JOPLIN, Mo. | About 3 1/2 minutes into the One State, One Spirit Classic at Missouri Southern, the officials reversed a call and Lions center Jordan Talbert was tagged with a foul.
“Bad call, zebras! Bad call, zebras!” chanted the Missouri Southern pep band.
Basketball returned Sunday to fill the senses and all 3,200 seats at Leggett & Platt Center that served as heart of the recovery effort in the aftermath of the one of the deadliest tornados in history. Missouri defeated Missouri Southern 114-68 on a night when the outcome was a secondary consideration.
The game was about the messages from Missouri Southern. To the state, a heartfelt thanks for the outpouring of support and generosity. Through the high visibility of the state’s college and professional teams, Joplin has never left the Show-Me State’s consciousness, and Mizzou, which suggested the game a few days after the F5 tornado on May 22, took the lead.
“The bottom line is people in Missouri really coming together,” Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said. “Keeping their will and spirits high is very important.”
To the nation — ESPNU was on hand to broadcast the game and retell the stories of tragedy and triumph — the recovery battle continues.
“After May 22, the national media told me we’d be here for a few days and something else will happen, and it will carry us away,” Missouri Southern coach Robert Corn said. “For one night, the national media came back to Joplin, Missouri. Our community benefited from this a lot, a whole lot.”
The Missouri team toured the area Sunday and saw the few blocks along 20th Street, between Range Line Road and Main Street, that defines the destruction and dedication. Land has been cleared and construction signs are planted where houses stood.
The sign in front of Joplin High, devastated in the storm, has been rewritten. The “J” and “lin” were replaced with “H” and “e”: Hope High.
Coach Frank Haith, hired from Miami, Fla., in early April, had been on the job for about six weeks when the tornado hit that cut a 6-mile swath, leaving 162 dead and about 7,500 homes and businesses demolished. He and other Missouri staffers came up with the idea to bring a game at Missouri Southern.
“He came here with no prior connections to the state, to have the idea to bring his team to raise money is huge,” Mizzou guard Kim English said.
The idea for the One Mizzou T-shirt came from Carly Northup, director of development, and sales raised more than $275,000 for the relief effort. A symbolic check was presented by Missouri athletic director Mike Alden at halftime.
“It’s not about this game,” Alden said. “It’s about making people aware that while this took place in May, 2011, this is a multiyear rebuilding project.”
And Missouri’s athletic department wants to continue its role in the process. Not necessarily a basketball game, though Haith probably wouldn’t mind a return trip if he knew his team would play this well again.
Against a Lions team that was picked to win the Division II MIAA, Missouri shot 57.5 percent from the floor and with four guards often on the floor, forced 26 turnovers. Marcus Denmon’s 25 points led six double figure scorers.
Because forward Laurence Bowers has a torn knee ligament and is out for the season, the Tigers will be one of the smaller teams in the Big 12. But they were bigger than Missouri Southern and won the board battle 41-28.
“They’re quickness and size we can’t prepare for in practice,” Corn said.
When it was over, both teams were called to center court and given a standing ovation. A game more than five months in the making came together wonderfully.
The night included surprises. During a first-half timeout, Missouri Southern announced it was offering $1,000 scholarships to students at four Joplin area high schools.
Lions athletic director Jared Bruggeman said the game’s gate receipts, including $500 courtside seats, will bring more than $100,000 to the school, and the school will reap another $50,000-$60,000 from Saturday’s men’s and women’s exhibition double header with Missouri State.
Missouri Southern, with nearly 6,500 students, lost three lives directly associated with the university — a professor, a student and a professor’s wife. But Bruggeman estimates that 50 staff members left homes. Cars and property were destroyed.
“This is important for our campus, and community,” Bruggeman said. “The national focus was here again.”
It came to the gym that provided vital services after the tornado. Leggett & Platt and the adjoining Young Gymnasium housed about 600 displaced residents, plus fire and rescue personnel. A medical center treated the injured, a day care amused the young. All in the basketball gyms.
Sunday, Joplin returned, to watch a game.