Laurence Bowers was standing in the hallway outside the Mizzou Arena weight room this month. He was talking about all sorts of things: his disappointing knee injury, his senior season that should have been, the coach that gave him hope.
Suddenly, Frank Haith appeared, walking toward Bowers. His final destination was somewhere else in the building, but Haith stopped anyway.
“I absolutely love this guy,” Haith said, grasping Bowers’ right hand as he passed. “This is my main man right here.”
It took all of five seconds, but for Bowers — who greeted his head coach with a “what’s up” and a nod — it was just one more example of the way Haith has made him feel part of the team.
“He’s been a blessing to me,” Bowers said.
Bowers had a feeling he would like Haith nearly a year ago, when the coach replaced Mike Anderson. He was the man who brought Bowers to Missouri but left for Arkansas.
Bowers says he was struck by Haith’s sincerity and ability to relate almost immediately.
“He was talking about what he had in store for me,” Bowers said, “and I liked a lot of the stuff he said.”
One thing was about Bowers’ shot-blocking. The 6-foot-8, 221-pounder blocked 62 shots as a junior, the second-most in the Big 12. With him, Missouri could extend its defense and press just like the Tigers did in previous years under Anderson.
Bowers had every reason to believe his junior-year averages of 11.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game would improve this season.
“I (was) ready to play for him,” Bowers said.
Then, disaster struck. On Oct. 3, Bowers was playing pickup basketball when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Even though he is expected to return next season, he wouldn’t get to finish his MU career with fellow scholarship seniors Kim English, Steve Moore and Marcus Denmon.
At the time, Bowers didn’t even know if he could travel with the team. Doctors often advise patients who have ACL surgery not to fly for several weeks.
“I was worried, man,” Bowers said.
But Bowers, who has since been working diligently in his rehab, has been with the Tigers practically every step of the way during their magical 30-4 season. He comes on road trips and is on the bench every game, wearing a suit and serving in a dual role as part assistant coach, part cheerleader.
When a Tiger makes a good play, no one jumps off the bench with more enthusiasm. Bowers’ first pumps on high-flying jams and killer threes have been as commonplace as the plays themselves this season.
His coach has noticed.
“He’s a great leader,” Haith said. “He talks to guys, and during games he’s always motivating, encouraging. He’s an unbelievable young man, and all this is doing is making him hungry.”
Bowers has been so excited, Haith said, that he started accelerating his rehab.
“He was ahead of schedule,” he said, “and we had to kind of slow him a down a bit because he was doing a little bit too much.”
Haith said Bowers still isn’t running full-speed yet, but he is running in the pool. His goal is to be ready for a summer tour through Europe that Haith said the Tigers “are committed to,” though they must still raise funds.
But what the Tigers won’t do with Bowers, Haith said, is rush.
“Our goal is to make sure he’s ready to start practice in October,” Haith said. “You aren’t winning games in August or September or October. I don’t want it to be a rush, rush sort of deal. We want him to come back and have a good year.”
That’s exactly what Bowers plans on having. Not only for himself, but for the coach that’s gone out of his way to make sure he doesn’t feel left out.
“He’s always checking on me, calling me, asking how I’m doing, checking on my knee,” Bowers said. “He’s like not only a coach, but a father figure. And I’ve only known him for a few months now.”