Laurence Bowers ready for whatever the future holds

Thursday, May 16, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:23 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 24, 2013
Former Missouri basketball player Laurence Bowers packs up his belongings April 20 and prepares to leave Columbia in pursuit of his NBA dream.

COLUMBIA — Five days after his final game in a Missouri uniform, Laurence Bowers sits alone in the locker room at Mizzou Arena, staring at a locker that is no longer his. His nameplate is gone, practice shoes and workout T-shirts collected over the years divided into two trash bags.

One bag is for the stuff he is keeping; the other for the stuff he is throwing away.

The room is silent. The locker is clean. Tomorrow, Bowers will head home to Memphis, Tenn., for a few days, and then to Bradenton, Fla., to start training for the NBA Draft.

What uniform will he be wearing next year, and where will he be? Can he impress at least one of the 30 NBA teams before the June 27 draft, and achieve his childhood dream?

He stares at the locker he’s occupied since his sophomore year. Not a trace remains of the fifth-year senior forward.

Bowers is prepared for anything. He leaves Missouri with a master's degree, something he can use if his basketball aspirations fall short. But he’s also ready to take the next step in his basketball life, ready to begin his professional career, ready for the unknown.

All along, he has told himself that leaving Columbia will be bittersweet — more sweet than bitter.

Not right now. Today is a harsh reminder that his five years at Missouri are over.

He takes a deep breath and breaks the silence in the room, quietly repeating the same phrase to himself:

“This is it.”

* * *

Later that night, Bowers sits on his couch with the TV on while his girlfriend sits across from him. He’s been dating Feven Melake since August 2009, and just like most things associated with his life, he met her at Missouri.

Next to Bowers on the couch are a stack of his Missouri jerseys from the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012 seasons.

He picked up the jerseys earlier in the day from Kit Lisauskas, associate director of the Missouri equipment room. Lisauskas stores the black, gold and white jerseys for the basketball players year after year.

Bowers’ favorite jersey of the bunch is the one he wore in Missouri’s Sweet 16 victory against Memphis in the 2008-09 season, a Dijon-mustard colored jersey he calls, “the ugly gold.” He only played six minutes and scored two points in the win that advanced the Tigers to their fifth-ever Elite Eight appearance.

He sorts through the stack of jerseys, finds it and pauses. A lot has changed since then. He hasn’t thought about his freshman year for a long time.

Bowers leaves the stack of jerseys and goes upstairs to his room. He comes back with a scrapbook and puts it on his lap. Within the first few pages there is photo proof of a scrawny Bowers wearing the Dijon-mustard colored jersey.

“Barely had a damn mustache,” he says.

He slowly goes through each page of the book, reliving the moments. There are photos of him at tournaments in Puerto Rico; South Padre Island, Texas; Niagara Falls, Ontario; and Cancun, Mexico. Photos of him reading to kids. Pictures of him teaching former teammate Justin Safford how to play the piano and pictures with Kim English and with former Missouri coach Mike Anderson.

“Baby, look at my hairline right there,” he says to Melake, showing off a photo from his sophomore year.

“Yeah,” she says smiling. “You’re getting old.”

Everyone he is pictured with has moved on from Missouri in one way or another. Anderson has a new job coaching at Arkansas. Former teammates have moved to the NBA, like English, while others are playing overseas, like Safford.

They’ve all been through this moving on process, and now, it’s Bowers’ turn.

He gets to photos from his junior year. There’s one of him dunking against Illinois and another against Kansas State. He’s in the midst of explaining more photos from his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons until he flips through a few more pages.

That’s when the book abruptly ends.

* * *

The one jersey not in the stack actually sums it up. 

When Bowers picked up the jerseys from Lisauskas, he noticed one was missing. His black jersey from his freshman season. It’s gone.

“He couldn’t find it,” Bowers says. “It’s because I’ve been here for so long.”

Staying five years at Missouri was never the plan. In the weeks leading up to the 2011 season, he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament, forcing him to sit out the year. Bowers redshirted, spending his senior season cheering from the sidelines while his teammates of four years moved on without him.

