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The idea for the story came after I got lost in Allegany State Park by accident, ten months earlier!
RED HOUSE, N.Y. – The state park destroyed most of it. Then came the dam, then the Interstate, and, eventually, the bulldozers. In Red House, even the red house is gone.
Sure, there’s still a town hall in Red House. It’s a small, unremarkable white structure, hidden at the bottom of the same mountains once used by Native Americans as a burial ground. A smattering of classical, nostalgic farmhouses, spaced comfortably along a one-mile stretch of Bay State Road, still remain, too, including the childhood home of a former NFL running back.
But not much of Red House is man-made anymore. The post office, the schoolhouse, the inn, the chemical plant and the lumber railroad have all been erased from memory, without even the slightest bit of remaining evidence to suggest they ever existed.
On Monday, the demise continues. Contractors will demolish one of the oldest homes in the town.
Llewellyn France, who was born here 83 years ago, remembers visiting that house as a child during the tail end of the Great Depression. Even then, Red House was in decline.
“I always refer to this as the rise and fall of Red House,” France said. “Now, we’re down to almost nothing.”
People do still live here. There are only 38 of them, but they’re still here, living peacefully near Interstate 86 in the scenic Allegheny Region, 30 miles east of Jamestown and 70 miles south of Buffalo.
Red House has the smallest population of any town in the state of New York. About a quarter of the town’s population holds public office. The France family has occupied the highway superintendent’s position since 1944. The two town judges, Lance and Ann Marie Anderson, are a married couple who sometimes get middle-of-the-night phone calls asking them to arraign low-level criminals for sneaking alcohol into Allegany State Park. The Andersons, who have three children, represent about one-eighth of the population, and they have enormous influence when it comes to elections in the Town Justice race.
“I’m a much nicer judge than she is,” Lance Anderson said, “but we do have two judges.”
The history of the Town of Red House sounds like a sad story. It’s not, really. People moved away, and the government leveled homes, but that just means there’s now more space for everyone else.
“Look around,” Anderson said. “Thirty-eight people in a park that’s around 65,000 square acres. It’s like we have the whole park that’s our backyard.”
Funny how that works: the people who live in the smallest town in New York also happen to live in the largest state park in New York.
Admittedly, Anderson thought he’d move away from Red House, back when he completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Miami. He figured South Florida might suit him better, but every time he visited his parents in Red House during the summers, he got hooked all over again.
“I used to sit in class and look out the window,” Anderson said. “I used to always think, ‘boy, if I could just get back to Red House and the Allegheny Region, where there are trees — not palm trees, but really nice trees — that’s really a good place to live.'”
Luckily, during one of those return visits to Red House, Anderson met his future wife. They bought his parents’ house and stayed for good. Anderson has now logged almost six decades in Red House, which is impressive, but not as impressive as Llewellyn France’s record.
France lives in one of the first homes on Bay State Road, a nice, spacious spot with a covered front porch. Eighty three years ago, he was born just down the road at his grandmother’s house, where his family decided to nickname him “Hook,” for reasons unknown even to him.
“I never did learn how to spell my regular name until I was in eighth grade,” France said. “Too many ‘L’s.”
Hook France left Red House briefly, spending three years in the Army from 1948 to 1951. But, like many of his neighbors, he returned, never to leave again. In 1965, the state tried to kick him off his property, but he hired a lawyer, took three trips to Albany and successfully fought to keep control of his property in Red House.
France retired as a state parks policeman in 1984. These days, his daughter lives next door to him, and he’s about as deeply entrenched in a town as a man could be. Before the Civil War, France’s great-grandfather built a sawmill and a home on this land, leaving behind his old residence in Salamanca. When it was time to move, he built a raft and transported all his furniture on water.
The sawmill and lumber industry fueled the brief rise of Red House, which held its first board meeting in 1869. Civil war veterans flocked here to start a new life, eager to take advantage of the Allegheny Region’s vast resources. During the late 19th century, the population surged to more than 1,000 people. When the state created Allegany State Park in the early 20th century, though, the government seized a lot of properties in Red House. The Kinzua Dam later sprouted up in the mid-20th century, which further intruded on the town. Year by year, the population dwindled.
Then, it reached 38.
“That’s 38 if my kids are here,” Anderson said. “Sometimes, they go off to school, so it drops down a couple of numbers.”
The Andersons and their children form one of the core families of Red House, just as Hook France and his daughter keep the tradition alive in their homes at the front of Bay State Road, named for the Bay State Lumber Company that once operated here.
Beyond the creek, just a few hundred yards away from town hall, the Hubbards form another classic family on Bay State Road. Unfortunately, their white farmhouse, with “THE HUBBARDS” sign still very much intact, often sits empty these days, because the remaining Hubbard lives with her daughter now. Family members come to visit the property every so often, but it’s now a historical landmark of sorts. That’s because it was once the breeding ground for “Marvelous” Marvin Hubbard, who played football at Randolph High School, then Colgate University, and then the Oakland Raiders and the Detroit Lions.
