COLUMBIA — He surveyed the three faces in the room like any good competitor, hoping for a hint of what was to come. But in the eyes of Missouri basketball trainer Pat Beckman, assistant coach Ernie Nestor and strength coach Todor Pandov, Laurence Bowers saw only sadness.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
It was Oct. 3, 2011, one day after Bowers heard a loud pop in his left knee during a preseason practice. The MRI results had come in.
“You tore your ACL,” Beckman said.
Bowers began to cry, his senior season over before it began. He left the office and trudged to the locker room, where he saw fellow senior Kim English and could barely utter the news.
But that pain, while great, was nothing like the kind that coursed through Bowers when he begrudgingly picked up the phone, dialed a Memphis-area number and heard a familiar voice on the other end.
“Mama,” Bowers said, “sit down.”
Nancy Bowers was celebrating her 50th birthday that night. For 17 years, Laurence had said he would take care of her, that one day he would make the NBA and all her struggles would be forgotten.
Now, he had bad news, the kind that could ruin his dream if he let it.
“I don’t know who cried the most,” Nancy said. “Me or him.”
It was clearly one of the worst days of Laurence’s life, second only to the day his beloved grandmother died. But little did Bowers know that both moments would provide him with the motivation to push through the cascade of dark days that lay ahead.
“I’ve definitely got a story to tell somebody now,” he said.
Nobody needed to tell Nancy Bowers that her baby boy was special, that he would one day grow up to be a 6-foot-8 basketball standout who could score, block shots, rebound and be a team leader. These days, you’d have a hard time finding anyone with something negative to say about Laurence Bowers, but moms can always see the greatness in their kids, long before others can.
“Laurence has always been a loving child,” Nancy said. “I’ve never had a problem with him.”
An obedient and observant child, it didn’t take Laurence long to see the way his mom was struggling. Nancy didn’t go to college. She wishes she had — she’s spent Laurence’s entire life as a warehouse worker, doing jobs that didn’t pay enough and were hardly steady.
“My dad was never in the picture,” Bowers said. “My mom struggled financially and still does to this day.”
Laurence did have a stepdad, with whom he and Nancy lived with in Arkansas until Laurence was 13. Out of that relationship came Laurence’s younger sister, Amelia. But Nancy eventually took the kids and moved back in with her mother, Laverne Bowers, in South Memphis.
“We all know that isn’t the best part of Memphis,” Bowers said.
But he stayed out of trouble with the help of family like his aunt Mary, a teacher who refused to let him sleep until his schoolwork was done. Bowers also worked relentlessly at basketball once he realized the advantage his height and leaping ability gave him.
From junior high on, he trained with his uncle Arlyn, a former basketball player at Arkansas, and by the time Bowers graduated from St. George’s Independent School, he had become a Division I prospect with offers from Missouri, Arkansas and Marquette. His dream of making the NBA and taking care of his family could not have been more alive.
“He used to tell me all the time, ‘Mama, when I make it you ain’t never got to work no more,’ ” Nancy said. “He has been saying that since the age of five.”
Yet he was also entering college with a heavy heart. A year before he reported to Missouri, he’d watched his grandma Laverne die of congestive heart failure. He was devastated.
“She was like my best friend,” Bowers said, softly.
Bowers knows he shouldn’t admit this, but really, he can’t help it. Of all Lavern’s grandchildren, he believes he was her favorite — and those who saw them together agree.
“His grandmama was his heart and joy,” Arlyn Bowers said, “and she loved her some Laurence. She instilled a lot in him.”
Laurence and his grandmother had grown close over the years, even when the family lived in Arkansas.
“When I did come over here he used to sit in here and laugh with her,” Nancy said. “They bonded all the time, and I never kept him away. He was the one grandson that grew up in the home.”
Lavern and other family members also helped instill an appreciation for God in Bowers, an unyielding faith that remains today. He would need it, especially in 2006, when Lavern grew sick.
“Her lungs were weak,” Laurence said, “and it started to affect her heart.”
Yet his grandma — despite being hospitalized for months — never quit fighting, even while in intensive care. Hospital workers repeatedly told the family how impressed they were by her spirit.
“They had never seen somebody with such a will to live,” Arlyn said. “When Laurence had opportunity to see that, it overwhelmed him to see she was fighting that hard to live. It was amazing to doctors, too.”
Lavern eventually lost her fight and died in 2007, but the entire ordeal left an indelible mark on her grandson.
“It stirred something in him,” Arlyn said. “It changed him a lot.”
After three solid seasons at Missouri under former coach Mike Anderson, Laurence Bowers was looking forward to his first under new coach Frank Haith the most.
Bowers averaged 11.6 points and 6.1 rebounds as a junior in 2010-11. He had already earned a reputation as a solid defender, blocking 62 shots, with a good motor in the post. But after receiving a NBA evaluation in the spring, he spent the summer of 2011 building up his body and working on his perimeter game.
“I needed to get stronger — I was more interior-minded and I needed to expand my perimeter game because in the NBA I’ll be a (small forward),” said Bowers, who was told that if remained in the 2011 NBA Draft, he’d be picked late in the second round or, worse, go undrafted.
