Kevin Puryear filed into Mizzou Arena on Feb. 11, 2012, with his parents — just another spectator in the sold-out crowd of 15,061.
The rare occasions that Puryear sat during then-No. 4 Missouri’s 72-57 win against No. 6 Baylor, he was on the edge of his seat. It’s the day his love for Tigers basketball crystallized.
“It was the atmosphere more than anything,” said Puryear, who was a high school freshman then and is a freshman for the Tigers now. “That was my first Mizzou basketball experience. That was my first visit to any school really. It was kind of hard not to fall in with it at that time.”
Technically, Puryear was born in New Jersey, but Missouri has always been home for the 6-foot-7 forward from Blue Springs South.
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He has fuzzy memories of a few people and the house where he lived in Pisctaway, N.J., but Puryear, whose family returned to Kansas City around his fourth birthday, identifies as a native Missourian.
Midway through that Baylor game, Puryear tapped his mother, Vicki, on the shoulder, “Mom, this is where I want to be.”
“He was always a Missouri fan, but that game really sealed the deal,” Vicki said.
Still, the road from high school stardom — Puryear is The Star’s reigning All-Metro player of the year after helping the Jaguars to the Missouri Class 5 state title last spring — to emerging as the Tigers’ leading scorer this season wasn’t a straight line.
Former assistant Isaac Chew was the first Missouri coach who reached out to Puryear. Chew left the program after the 2011-12 season, and that left Puryear in limbo.
Former coach Frank Haith showed little interest over the next two years, even as Puryear established himself as one of the top prospects in the state.
When second-year coach Kim Anderson took over after Haith left for Tulsa, Missouri finally extended a long-coveted scholarship offer in August 2014. Puryear quickly committed, but his parents, Vicki and Kevin Sr., wanted him to visit other schools.
“I didn’t want him to take his officials to try and steer him toward another school,” said Vicki, who grew up in Kansas City, Kan. “I just wanted to make sure that he fully understood what his options were.”
San Diego, Nebraska and Mississippi were among the other programs bidding for Puryear’s services and working hard to get him on campus before he signed with Missouri in November 2014.
Mizzou “is where my heart was,” he said. “In my mind, why do I need to look anywhere else when I know where I want to be?”
Flights were booked and hotel reservations were made, but Kevin refused to visit anywhere but Missouri.
“There was a time in my house where my parents and I weren’t speaking,” Kevin said. “They were very adamant about me taking my visits. When I told him that I wasn’t interested … we butted heads for a while.”
Eight points and five rebounds per game seemed like a reasonable benchmark to Vicki and others who’d followed Kevin’s high school career entering the season.
Instead, Kevin leads the Tigers at 11.6 points per game and averages 4.5 rebounds, one off the team lead. He admits he has exceeded his own goals.
Puryear scored 20 points in his debut against Wofford and has reached double figures in in 11 of 17 career games, including 19 points against Georgia on Jan. 6 in MU’s conference opener.
“I was very impressed with Puryear,” Bulldogs coach Mark Fox said. “He’s long-armed, he’s stronger than most freshmen, and he’s got a real knack to score the ball. … He’s going to be a very good SEC player … and he’s got a lot of good games and good years in front of him.”
As a team, Missouri, which is 8-9 overall and 1-3 in the SEC entering Wednesday’s rematch with Georgia at Mizzou Arena, hasn’t had as good of a season as Kevin hoped.
Losing to Arkansas by 33, the Tigers’ worst home loss in 59 years, and learning that the program faced a one-year postseason ban among other sanctions last week was a gut-wrenching double whammy.
Vicki circled back to those tense conversations about visiting other schools after the news broke last week surrounding the NCAA investigation,
“Looking back on it, would you have done things differently, or are you where you want to be?” she asked. “He told me: ‘I love Mizzou. I’m where I want to be. I have good friends here.’ There are no regrets for him.”
One day before practice, assistant coach Corey Tate waxed poetic about Missouri’s bright past, including his playing days under Norm Stewart.
“He’ll always be remembered here for doing something good for the Mizzou basketball program,” Kevin said. “That really stuck with me. I want to be remembered here. I want to be remembered for good things and being a good person and being successful on the basketball court. I want to be remembered as a good leader and all that type stuff.”
Puryear was a three-star prospect, according to Rivals and 247 Sports. Scouts pegged him as a two-star recruit, while ESPN didn’t even grade him.
That used to fuel him.
“Kevin is one of those kids, he plays with a chip on his shoulder,” Vicki said. “That chip has changed.”
At Blue Springs South, trying to climb the recruiting rankings drove him to refine his game.
“Now we’re at the point where the losses and the lack of respect sometimes that the (Missouri) basketball program gets is one of his driving forces,” Vicki said.
Along with the rest of the Tigers’ freshman class, Kevin has a burning desire to turn around the program’s fortunes.
“The only way we can go now is up, and I think we’re going to get better,” Kevin said. “I have faith. … My heart’s in Columbia, Missouri, and I never had doubt I want to be anywhere else.
“Sometimes I’m in disbelief that I’m here. It’s really exciting. This is the school that I’ve always wanted to go to, so it’s exciting to be here, and I’m just excited for the future and what could be for the school.”