The three-time Pro Bowl running back still makes an appearance every so often in his old hometown.
“Really good guy,” Anderson said. “Great athlete. And every once in awhile, he’ll show up here. We’ll see him and it’s kind of an honor to see him back in town.”
Red House used to get famous visitors, too. Anderson said Tim Horton used to spend his weekends in the Red House area to hunt, often showing up on the Anderson property because he liked their small pond in front of the house.
And then there are the ghost stories.
“I don’t know anything about ghosts,” France said. “Really, I don’t.”
France, perhaps the most trustworthy historian in Red House, would rather focus on the town’s real history. He’s not a fan of the supernatural. Somehow, though, Red House has gained a strange reputation for ghost stories, including the one circulating on the World Wide Web about that actual red house in Red House.
About a century ago, even before France was born here, there really was a red house. France notes that the red house was some kind of restaurant or cafe, just along the shores of Red House Creek. All he knows is that it existed at one point, and then it got wiped out.
The Internet, of course, begs to differ. Like a game of Telephone, someone wove a fascinating tale of a lovers’ quarrel in the red house of Red House. Long ago, they say, a man died in the Civil War, and his widow ended up marrying his brother. This angered the family, so, like Romeo and Juliet, the lovers took their own lives. And their ghosts apparently haunted the red house forever.
“Some people talk about ghosts all the time,” France said, shaking his head.
Anderson hasn’t heard that story either.
But he’s heard other ghost stories— the ones of the mountains.
“At one time, there was an Indian burial ground atop the mountains, so a lot of people say if they walk up there and hike up there, they’ll see orbs up at the top of the hill,” Anderson said. “I’ve never seen any orbs at the top of the hill. But I’ve never walked up there at night either.”
[And] every once in a while, someone will say they see Big Foot. Then, the next day they’re in court for consumption charges.”
Before there were ghosts, however, there were people. Although the town didn’t officially hold a board meeting until after the Civil War, France said the first settler arrived here in 1827. A guy named Darius Frink built a log cabin, and from there, people slowly began to gravitate toward the lumber and sawmill industry in Red House.
The peak of the 19th century didn’t last very long, though.
Lately, the fall of Red House seems to have accelerated. Look no further than the huge bulldozer in the front lawn of the abandoned home, the one that’s about to meet its fate on Monday. To its credit, the property has received a lot of last-minute visitors. There was the woman who pulled over to the side of the road, walked out of her car and began snapping photos of the old house, which mostly consists of broken windows and faded paint nowadays.
“Some of these were grand, old farmhouses of the 1800s and early 1900s,” Anderson said. “And just to go down the road and travel though what’s left of Red House, and to see houses being torn down by the state… you actually physically see that happen. You actually physically see the house being demolished. Everyone visited everyone else. We’re all neighbors. So, to see those houses being torn down, it’s kind of disheartening.”
Disheartening, yes. But the people of Red House have seen this before.
These are the same people, after all, who don’t have a post office anymore— they all have mailing addresses classified to nearby Salamanca, N.Y, located 10 miles away.
It hasn’t been easy for Hook France to watch his childhood slowly disappear for 83 years. Monday’s demolition is a gut-punch, but that’s all it is. In a few months, when the leaves fall off the trees and the snow begins to pelt the Red House area, France will hop in his snowplow and clear the roads, just as he’s done for 30 years, and just as his father did for 40 years before him.
“Smallest town in New York,” France said, sighing. “But we still make it as our own here.”
Originally published for KOMU-TV
OMAHA, NE — Tony Mitchell stares at the ceiling of the CenturyLink Center like he’s searching for an escape route.
His North Texas team will not tip off against Creighton for another 25 minutes, so he loiters near the free throw line during pregame warm-ups, effortlessly dribbling a basketball back and forth between his legs. His sophomore season has not even technically begun yet, but he already feels the eyes of every human being in the building fixating on him.
Somewhere among the 17,000 fans decked out in dark blue, judgmental scouts from 15 NBA teams sit with pens and notepads. Just beyond the baseline, a security guard whispers to his co-worker to “watch that number 13 tonight.” There’s a 6-foot-9 kid from Dallas in the building, and nobody wants to miss the show.
“You just gotta live up to the hype,” Mitchell says hours earlier, shortly after his team’s afternoon shoot-around.
This season-opening game between North Texas and Creighton, two consensus favorites in their respective conferences, will not be televised, even though national writers and columnists have touted Mitchell’s matchup against Bluejays’ All-American forward Doug McDermott for weeks. This is nothing new to Mitchell or anybody associated with the Sun Belt Conference. It’s a league long dominated by Western Kentucky, hidden carefully in the American South and often overlooked in the shadow of the Big 12 and the Southeastern Conference.