So Bowers pulled his name from the draft and got ready for his senior year of college. He returned home to Memphis and worked out that summer as often as two times a day and four times a week with Arlyn, his basketball mentor. Bowers also had a personal trainer, and developed perimeter skills by running the point in a Memphis summer league that included notable Memphis stars Penny Hardaway, Todd Day, Thaddeus Young and Terrico White.
“He was unstoppable,” Arlyn said.
Then, disaster. During a Missouri practice on Oct. 2, 2011, Bowers was on a two-on-one break with Phil Pressey when Bowers hauled in an errant pass, came down awkwardly and heard a loud pop. It was a fluke injury; no one was around Bowers when he landed, but he remembers lying on the floor, grimacing in pain.
“It was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt,” Bowers said. ”Like somebody stabbed me in my knee.”
Bowers tried to stay positive — he now calls it a state of denial — but reality hit home the next day in the meeting with Beckman, Nestor and Pandov.
“It was a sad day,” Pandov said.
But Pandov and the rest of the coaching staff would soon see the sadness wouldn’t last long. Turns out Laurence Bowers simply wasn’t built to dwell on the negative.
“His spirit,” Haith said, “was unbelievable throughout the year.”
He cut an intriguing figure on the bench — large, well-dressed and always excited. Last season’s Missouri Tigers had no bigger cheerleader than Laurence Bowers, who was always quick to dole out high-fives, advice and whatever else his teammates needed.
Just watching him, you’d think he was the happiest guy in the world, especially when MU won, which was quite often during a 30-5 season that included a Big 12 tournament title. But when MU lost — like it did at Kansas, or against Norfolk State in the Tigers’ opening game of the NCAA Tournament — it was excruciating. Most good teams rotate among 10 or so players; because of a lack of depth, last season’s Tigers only played seven regulars.
“When we won, it was all good,” Bowers said. “I felt like ‘Hey, at least they didn’t need you.’ But the games we lost, I felt we lost because we were outmanned. I believe I could have really helped the team.”
So does Haith, who gets visibly angry whenever he talks about the perception that the injury was blessing in disguise for last season’s group, which thrived with the smaller English taking Bowers’ spot at the power forward position.
“Yeah, it really made me sick,” Haith said. “There’s no question our team last year was terrific, and they played well together. But don’t get it twisted, we would have loved to have Laurence Bowers. And we would have been a better team.”
Through it all, however, Bowers never quit working, sometimes as much as five or six hours a day during his rehab. Those close to Bowers say he never lost faith, showing much of the same spirit his grandma did during her fight with heart failure.
“He never doubted his comeback,” Pandov said. “Yes, some days were physically harder than others, and I see that with kids all the time. But as far as his spirit, he always had an upbeat spirit.”
The latter, Pandov says, is not particularly common. But Bowers, still buoyed by his promise to take care of his mother, did not lack motivation. He vowed to come back bigger, stronger and better than ever.
“I prayed to God and asked him to give me the strength she had,” Bowers said of his grandma, his voice rising. “And he did.”
Bowers regained the range of motion in his knee within a month of his surgery. He progressed so quickly in rehab that he was told to slow down some, lest he come back too quickly and re-injure the knee.
Nevertheless, his progress was undeniable. Before MU’s trip to Europe in August, Bowers gingerly jumped off his left leg and dunked for the first time, a memory that makes Pandov smile.
“I think the world of the kid,” Pandov said. “I really do.”
Perhaps that’s why Pandov called Bowers into his office on Thursday and, for 20 minutes, showed him video of the early days of his rehab, when Bowers was struggling to land on his left leg while jumping from a 6-inch box.
“Man,” Bowers said. “Look how far I’ve come.”
Pandov nodded. Bowers, wearing a large black brace on his knee, had 14 points and three rebounds in MU’s 91-58 exhibition win over Northwest Missouri State on Monday, his first game in nearly two years.
Haith said Bowers — who now weighs a rock-solid 227 pounds, up from his playing weight of 205 as a junior — is not quite 100 percent, but will only get better.
“We can run our offense through him, and I think as the year progresses on, you’ll see us do more of that,” Haith said. “We’ll put him in two-man game situations and iso stuff where I think he can have a chance to showcase his abilities a lot more.”
The NBA dream is still alive for Bowers, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and is currently working on a master’s in health education.
“Regardless of if I make the NBA or not,” Bowers said, “I’ll still have two degrees and will work my tail off to be successful.”
There’s no doubt who he wants to be successful for. On Thursday, nearly 13 months to the day he told his mother about his knee injury, Nancy had some news of her own: she had just lost the Memphis warehouse job she’d held for the better part of two years.
Like she always does, she told Laurence not to worry — she and his now 16-year old little sister, who he wants to put through school one day — will be fine.
“He said ‘Mama, stay strong,” Nancy said. “ ‘I got you.’ ”
Bowers knows pro basketball is the quickest way to fulfill that promise. The NBA Draft, after all, is only eight months away.
“I just want to show her a good life,” Bowers said. “I feel like I owe her the world.”
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to email@example.com