the pain in his knee.
When Kim English saw Bowers, he followed him. Not a word was exchanged as Bowers rested his head on English’s shoulder.
English is Bowers' roommate of three years, his teammate of four. Together, they declared for, and then withdrew from, the NBA draft at the end of last season. English is a friend Bowers has come to regard as a brother, who Bowers started and was supposed to finish his college basketball career with.
But Bowers' season was over. The plan had changed. He took a medical redshirt and will sit on the bench this season, then return for a fifth season next year.
“Kimmie was my strength. He got me out of the arena,” Bowers said. “It really hurt me, and he was there to pick me up."
“I broke down,” Bowers said. “It was the toughest …”
“It was the second toughest thing I’ve ever heard.”
The first came when his grandmother, Laverne Bowers, died in 2007. Bowers and his mother lived with Laverne until he was 3. When they moved to Arkansas, Bowers returned to Memphis most weekends to spend them with her.
“She was my best friend,” Bowers said.
On his shoulder is a tattoo in her memory. He drives with her picture propped up in the dashboard of his car. His grandmother reminds Bowers that it’s just an injury, just a knee, and just a game he could never love as much as her.
“The loss of my grandma built me into a stronger person, knowing that everything will be OK," Bowers said
Bowers said his grandmother is one of two things that have helped him through. The other is Amanda Creamer, former coach Mike Anderson’s assistant whom Bowers became close friends with in her time at Missouri.
Creamer was born with spina bifida. With no sensation of feeling below her knees, she relies on a wheelchair or crutches. When Bowers tore his ACL, he said she was the main person he thought of.
“Amanda Creamer. The way she coped with life, the way she was dealt a short hand,” Bowers said. “And nothing stopped her.”
Creamer said that Bowers' positive attitude is just part of who he is.
“His personality is one that draws people in. He has a great heart and cares about people,” Creamer said. “He’s just being Laurence."
Bowers has also found a connection with Pandov, who might understand Bowers' situation the best. Before coaching, Pandov was a player at Western Kentucky. In the season opener of his junior year, he tore his ACL.
“I know exactly how it feels,” Pandov said. “The thought of having a major injury is very hard for an athlete to understand.”
Pandov went on to play professionally for a year in Holland for the Eiffel Towers, earning All-Star honors. Now as the Tigers' strength and conditioning coach, Pandov oversees a large part of Bowers' rehabilitation.
Bowers spent last summer weight training with Pandov, gaining 18 pounds of muscle. It was weight he lost after his surgery in mid-October, but it's slowly coming back.
“I know that it’s a healing process,” Pandov said. “He has made unbelievable progress.”
Bowers faith has helped him to stay positive.
“God does everything for a reason and for him to do this on the senior season, there’s a really big reason why,” Bowers said. “I’m a man of faith. I pray through it all.
“I still believe that we have a great team," he said, "and that I’m going to be fine.”