Eleven seconds into the game, Tony Mitchell fires a mid-range jumper. Off the rim. On the next possession, his three-point attempt rattles out, too. By the first media timeout, Mitchell has zero points.
By the next timeout, Mitchell has seven points, two blocks and two dunks, the product of a four-minute flurry featuring the kind of breathtaking athleticism everybody had eagerly awaited. It started with a steal and dunk in transition, then continued with a block of McDermott, a three-pointer, another swat and, finally, a one-handed putback slam capped off by a loud and intimidating scream in the general direction of Creighton’s alumni section.
They say he’s a lottery pick in next year’s NBA Draft. Top five, maybe. CBS Sports named him a pre-season All-American and called him “the best combination of talent and athleticism playing in college basketball today.”
“Being advertised as a basketball player, you just have to live with those expectations,” Mitchell said. “When the lights come on, you gotta shine. You gotta perform.”
Performance has never been a problem for Mitchell at North Texas. As a freshman in 2011-12, he averaged a double-double. This year, he’s the pre-season Sun Belt Player of the Year. It was not difficult to predict this three years ago, when Rivals.com rated Mitchell a five-star prospect and the 12th-best high school player in America.
It’s just that all of this wasn’t supposed to be happening at North Texas.
“I LOVE THOSE GUYS”
Tony Mitchell signed with Missouri on Nov. 18, 2009, marking the program’s most celebrated recruiting coup in perhaps two decades. Coach Mike Anderson, now the head coach at Arkansas, had never inked a five-star prospect before. The Tigers hadn’t welcomed a recruit of this caliber since Linas Kleiza signed with Quin Snyder in 2003.
Prior to choosing MU, Mitchell had spent his junior year of high school at Center of Life Christian Academy, a prep school in Florida. That decision alone ultimately altered Mitchell’s path. He transferred to Pinkston High School – a part of the Dallas Independent School District – to play his senior year, but Center of Life was unaccredited and his credits did not transfer. School officials at Pinkston then administered placement tests for Mitchell, and he passed all of them.
That is, until an investigation by WFAA-TV in Dallas revealed he had taken an unprecedented nine tests in two days. Red flag. The work of reporter Brett Shipp forced an internal investigation, delaying Mitchell’s graduation from high school and eventually leading the NCAA to rule him academically ineligible to compete at Missouri.
Mitchell never stepped foot on MU’s campus as a student. Immediately after the ruling, he signed with North Texas and enrolled as a “partial qualifier,” which meant he could sit out a season, pay in-state tuition and then join the Mean Green on scholarship as long as he kept his grades afloat.
“I really wanted to be a Tiger,” Mitchell said. “I cried about it. I’m not going to lie. I just have to keep moving forward, but at the same time, I love everybody at Mizzou. They showed me a lot of love and support throughout the whole process.”
“I love those guys.”
So he’s found a home in Denton, Tx., located less than an hour from Dallas. It allows his family to see every home game, and his team isn’t bad, either. The Mean Green won 18 games a year ago and returned a promising young nucleus this season under first-year head coach Tony Benford, a former Marquette assistant. Coincidentally, Benford recruited Mitchell – as well as several of his other teammates – while working for Buzz Williams at Marquette.
“I’m a hometown kid, so I really enjoy it,” Mitchell said. “Since he recruited a lot of us, he’s seen a lot of us already. It’s crazy how we’ve come together as a team, and that we’re here at North Texas.”
Missouri hasn’t left his life entirely, though. “Who are they playing this weekend?” he asks after the shoot-around. Then, he rattles off the names of some of the transfers on MU’s team this season– “They’re gonna be real good. They got all those new transfers, Keion Bell, Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown.” He also still keeps in touch with several MU players, including point guard and fellow Dallas native Phil Pressey. The two have known each other since the beginning of high school.
“That’s my guy. We talk every now and then, on and off.” Pressey said. “He’s doing real well. We live 15 or 20 minutes away from each other, so every time I go home, I see him.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Phil and I are very close. Very close,” Mitchell said. “I love seeing how he’s doing. His game has evolved. Really evolved.”
Mitchell’s has, too, which begs that irritating but necessary question.
WHAT IF TONY MITCHELL HAD PLAYED AT MISSOURI?
Tony Mitchell smiles as he imagines the possibilities.
“It could have been something special,” Mitchell said. “We probably would have been amazing. On ESPN highlights all the time, going up and down. It probably would have been crazy.”
Of course, even without Mitchell, Missouri still earned its fair share of ESPN airtime by winning 30 games and capturing a Big 12 Tournament title. That’s how Pressey keeps his perspective.
“A 6-foot-9 guy who’s freakishly athletic, he can help any team in the country. If we had him, I think we could use him,” Pressey said. “But we didn’t have him and we still did well.”
All season, the Tigers shrugged off the doubters. People said they were too small. Too thin. Not enough depth. A one-man show in the frontcourt with Ricardo Ratliffe. Missouri ignored the critics for 34 games.