“I was worried,” Melake said. “I was worried about his emotional state.”

Now with an extra, unexpected year, she pressed that he pursue a master's degree. She knew his knee would eventually get better and that his NBA aspirations would get back on track, but that didn’t matter.

“You got to have a backup plan,” she says.

So that’s what Bowers did. He graduated in May 2012 with a degree in sociology, rehabbed his knee for 13 months and became the first scholarship basketball player in Missouri history to get a master's degree. He majored in Health Education & Promotion.

He came back healthy at the start of the 2012 season and played with a knee brace. For the first 14 games, it was a left knee brace to protect his surgically repaired knee, but midway through the season, he sprained his right medial collateral ligament. He missed five games, and when he returned, switched to a right knee brace for the remaining 15 games.

“I couldn’t play in both,” Bowers says.

Despite the injuries, he averaged a career high in points, and was always greeted to the loudest cheers whenever his name boomed from the speakers at Mizzou Arena.

In his final game in a Missouri uniform, he played 31 minutes and scored seven points against Colorado State. After the loss, he limped slowly toward the locker room and cried.

“I didn’t want my college career to end,” he recalls. “It was a sad day.”

But as he sits on his couch five days later, he looks ready to leave. He looks eager. That’s what happens when you’ve gotten the most out of something. At Missouri, Bowers received two degrees, played in four NCAA Tournaments and proved he could return from a career-threatening injury. He will go down as the second all-time leader in blocked shots and top-30 in career points.

He went from a scrawny freshman who could barely grow a mustache to a Missouri star.

* * *

Two weeks later, his alarm goes off at 7:10 a.m. 

He lives in an apartment overlooking palm trees, comfortably situated in Bradenton, Fla. He’s only 10 minutes from the beach, but he rarely has time to go. 

His roommate is Adonis Thomas, formerly a sophomore forward from the University of Memphis and currently another prospect pursuing his NBA dream. They’ve known each other since their high school playing days in Memphis, and they both share the same sports agency.

Breakfast starts at 7:30 a.m., so every morning, he makes the same five-minute drive to IMG Academy. This is where Bowers trains and will train six days a week until the NBA Draft.

The daily regimen calls for high-intensity conditioning, agilities, weightlifting, shooting, body treatment and physical therapy.

He trains with guys he played against in college, such as BJ Young (Arkansas) and Brandon Paul (Illinois), along with the likes of Romero Osby (Oklahoma) and Nate Wolters (South Dakota State).

The relationships build quickly. It’s easy when they’re all going through this together.

During the day, they get one break, from 1 to 2:30 p.m., and while most players leave for lunch, Bowers stays. He eats and then spends the break in the training room to get special treatment on his knees or zips himself into a hyperbaric chamber that helps with his muscle recovery. Whatever he chooses, he takes a nap, and, according to his skills trainer, snores. 

“I’ve never seen anybody sleep in the training room as soundly as him,” Dan Barto says.

The long days are not just basketball. He takes classes, too.

On Mondays it’s a communications class that teaches players how to conduct interviews with the media, how to avoid the traps that NBA general managers set and how to respond to questions like, “How many girlfriends do you have?” or “Where do you like to party?” or “Have you ever hurt somebody?” 

Nonalee Davis, head of the leadership program and teacher of the class, says that Bowers is the exception. He already knows how to conduct an interview, how to be personable and charming. 

“I don’t have to do a lot of training,” she says.

Instead of asking the prototypical questions that don’t pertain to him, she thinks that NBA general managers will try to get under his skin with questions about his knee.

So she sets up mock interviews where she and others fire personal questions about his injured past to try and get under his skin. So far, they’ve been unsuccessful.

“He’s really that good,” Davis says.

Other days, Bowers has a yoga class or a vision class that develops hand-eye coordination. All in all, he has basketball coaches, skills coaches, speed and movement coaches, communication leadership coaches, mental coaches and vision coaches.

When his day is finished, he normally gets back to his apartment around 7:30 p.m.

