COLUMBIA — Defenders loom like skyscrapers in front of the 6-foot-1-inch point guard. A sharp crossover to his left, a spin to his right, and he’s in the lane. He leaps into the remaining giants and floats a shot that arcs over outstretched hands and into the net.
“I try to block his shot a lot, but he just has a way of finishing,” teammate Mike Aguirre said. “He will just float them up there and they go down.”
Joe Flanner, a junior on the Columbia College men’s basketball team, plays with a certain flair. He loves making behind-the-back passes, dishing out no-look assists, and sinking impossible shots that usually involve fading away from or wrapping around the basket.
“I have always played with a little razzle-dazzle,” Flanner said. “I played all the time in parks and on playgrounds, and I was always like that.”
Flanner, who transferred this summer from Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley in Kansas City, pushes the ball and plays an up-tempo style of basketball. He considers himself more of a passer than a scorer, and holds the all-time record at Penn Valley for assists.
“He distributes the ball well,” Flanner’s former Penn Valley teammate Logan Sullivan said, “and sees the court even better. He passes up his own open shot to get a better shot for his teammates.”
Even with his pass-first mentality, Flanner is still able to fill up the scoresheet. He can finish around the basket and is blessed with a smooth stroke that enabled him to average 12 points a game last season.
“He can make all the shots and finishes well,” Sullivan said. “He really makes tough shots.”
However, that hasn’t always been the case for Flanner.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be bigger, stronger than others,” Flanner said. “So I had to learn to get around people.”
To do so, Flanner had to concentrate on his ballhandling skills. Growing up, his house had a gravel driveway with a basketball hoop. Every day Flanner would dribble and shoot hoops, and every day his handling and shooting would improve.
“The rocks would just cause the ball to go everywhere,” Flanner said. “It forced me to just be ready for any bounce.”
Flanner continued to play whenever and wherever he could, sneaking into gyms or playing in pickup games at public parks and playgrounds. When he started junior high, Flanner brought the game he learned on the streets into the gymnasium.
“I never thought I was fast or quick,” Flanner said. “I just learned to do different things to get around people, and sometimes that meant going between my legs or around my back.”
Throughout high school, Flanner faced the same challenges, but with bigger obstacles. He was still shorter and weaker than his opponents, who had become bigger and stronger, and on top of that his coaches wanted him to stop his flashy play.
“I will never be a robot point guard who will just slow it down every play,” Flanner said. “It is not me.”
So instead of changing who he was, Flanner worked harder to improve himself and his game.
“My mother was the one who pushed me not to give up and keep trying,” Flanner said.
Flanner developed himself into a Steve Nash-like player. He learned that his style of play was valuable if he involved his teammates. Instead of finishing a crossover move with a difficult reverse lay up, he would dish it off to an open teammate for an easy basket.
“The coaches knew that he was going to have some turnovers,” Sullivan said. “But they also knew that he would make more good passes than bad, and make our team better.”
The improvements Flanner made propelled him to a starting spot his junior and senior year in high school, and eventually to Penn Valley, where his game continued to grow and he fully embraced the pass-first, shoot-second attitude.
“He knows how to use every ounce of his talent,” Aguirre said.
After two record-setting years at Penn Valley, Flanner decided to take his show on the road. He transferred to Columbia College, with the hope of improving his game under the tutelage of head coach Bob Burchard.
“I always want to go 100 mph,” Flanner said, “but coach is helping me just make the simple play.”
Flanner has played in every game for the 7-1 Cougars this season, scoring in double figures in five out of the eight games. He is hoping to refine his game and lead his new team to a championship, but by doing it his way.
“We don’t want him to change his game,” Aguirre said, “but we need him to pick the correct times to do it. He needs to keep doing his no-looks and behind-the-backs, but at the right moment.”