Until it got Norfolked in Game 35. Suddenly, a dream season turned into a disaster in the form of an 86-84 loss to 15th-seeded Norfolk State in the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans, statistically the heaviest underdog to ever win a tournament game in college basketball history, outrebounded the Tigers by 12. Star center Kyle O’Quinn, a 6-foot-10 behemoth in the middle of the paint, finished with a double-double and scored the go-ahead bucket after grabbing an offensive rebound in the final minute. If only Mitchell and his superhuman leaping ability were there to clean up the glass. On the game’s final possession, Phil Pressey misfired on a three-point attempt at the buzzer and then crumpled to the floor.
He crumpled to the floor of the CenturyLink Center. In Omaha. The very arena where seven months later, Mitchell would play the first game of his sophomore season against Creighton on an unseasonably warm night in early November.
As he continues to stretch near the free throw line – just feet from where Pressey missed that shot at the buzzer – the whispers get louder and louder. “That’s the kid you want to see,” somebody mumbles near press row. When the public address announcer begins to introduce the North Texas starting lineup shortly before tip-off, he calls Mitchell first.
A six-foot-eight forward out of Dallas, Texas. Number thirteen: Tony Mitchell.
There’s mostly silence in the arena, followed by a recognizable, undeniable chant from the Creighton student section.
From the Mid-Majority series:
Nothing screams “I’m a sophisticated person!” like appreciating an old building. We all love old buildings. When we walk through the doors of old buildings, we romanticize them, perch them on a heavenly pedestal and long nostalgically for the good ‘ole days, back when things were pure and right. Back when the world was good, not evil. Back when people were decent.
As I approached the entrance to Municipal Auditorium, a friendly woman with a ticket scanner greeted me. As she scanned the piece of cardboard I bought for the unreasonable sum of $15, I smiled at her and thanked her. “Enjoy the show,” she said. I thought I had come here for a basketball game, but now I was wondering whether I had accidentally stumbled into the Phantom of the Opera.
The theatre-like concourse of Municipal Auditorium looks nothing like the arenas and gyms I’m used to. I’ve seen fancy concourses so far this season, like at Mizzou Arena, the CenturyLink Center and Chaifetz Arena, where black-and-white pictures of old players and coaches from 1912 line the rafters to remind you that these beautiful, 800-gazillion-dollar buildings do in fact have some charm to them. I’ve seen tiny gymnasiums, too, like Southern Illinois-Edwardsville’s Vadalabene Center, where the concourse is a 30-foot room with a drinking fountain and a few restrooms. The “team store” is a wooden table with a mound of t-shirts and sweatshirts on top of it.
The normal home gym for UMKC, a tiny little place in the middle of campus named the Swinney Recreation Center, doesn’t even have a team store. That’s where the Kangaroos play all but three of their home games this season.
Thursday night just happened to be one of the games away from Swinney, at this old building called Municipal Auditorium that looked more suited for an opera than a sporting event. After resisting the urge to waste more of my hard-earned money on popcorn, a food I am not-so-secretly obsessed with, I began to explore. I saw a sign called the “Balcony,” so instead of immediately walking toward center court, I decided to take this detour. I never found a balcony, but the path lead me to the upper deck of the auditorium. As I emerged from the concourse out toward the deck, I could hear the sounds of college basketball. The warm-up shots clanking off the rim. The quiet simmering of the crowd as it begins to file in. The catchy music blaring from the poorly-installed and outdated sound system.
And suddenly, just like that, the power of the old building hit me.
March 21, 1964. “The night the Wizard was born,” ESPN.com’s William Nack will write decades later. The Wizard was born in Kansas City, Mo., in Municipal Auditorium. The Wizard’s name was John Wooden.
On March 21, 1964, Wooden won his first national championship at UCLA. It is the birth of a dynasty. “Last week in Kansas City, a town unequipped for too much excitement, 10,000 people at the Municipal Auditorium were permitted the treat of watching UCLA’s two-minute explosion explode on consecutive nights,” Sports Illustrated writes at the time. “Anybody unromantic enough to believe UCLA could not finish 30 games undefeated, with undersized, unimpressive-looking players and a coach, John Wooden, who does not smoke, drink or recruit very much, deserved to be kept awake by UCLA insurgents yelling, “We’re No. 1,” down Baltimore Street until morning.”
John Wooden would win nine more national championships during the next eleven seasons. By the time he died in June 2010, he had won so many titles, the individual victories almost seemed meaningless. Except for that first one. That first one was special because it was the start of something, and it all happened at Municipal Auditorium.
Damn old buildings. It’s ridiculous how mushy they turn you. I felt like the kids in Hoosiers gawking at Hinkle Fieldhouse. I’ve seen arenas so much larger than this, and yet I couldn’t help but stare at all the seats in the upper deck. Not a single person sat in these seats for this game between Missouri-Kansas City and South Dakota State, but I began to envision what this place would have looked like on March 21, 1964.
