Gregorian Chants

February 28, 2014

Friday Five: Norm Stewart edition, of Self and a cell phone, Phog, Tubbs, Orr and MU-KU

Twenty-five years ago this month, Missouri basketball coach Norm Stewart collapsed on the Tigers’ flight to a game against Oklahoma in Norman. He had cancer, which one way or another has marked his life since. His work for the American Cancer Society by way of Coaches vs. Cancer has led to around $90 million raised for the cause, in which Stewart remains deeply invested even after his 79th birthday.

Gregorian Chants

Columnist Vahe Gregorian offers musings about the sports scene in and around Kansas City

Twenty-five years ago this month, Oklahoma basketball coach Billy Tubbs ended any temptation by referees to ask coaches to help control crowds when he unleashed his “regardless of how terrible the officiating is”

riff against Missouri.

It’s fascinating to picture how that might have gone if Norm Stewart was on the opposite bench. But that was the night Stewart collapsed on the flight to Norman.

He had cancer, which one way or another has marked his life since.

His work for the American Cancer Society by way of Coaches vs. Cancer has led to around $90 million raised for the cause, in which Stewart remains deeply invested even after his 79th birthday.

Last month, Boone Hospital Center in Columbia opened a cancer center named for Stewart and his wife, Virginia, who also has suffered from the disease.

Each has had a number of health concerns, which Stewart prefers to sum up thusly:

“We’ve had some of the afflictions that many people have and don’t have some that other people are unfortunate to have,” he said, adding that they are “basically good in the overall.”

All of which is part of a reflective time for Stewart, who won 634 games from 1967-99 at MU and is in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

“I try not to look back too much, because you try to make sure that there’s something in front of you,” Stewart said Wednesday from his winter home in Palm Springs. “But when you do take a look back, I always see people.”

Some of those would be obvious: his family, players and friends. And the people in the program that he built into a power after inheriting in 1967 a group that went 6-43 the previous two years.

Missouri is 19-9 overall and 7-8 in the SEC, but Stewart hopes it can finish strong and play well enough in the SEC Tournament to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

“We always thought that (conference) tournament was a great chance to start the season over again,” said Stewart, whose teams won six Big Eight tourneys.

Some of the people Stewart thinks about would be less obvious.

Like legendary Kansas coach Phog Allen. History largely has glossed over that Allen recruited Stewart out of Shelbyville, Mo., and that they became friends.

Stewart recalled sitting with Allen at one Final Four.

“We thought the chairs were hooked together, but the damned chair wasn’t hooked. And I looked up and all I saw (were Allen’s feet),” Stewart said. “It scared the hell out of me, because I knew he had a little age.”

But Allen laughed at himself and said he was fine, Stewart recalled.

With lament, Stewart said, “We used to all sit there together. Now … a lot of changes have been made.”

Among those changes was MU’s decision to join the Southeastern Conference, which ended its series with KU for the foreseeable future.

Missouri “burnt some bridges, and it will take a long time,” Stewart said. “You’ve got to understand (KU’s) position.”

Speaking of which, Stewart admires KU coach Bill Self and said he has “a tremendous following” among coaches.

Then Stewart said, “Hey, this is a hell of a story” and related a perhaps-tall tale about Self coming to his assistance.

It seems Stewart’s family had converged for a Shawnee Mission East football game. (Yep, Stewart’s son Lindsey and family live in Kansas, in the house where Virginia Stewart grew up).

After the game, his daughter’s cell phone went missing but was tracked via computer by her husband.

“Hell,” Stewart recalled seeing, “that thing is in Lawrence, Kansas.”

Then Stewart somehow assembled a posse in Lawrence, where it turns out he has friends: a car dealer, for one, and it sounded like he said something about the postmaster getting involved.

Anyway, his deputies went to the site where the phone seemed to be, and his son-in-law “set off a signal like a depth charge,” as Stewart put it.

Shazam, the phone was retrieved. Next thing you know, Lawrence police are asking Stewart who can pick it up.

Upon reviewing the options, the Lawrence police rep said, “I’ll take Coach Self.”

So Stewart calls Self. Then Self picks it up and calls Stewart back.

“Now, this is how good Self is,” Stewart said, laughing. “He has got the classic line: `You know what, for a guy who won’t spend a dime in Kansas, you sure as hell got a lot of people working for you here.’ “

That sort of color isn’t as evident now as it was when the likes of Stewart and Tubbs roamed the game.

Which takes us back to Tubbs, with whom Stewart played golf and dined the other night when Tubbs and his wife, Pat, were visiting the area.

“My God, I laughed so hard; he was telling me about when he was a salesman, selling pots and pans,” Stewart said. “Pat and Virginia, they enjoyed the visit, and we all got laughing about the different things.”

Back in the day, Stewart and Tubbs would frequently zing each another.

Usually, it was some offshoot of calling each other a jackass, going back to the 1986 Big Eight tournament. That’s when Tubbs called Stewart “Francis the Talking Horse” before his clarification:

“I got Mr. Ed, the talking TV horse, mixed up with Francis the Talking Mule from the movies. I meant to say mule because a mule is not a thoroughbred. A jackass is a thoroughbred, but a mule is a cross, I think, between a jackass and a horse. I think a mule is worse than a jackass.”

The theory was that it always was theater between them, but the image of them playing golf and eating together still seems counterintuitive.

“I got to imitating (Johnny) Orr, and Billy says, `You know what? You’ve got him down pretty good,’ “ Stewart said.

Stewart provided evidence, copying Orr’s shrill voice and tendency to invoke “the Lord’s name” before paying homage to Orr, the former Iowa State coach who was 86 when he died last month.

“People wanted to be around Johnny Orr,” he said, “because, hell, it was fun. He always had something going.”

It takes one to know one, of course, and so Stewart turned back to Tubbs.

“Billy still thinks he’s America’s guest, so he’s still floating around,” Stewart said, then more seriously adding, “We’re all trying to get to the end.”

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