The days are harder than he expected, but he doesn’t complain. He actually loves it. He loves that his knee is feeling great. Loves that he’s working out. Loves that he’s being challenged. Loves that people care. Loves that no matter what happens on June 27, he knows he’s giving it his best shot.

He eats dinner and tries to be in bed by 11 p.m. Often, he’s too tired to go out and experience the nightlife, so instead he video chats with Melake.

They talk about each other’s day and about the future until Bowers falls asleep.

* * *

Of all the things he brought to Florida, his knee braces were not included.

When Bowers cleaned out his locker five days after his final game in a Missouri uniform, he saw both of his knee braces staring back at him.

Instead of putting the braces in one of the bags, he picked them up and threw them out in the locker room trashcan.

“That chapter is over with. I didn’t want to see them anymore.”

* * *

Playing overseas is not an option yet. 

He doesn’t like to talk or think about it. Bowers calls himself a sleeper, a second round pick, someone who can be a role player on an NBA team. After all, “it takes one team to like you,” he says.

In his eyes, Laurence Bowers is going to get drafted, even though most pre-draft projections disagree.

“That’s just someone’s opinion,” he says.

The biggest question mark for NBA general managers revolves around his surgically-repaired knee. Even though he proved he was healthy enough to play this past season at Missouri, a full recovery from an ACL tear is usually two years, which is why he receives the extra treatment and extra physical therapy.

As a result, Bowers feels as if his athleticism is getting back to where it was before his injury.

“There are 30 teams,” Barto says. “You don’t need all 30 to love you, but you’ve got to have one that’s going to maybe overlook the fact that you had some physical issues. We’ve got to help him find that one.”

So what if Bowers doesn’t get drafted? What if nobody wants to take a chance? If there is a shred of doubt within him, he doesn’t choose to show it.

He’ll sign as a free agent or play overseas if he has to, but in the end, does it really matter? Basketball does not define Laurence Bowers. He has a master's degree and a good head on his shoulders. Whatever happens on June 27, he’s going to be fine.

“Regardless if basketball works or not, I’m going to work my tail off and be successful. That’s why I put so much time in to my schoolwork,” he says. “The ball doesn’t bounce forever.” 

* * *

A week later, Bowers walks up the stairs to his room in Columbia. He’s back in town to attend two ceremonies and to pack up his apartment. 

This has been a weird week. He’s already taken that next step, already moved on.

Tomorrow, Bowers returns to Florida. He’s excited to get back to the 12-hour workout schedule and continue his climb toward the NBA Draft. But leaving Columbia means leaving Melake. He’s missed her.

All throughout the week, she’s been telling him to start packing, but less than 24 hours before he leaves, he hasn’t packed a thing.

Bowers trudges up the final steps to his room and opens the door. It’s a mess. 

Shoes, suits, bags and clothing are spread all over his bed, and there are two suitcases on the floor. One suitcase has the Missouri logo with a stitched No. 21 “BOWERS” on the front and the other an IMG Academy bag that is overflowing with basketballs. There are trophies spread throughout the room and a white basketball on the floor with signatures from this year’s Missouri team.

On his bed, next to a framed photo of him kissing the court of Mizzou Arena, rests another scrapbook. Rockie Alden, the wife of Missouri Athletics Director Mike Alden, made it for him.

Bowers revels in the chance to delay his packing a few more minutes and shows off the gift.

The book is thick and goes in chronological order, with each of his five seasons labeled with a cover page. There are ticket stubs, articles and even strands of the confetti that rained down from the rafters when Missouri won the Big 12 Championship his freshman year.

There are scrawny photos, Dijon-mustard colored jersey photos, faded-mustache photos, dunking photos, old teammate photos and photos of him cheering from the bench in a suit during his injured senior year.

The final section of the book is labeled, “SENIOR YEAR AGAIN,” and as he flips through, he reaches the final photo from his final season.

But it’s not the final page. Behind that photo are at least 20 more blank pages, waiting to be filled.

“Hopefully, I’ve got a long career,” he says with a smile. “I’ve got to fill those pages.” 

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