I snuck into a seat behind the South Dakota State bench by the time the game started, but even from that less epic view, I couldn’t help but drift back in time. Wooden wasn’t the only historical figure to roam this stupid old building. Municipal Auditorium has held nine Final Fours, starting in 1940, when Branch McCracken’s Indiana team beat Phog Allen and Kansas. Bob Knight played here as a young lad in 1961, when his Ohio State squad lost the national title game to Cincinnati.
On Thursday night, 4-10 UMKC was playing here. There were 1,000 people in the building. Maybe. The school’s band must have been on winter break, so the PA system played both the national anthem and the fight song. Every so often, a local high school jazz band played some tunes for us. This was the same Municipal Auditorium it’d always been. The same old building that opened in 1935, the same old building that hosted John Wooden and Bob Knight, two of the best coaches the sport has ever seen. On this particular evening, sparse crowd and all, it seemed almost incomprehensible that this place was ever so important to college basketball.
Municipal Auditorium is the past, not the present. The history, the nostalgia, the chills that go up and down your spine when you walk in the doors, that’s because of the past, right?
Except for one player on the court on Thursday night. Except for this one, inconspicuous basketball player on South Dakota State’s team, everything memorable about Municipal Auditorium happened years and years and years ago.
Municipal Auditorium is a stupid old building. Except for when Nate Wolters is there.
When Nate Wolters is playing within a 150-mile radius of your home, you drop everything and go. He was playing 126 miles from me on Thursday night, so by rule, I was bound to drive to Kansas City. Wolters is a 6’4” senior from St. Cloud, Minnesota, the same charming city a fictional character from the television show “How I Met Your Mother” hails from. He is my age.
He makes me feel like a bum. During the past three seasons, he has blossomed as one of college basketball’s most versatile point guards. By Mid-Majority standards, he is most certainly a legend, especially after helping the Jackrabbits to a Summit League tournament title and an NCAA Tournament appearance last March. He is a prolific scorer who scores about 20 points per game, a prolific passer who dishes about six assists per game, an above-average rebounder from the backcourt and, without a doubt, the best player in the Summit League.
NBA scouts like him. They don’t love him, and they won’t tell their teams to pick him in the first round, but they like him. The very fact that any NBA scout is paying any sort of attention to a player from South Dakota State would have seemed outrageous as recently as a decade ago. In 2005, coach Scott Nagy’s program made the switch to Division I from Division II. It took eight long and excruciating seasons, but he finally led the Jackrabbits to the tourney a year ago and has the added bonus of an NBA prospect.
I was impressed that about 15 fans, mostly family probably, had traveled all the way to Kansas City on a weeknight to see South Dakota State, but this could be a special team with a special player. The Jackrabbits haven’t been perfect this year, but they won at 17th-ranked New Mexico a few weeks ago and are still the favorites to win the Summit.
On the second possession of the game, Wolters fires a pass to one of his forwards. It is an improbable pass through several UMKC defenders, and yet it falls right into the hands of his teammate. The dude was so surprised the ball made it to him that he missed a point-blank layup.
Wolters’ first points come on floater in the lane. Looked pretty, kid. He’ll add another layup in transition a few minutes later. Not bad.
Then, the show begins. On every possession, one of Wolters’ teammates sets a high screen for him and lets him go to work. He dribbles the ball like it’s a toy, like it’s something he can just fool around with. He always finds the open man, who finds the other open man, who eventually finds a three-point shooter. This team can really pass. And it can shoot, too. It started with a few treys by a floppy-haired guy named Jordan Dykstra. He seemed to have a nice touch.
Dykstra made a third. Then a fourth. Then, Chad White started to heat up. He made four in a row. Wolters hit a few. By the end of the first half, South Dakota State has made 10 three-pointers and leads by 29 points. I immediately logged onto my smart phone to Google the record for three-pointers by a team in a regular season contest.
It seemed in jeopardy at this point. After the break, though, South Dakota State lets up. It hits only two from beyond the arc, and it wins by 16. Just 16.
Nate Wolters finishes with just 23 points, just seven assists, just four steals and just six rebounds. Just. He’s a terrific player, everything I thought he would be and more. I liked his demeanor, I liked his leadership, and I liked the fact he seemed so comfortable and so confident at the point guard position. I think the NBA scouts liked him the same way I did, wherever they were sitting in this old building.
As the small crowd began to leave Municipal Auditorium, I stayed seated. Nothing legendary had happened on this night. We did not crown a national champion, nor did we see John Wooden.
The nostalgia starts to creep in. I start to long for the old days, before I was even born, because as they say, the world was so simple then. People were good. Basketball was good. Life was fair. There were no problems.
Then, just as I’m about to drift back into 1964, I catch myself. I wake up. I start to realize something.
