COLUMBIA — Laurence Bowers couldn't stop crying.
As the 6-foot-8 Missouri forward sat in front of his locker last October, his shoulders slouched and his head rested in his hands. His body shook as he sobbed.
Northwest Missouri State at Missouri
WHEN: 7 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
His senior season was over before it even started and his dreams of going to the NBA were put on hold. He would never get to play another game with the other seniors.
That was a year ago, before the Missouri men's basketball team won 30 games and a Big 12 Conference Tournament title with Bowers sitting to the side.
Bowers finally started his senior season at the team's preseason scrimmage two weeks ago.
When his name blasted from the speakers and his picture beamed from the Mizzou Arena video board for the first time in 19 months, nearly all 6,000 fans in attendance stood to cheer. Bowers raised his arms up and down to encourage the crowd to get louder, soaking in every second before giving the crowd an appreciative wave.
Toward the end of the scrimmage, Bowers flashed his talents with a layup in front of the Missouri student section.
The basket came just feet away from where his season ended the previous year in an empty arena.
During a pickup game at practice in early October, a teammate passed the ball to Bowers as he raced toward the basket. He leaped for the ball, intending to catch it and lay it into the basket, but the pass sailed too high and moved too fast. In midair, Bowers changed his mind. He was going to catch the ball and land before going back up with it.
He caught it, but never went back up.
When Bowers landed on his left leg, his knee locked and hyperextended backward, the direction a knee isn't supposed to bend. As the rest of his body moved closer to the ground, the knee unlocked and jerked from side to side.
Bowers crumbled to the polished wood floor. He writhed and screamed in pain while his teammates, knowing just from the sight that something was seriously wrong, rushed over to him. By the time they reached him, tears were already streaming down his cheeks.
“It felt like I got shot in the knee,” Bowers said. “I don’t wish that on my worst enemy."
To find out what had happened, Bowers got an MRI done on his knee the next morning before hobbling to class. He worried about what the results would show as he sat in class, hardly paying attention to what his professors were saying.
The uneasiness grew when a text message came from his trainer, Patrick Beckmann, telling Bowers to come to the arena to talk about the results. Bowers knew then that the injury was substantial and hoped it was just a meniscus tear or something else that would keep him out for a few weeks.
At the arena, Beckmann gave him the worst news possible.
A torn ACL, the main ligament that holds the knee together, would require surgery to fix and keep Bowers out for the whole season.
Seconds later, Bowers sped out of the trainer's room to the locker room, where he broke down. As he cried in front of his locker, Bowers thought about his teammates, especially Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Steve Moore and Jarret Sutton, who he entered the program with four years earlier. He also dreaded calling to inform his mother, who was celebrating her birthday.
"Everyone (in my family) was so excited about me playing my last year, had big expectations for the team and me individually and with the snap of a finger it was gone," Bowers said.
Instead, those high expectations turned into disappointment and prayers for a successful surgery and fast recovery.
Dressing the part
Bowers underwent reconstructive knee surgery two weeks after the injury and started his rehab a couple days later.
Although he couldn't be on the court with his teammates, Bowers still considered himself one of the leaders of the team. His teammates and coaches viewed him that way too — Missouri coach Frank Haith made the decision to allow Bowers to travel to every game.
Unable to wear his No. 21 jersey, Bowers started to revamp his wardrobe. He needed a different outfit for game days, and team sweats weren't going to cut it.
“When I found out I was hurt and gonna miss every game, I didn’t want to dress like the typical suspended athlete or injured athlete with team sweats or jeans,” Bowers said. “I think of myself as a high-character guy, a high-class guy, and the university is a high-class institute.”
Only owning a few dress clothes, Bowers set out to buy some suits.
He went to Men’s Warehouse and signed up for the company’s email list. He made use of the signature buy-one, get-one-free sales. His family, eager to help out in any way possible, sent him dress clothes he could wear. One uncle sent sent him more than 10 ties. When he was home in Memphis, he would go shopping for more dress clothes.
By the end of the season, Bowers' closet looked less like a basketball player's closet and more like a coach's closet. He had accumulated five suits, three pairs of dress shoes and too many shirts and ties to count.
