For a sense of who former University of Missouri basketball player Jeff Warren was and how he’ll live on after his death at age 44 on Friday, consider the gesture he made about a week before.
Around the time he went into hospice care, Warren left a phone message for Norm Stewart, his coach at MU.
“He said, ‘I just want to make sure you and Mrs. Stewart … are OK,’” Stewart said Monday.
As he spoke, Stewart choked up, paused and excused himself for some 10 seconds.
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That was testimony in itself to how he regarded Warren, who lived in Olathe with his wife, Susan, and two children the last few years.
“It’s a long list of wonderful guys that I had,” said Stewart, who coached MU from 1967 to 1999. “If he’s not at the top, he’s close.”
And that has only so much to do with how skilled a player Warren was.
He was, in fact, quite a fine player, good enough to set a then-school record for field-goal percentage (67.6 percent) as a sophomore and to average 6.7 points and 4.4 rebounds through his career.
But the legacy of Warren, who died from a particularly aggressive form of lymphoma that was diagnosed last summer, was that nothing ever was about him.
“He only cared about figuring out how to win,” said MU coach Kim Anderson, a Mizzou assistant for the last two seasons of Warren’s career. “He would do whatever he had to do.”
That had far broader reach than just on the court.
Warren, who worked in medical equipment sales, was the consummate teammate, friend, roommate and father, said former MU teammate and roommate John Burns, a Bishop Miege graduate.
Name another role, and you can bet that whatever you needed he wanted to do for you.
“Heard he was an excellent boss, too,” Burns said.
Warren never thought in terms of “what can I get out of it?” Burns said. “It was always ‘what we can get out of it together, what can we do together?’ That’s lost in a lot of people nowadays. …
“We’re always part of something bigger than ourselves, and he got that. That’s why I related to him. That’s what coach Stewart taught us, too. … Help each other become better. Who doesn’t want to get with somebody who makes them better?”
Part of Warren making others better in basketball simply was by examples — mostly of relentlessness and sincere humility.
When he made 24 straight shots, then one short of the NCAA record, Warren would shrug and say, “I was getting easy shots,” Burns recalled.
When he nabbed 18 rebounds in a game against UNLV, Warren actually said: “We boxed out pretty well. The ball just happened to fall into my hands a few extra times.”
Without knowing him, you might suspect that those were just trite statements.
But you knew by his tone and demeanor when I was covering him for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch back then that he was the sort of guy that really saw it that way.
Because he played so hard and was so pleasant and such a true student (a three-time academic All-Big Eight selection who anchored himself in the library), you also sensed he was going to be one of those guys who would make the world a better place just by being who he was.
“Those are winners,” Stewart said. “You don’t even look at the won-loss. Those are winners, because you knew you got every ounce.”
And then some, as epitomized in a quirky moment in MU’s NCAA Tournament game against West Virginia in 1992.
Warren was headed upcourt with the ball as lightning hit near the Greensboro Coliseum and caused one of several power outages that day.
“I didn’t hear the whistle, so I kept dribbling upcourt,” Warren said then, adding with his typical deadpan delivery, “Then I realized I couldn’t dribble in the dark, so I ran the rest of the way and put it in.”
His attitude made him more valuable than mere numbers reveal.
Stewart said he played so hard and selflessly that his presence and example were good for five extra wins a season.
“If you were going to win 20, now (with Warren) you’re going to win 25,” Stewart said. “He was the guy that the other guys did something because Jeff did.”
Whether it was, say, running when he was hurt or going to an early class after the team got home at 2 a.m. from a road game.
“Jeff Warren would be there — yeah,” Stewart said.
Even as he was dying, Jeff Warren would be there, too, showing people how to live.
Burns, now coaching at Columbia Battle High, marveled at Warren’s resolve and courage all through his illness, including what he had to say the last time they spoke a few weeks ago.
“He just told me he loved me, ‘My time is coming and I’m at ease with it …’” Burns recalled. “‘But you know me, I’m not going to quit.’”
That even factored into services for Warren, Burns said.
Visitation for Warren will be Thursday from 5 p.m to 8 p.m. at Grace United Methodist Church in Olathe. A memorial service will be held there at 10:30 a.m. Friday.
They’re scheduled when they are, Burns said, because Warren knew they were the optimal days for doctors and nurses who’d taken care of him.
“The guy’s on his deathbed (thinking of that),” Burns said, with an admiring laugh. “I mean, come on, now. That’s just ridiculous.”
And just another example he set for us all.