We love old buildings because we think we can walk into them and escape the present. I can use Municipal Auditorium as a time machine to help me rid the world of corruption, crime, terrorism, racism, cheating in college athletics, poverty and all the other horrible, terrible things that supposedly make this current world so unlivable. That’s a mirage, obviously, but it makes us feel better to believe in better times, to believe in the good ‘ole days.
I don’t know when it will happen, but at some point, probably at the encouragement of some sort of multi-million dollar corporate scheme, construction crews will implode Municipal Auditorium. They’ll take some of the dry wood and metal and sell it to the public, and they’ll talk about how John Wooden won his first national championship inside this old building on March 21, 1964. But the secret about old buildings is that nobody cares about them anymore. People are more than willing to knock them down, because people only care about what old buildings used to be, not what they are now.
I had never been to Municipal Auditorium before Thursday night. Somebody else created my memories of John Wooden and Bob Knight in that building. Those memories exist in photographs.
I created my own memory of Nate Wolters on Thursday night. It is a pleasant memory of the first time I watched a guy with NBA potential live up to each and every expectation I had for him. I created my own memory of watching South Dakota State light up UMKC for 10 three-pointers in one half, forcing me to wonder momentarily whether I might see history on this particular night.
The way I remember Municipal Auditorium, it’s a quiet, mostly empty building with dim lighting. It is peaceful, and the seats offer enough room for me to stretch out my legs.
No national championships. No sellout crowds. Just Nate Wolters.
I’m already nostalgic.
Originally published for PowerMizzou.com
As a Missouri fan, it’s what made you cynical. It is Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. It is the light at the end of the tunnel that turns out to be the oncoming train. It made you believe in curses, made you believe in karma, made you believe that no matter what Missouri does, a fifth down or a kicked ball or Four-Point-Eight will always ruin everything.
You remember the situation. Every Missouri fan does. It has haunted your dreams for almost 18 years. Julian Winfield just beat the shot clock with a go-ahead layup off a pretty pass from freshman Kendrick Moore. Timeout UCLA. Missouri by one. It has top-ranked UCLA facing its own mortality in the 1995 NCAA Tournament. Four-point-eight seconds to play. The eighth-seeded Tigers are one defensive stand away from the Sweet 16. The Bruins need a miracle to move on.
|As Edney celebrated, Missouri’s season came to a shocking halt that would go down in college basketball history.|
The officiating crew gathers near center court. Don’t come up with any crap, Ron Zetcher tells his two fellow referees. If you’re going to call a foul, make sure it’s a foul. It’s too important.
As the two teams break their respective huddles, Norm Stewart realizes he still has his own timeout remaining. This might be the most important tactical decision of his coaching career. Naturally, he seeks the advice of a junior college transfer who hasn’t left the bench the whole game.
Corey Tate tells him not to call a timeout.
“He turned to me and says, ‘Aw, s—, should I call a timeout?’ I’m like, no, we’ll be okay. Don’t call a timeout,” Tate said. “He says, ‘Aw, sh–, I’m calling a timeout!'”
“If you ever look at the footage, not too many people realize it, but the reason we’re scrambling is because Coach Stewart was going back and forth to the refs trying to tell them he wanted a timeout.”
|Now a coach at Mineral Area CC, Corey Tate watched Edney’s miracle from the Missouri bench.|
Before Stewart can grab the attention of officials, they’ve already handed the ball to UCLA’s Cameron Dollar on the baseline.
“You know the rest,” Tate said.
The whistle blows. Dollar throws the ball to
Tyus Edney. Edney cuts past Jason Sutherland in the backcourt. He lofts a running right hander over all 6-foot-10 plus outstretched arms of Derek Grimm. The ball spirals into the hoop as time expires.
Four-point-eight seconds. 75-74 Bruins. And a lifetime of heartache and what ifs.
A few months later, during the summer of 1995, Stewart asked Zetcher what exactly his officiating crew had discussed in that huddle with 4.8 seconds remaining on the clock. Zetcher told him about the standard late-game conversation they’d had to make sure they wouldn’t call any ticky-tack fouls.
“Stewart, goes, ‘Oh, if I knew that, I should have told my kids to knock the sh– out of that guy!'” Zetcher said.
Even that might not have stopped Tyus Edney.
It’s a good thing Missouri and UCLA will play at Pauley Pavilion on Friday. If the game were in Columbia, the Bruins’ Director of Basketball Operations might not be able to make the trip.
His name is Tyus Edney.
“It wouldn’t be a number one vacation spot for me,” Edney said, “if you know what I’m saying.”
He’ll need to make the proper accommodations for 2013, then. Per the home-and-home agreement between the two programs, the Bruins will play at Mizzou Arena on an unspecified date next season. Friday’s game marks only the seventh meeting in history between UCLA and Missouri, and they’ve played just once since Edney’s shot. That was the regional semifinal of the 2002 NCAA Tournament in San Jose, when Quin Snyder‘s team marched to the Elite Eight by knocking off Steve Lavin‘s Bruins.
|Paul O’Liney nearly spearheaded a Missouri upset. Instead, he thinks about Edney to this day.|
Edney wasn’t on UCLA’s staff under Lavin, though. After a four-year stint in the NBAs in the late nineties, he won numerous championships and awards in Europe for a decade and then joined Ben Howland on the bench at his alma mater in 2010.