He looked like a coach and started to act like one too. Being on the bench helped Bowers see the game from a new perspective. His basketball IQ, which he felt was high to begin with, ascended. During timeouts and practices, he pointed out observations to fellow forwards Moore and Ricardo Ratliffe.
Despite being without their leading rebounder and second-leading rebounder from the previous year, the Tigers consistently won games.
Bowers was happy to see the Tigers succeed, smiling big after each victory. He felt invested in the success of his teammates, whom he called brothers, even though he couldn't play with them.
Life without basketball
The smiles were genuine, but Bowers ached to be back on the court and take part in the team's success.
One of the most difficult days came in early December when the Tigers went to New York City to play Villanova in Madison Square Garden.
As Bowers stood in the arena known as "The Mecca of Basketball" for the first time, he thought about all the games he had seen played there on TV. He remembered how growing up as a child playing basketball, he always dreamed of playing there.
“That was very emotional for me, just being in the building looking around,” Bowers said. “Even though I think one day I’ll still play there, just to finally be there and not be able to play.”
Missouri won that game 71-61, making the day more bearable for Bowers. Seeing his teammates win made things better. Nobody could say that he was the missing piece when the Tigers won.
When Missouri lost, Bowers often felt like his presence could have made the difference.
"Every game that we lost last year was basically due to physicality, lack of height," Bowers said. "Kansas State beat us twice. They weren’t a better team, just more physical. Norfolk State (which beat Missouri in the NCAA Tournament), it was rebounding, they were killing us on the glass."
Even simply going to practice left Bowers feeling left out. While his teammates ran and did drills on the court, Bowers either watched from the sidelines or did painful rehab exercises in the trainer's room.
Around his teammates, Bowers stayed positive. Off the court, though, he needed support to push through the agony of not being able to play the game he had been playing since he was 4 years old. His family did what they could, but the only person that he could really open up to on a daily basis was his girlfriend, Feven Melake.
"My teammates make fun of me because me and her are so close, but she’s the backbone," Bowers said. "She's seriously one of my backbones."
Melake and Bowers have been together for three years and regularly attend church together at Urban Empowerment in Columbia. Both are religious and their faith took on an important role in Bowers' recovery process.
After home games, Bowers always left the arena with Melake. As they walked to the parking lot, Bowers would tell her everything he had been keeping to himself throughout the night. He would shake his head and say things he didn't want to say in front of his teammates or reporters — his critique of the game or how much he longed to be on the court taking part in the action.
Melake would remind him that, "God doesn’t make mistakes, you’re a bigger person. He’s got something bigger planned for you."
Melake's patience and positive attitude helped Bowers push through some of the toughest parts of the season, such as the Tigers' Senior Day at the final home game of the season.
Before the game, Bowers stood on the sidelines and watched all eight of the other Missouri seniors recognized at center court. One by one, each senior walked out with his family, received flowers and a framed jersey and hugged Haith. Bowers applauded each one as they held up their framed jersey to cheers from the crowd.
Afterward, he again stood quietly on the sidelines next to his coaches while his teammates took turns picking up a microphone and thanking the Tigers' faithful fans. Just as he did during games, Bowers felt deprived to not be taking part with them.
“I was supposed to have a jersey in my hands, I was supposed to be waving goodbye to the fans, I was supposed to be speaking after the game was over. Didn’t happen,” Bowers said. “I was just standing to the side thinking ‘this can’t be real.'"
A similar feeling overcame Bowers a few months later when English and Denmon got selected in the NBA draft. This time, though, it felt different. While Bowers knew that he easily could have been going to the NBA with his "brothers," he also knew that he had an extra year to prove himself.
With English, Denmon and the rest of the seniors gone, Bowers will have a chance to shine as a talent and as a leader this season. He is joined by just two players from last year's team, as well as several proven transfers.
Bowers expects to be a better player this year after nearly a year of observing, practicing and conditioning. His knee is almost back to full health after rigorous rehab, and he's gradually building confidence to jump in situations that remind him of the day he hurt his knee.
When he regains his old form, he will have one last chance to accomplish the goal he has been working toward since his freshman year.
"We’ve worked very hard since my freshman year to turn this team into a powerhouse, but I want to leave this on one final note, and that’s a national championship," Bowers said. "I think we have the team to accomplish that."