For 18 years, Missouri fans have used “Edney” as the most vile curse word in the English language. On Friday, he’ll greet them for the first time since the mad four-point-eight dash.
“It’s been a while since we’ve played Missouri,” Edney said. “We’re expecting it to be tough like it was when we played them.”
If that’s true, get ready for a showdown this weekend. That second-round contest in 1995 would have made its way onto ESPN Classic even without Edney’s buzzer-beater. Fresh off a victory over Bob Knight‘s Indiana squad in the first round, the Tigers caught fire in the first half and traded punches with the nation’s top-ranked team from the tip.
The spurt begins early. Sutherland drills a three from the right wing. 6-4 Missouri. Winfield abuses Ed O’Bannon off the dribble and spins for a layup. 8-4. Winfield with a bucket in transition. 10-4. Sutherland for three-again. 13-6.
“Being here and involved in our season, we didn’t get to see them play a lot,” Edney said. “But we quickly realized they were a legit team and a really good team. I just remember they were solid, at every position. They had height, size, shooting, point guards, I mean, that team was really good.”
Missouri loses a bit of its swagger when Winfield picks up his third foul early in the half, but it keeps gunning from beyond the arc. Leading scorer Paul O’Liney, the stocky transfer from Pensacola, Fla., drills two threes in a row from NBA range at one point in the first half and scores 16 points before the break.
Missouri leads by eight at the half. It’ll be a little bit tight in the locker room of UCLA, says famous Marquette coach and CBS color commentator Al McGuire. The threes keep falling early in the second half. Sutherland makes another one. O’Liney pulls up in transition and swishes an off-balance triple.
Tigers by nine with 16 minutes to play. Five minutes later, the lead is gone. Twelve unanswered by UCLA and the top-ranked Bruins reclaim the momentum.
The final minutes of the game turn tense. Grimm’s deep three-pointer as the shot clock expires with five minutes to play gives the Tigers a two-point lead. He’ll make three from beyond the arc in this game, even though he woke up with the flu and a 103-degree fever.
Missouri clings to a narrow lead in the final minutes. It fouls Ed O’Bannon with 58 seconds to play. He makes both free throws. Tigers down one. A foul call with 38.9 seconds left doesn’t put MU at the line, but it gives Stewart the chance to hold for one last shot.
The ball is in the hands of a freshman from Hartford. Two years later, Kendrick Moore will transfer to Providence. On this day, he waits until the shot clock strikes six. Then, he makes his move. Edney is draped all over him, so Moore perches his head up and sees Winfield floating toward the middle of the paint.
Moore delivers. Winfield converts. It’s supposed to be the last shot of the game, but Missouri leaves 4.8 seconds on the clock.
“I was standing right across the court from Coach Stewart, he had a look on his face of just extreme — and I’ve known Norm Stewart for a long time — of extreme confidence that they were gonna win the game,” Zetcher said.
“I think about it all the time,” O’Liney said. “I never forget the 4.8 seconds.”
The college basketball universe doesn’t forget about the 4.8 seconds, either. That final play ofovershadows the Tigers’ heroic upset effort and unexpected 20-win season. A year after an Elite Eight appearance, Missouri graduated the bulk of its team and entered the 1994-95 season without much fanfare. But O’Liney developed into a star, and previous benchwarmers like Grimm, Sutherland and Winfield helped Missouri finished 20-9.
“To do what we did, nobody was expecting that. We lost like eight seniors that year, and nobody thought we would be able to get back to the tournament like that,” O’Liney said. “So I think we surprised some people.
“People that know about it in Florida, I can’t go anywhere without someone saying ‘Hey I remember that.’ It’s all they ever talk about. It’s something I’ll never forget, I know that.”
Edney’s shot propelled UCLA to a national championship in 1995.
Four years later, Stewart retired.
“He was so devastated he took the kids off the floor, they never showered I don’t think. They left the floor, got their stuff and went to the airport,” Zetcher said. “I think that loss for him, probably more than anything he ever had … and I’m speaking for myself, not him. But years later, it was over. He was gone.”
With each passing year, the legend of Edney’s shot fades. And yet it grows. It is now an iconic image of March, as famous as Laettner’s turnaround, Jordan’s jumper and Jim Valvano’s search for someone to hug.
“Almost universally, every year, everybody gets to see the play again on TV,” said Kim Anderson, an assistant on the ’95 team and the current head coach at the University of Central Missouri. “Even my own team, my own teams over the last ten years here at Central, they’ll come in right around that time of year and say ‘Coach, we saw you on TV!’ Generally, the first comment is, you had dark hair back then!”
Anderson played under Stewart in the mid-70s and coached under him from 1991 to 1999. Since then, he’s won more than 200 games at Central Missouri.
He still can’t escape Edney.
Fast-forward from 1995 to 2012. Central Missouri leads Central Oklahoma by a point in the final seconds of a regular-season contest. There’s no Tyus Edney on the other end, but it sure feels like it.
“Same play. Not in the NCAA tournament, but we let a guy go the length of the floor. I swear, I think it was 4.8 seconds,” Anderson said. “And that guy got there even quicker, there was like 0.8 seconds left. Someday, I’ll learn.”
Maybe he could have used Corey Tate for advice, like Stewart did in 1995 when he asked his junior college transfer on the bench whether he should call another timeout. Years after the fact, Zetcher said he can’t even remember whether Missouri or UCLA called the initial timeout. Anderson blocked out that memory, too, and said he has no recollection of Tate’s story.
“I don’t remember that conversation,” Anderson said. “Obviously, we probably should have done something differently.”
Stewart could have called a timeout. He could have guarded the inbound. Maybe he could have placed one of the seven-foot Haley twins in front of Dollar. He could have made a different substitution or switched defenders on Edney.
It’s all terrific fodder for the second-guessers in the media and know-it-all fans. It still doesn’t change history.
“It was such a great play by a great player,” Anderson said. “Even though we probably didn’t do a great job defending him, he still made a great play.”
You’ll see the play again on television this Friday. Multiple times, probably. The camera will zoom on Tyus Edney on the bench, and then the montage will begin. You’ll see Cameron Dollar inbound the ball, you’ll see Edney cross halfcourt to his left, dribble behind his back to the right, and heave that layup off the backboard and into the basket. You’ll see UCLA celebrating, Paul O’Liney embracing Cameron Dollar and a Haley twin keeled over on the court, both hands on top of his head, looking helpless.
Tyus Edney says it never gets old hearing about Four-Point-Eight. In Southern California, it’s a wonderful memory, something that never gets old.
But he’s not naïve about how the state of Missouri feels about him.
“I know I’m usually talked about pretty badly. It was … you know … We had to win,” Edney says with a laugh, as though he’s pleading for forgiveness. “What were you gonna do?”
That’s the question Missouri fans have been asking for 18 years.
Originally published by Missouri Sports Magazine on March 5, 2012.
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (Danny Spewak, Missouri Sports Magazine) – The route from Des Moines to St. Louis first winds east through a cast of former coal-mining cities, eventually reaching the Mississippi River near the border of Iowa and Missouri.
It runs from Otley to Oskaloosa to Eddyville to Wayland to Hannibal and finally to Interstate 64 in Wentzville, which leads all the way to the 14th street exit downtown near the Scottrade Center. In all, it takes about six hours to complete, passing through nine rural highways and the boyhood home of Mark Twain.
It is a path Duke McGregar is far too familiar with.
Every year for the last 18 years, the 23-year-old McGregar has made the pilgrimage to the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in St. Louis with his family during the first weekend in March, only to see his beloved Drake Bulldogs let him down on most occasions. Only once, during a dream season in 2008, have they won the title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. Before then, they had never even qualified for the championship game.
Usually, Drake participates in the Thursday night play-in games, set aside for the four worst teams in the league. Sometimes, it wins a game and advances to the quarterfinals, like it did when it defeated last-place Bradley this year. From there, the Bulldogs don’t usually last very long, and 2012 was no different. In the quarterfinals the next day, eventual champion Creighton eliminated coach Mark Phelps’ team with a 68-61 victory.
That hardly mattered to the McGregar family. They didn’t drive through the cornfields of Iowa only to leave after two nights. So as the Drake team bus made the six-hour trip back through Hannibal and Wayland and Eddyville and Oskaloosa and Otley, the McGregars donned their Bulldog blue and settled into their seats at Scottrade to watch the final two days of basketball.
Good thing they stayed.
Had they left, they would have missed an upstart Illinois State team push the Bluejays to overtime in one of the most thrilling finals in tournament history. The fourth-seeded Redbirds, which upset 15th-ranked Wichita State in the semifinal for its first victory over a ranked team in more than two decades, suddenly became icons on national television.
The trip back to Des Moines could wait.
This is exactly why Duke McGregar never, ever leaves early.
“I’ve seen the worst of the worst, and I’ve seen the best of the best,” McGregar said. “It doesn’t matter when we lose. We stay the whole weekend. Either way, you’re going to see a lot of good games.”
“That’s why they call it Arch Madness.” Read the rest of this entry
FRIENDSHIP, N.Y. – In 1908, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series.
105 years later, they are in fourth-place in the National League Central. They have lost eight more games than they’ve won this season. Since defeating the Detroit Tigers in 1908, they have failed to win another championship, leaving them with the unfavorable distinction of enduring the longest title drought in American sports history. A decade ago, they had a chance to reach the World Series, but a fan interfered with a foul ball, the shortstop made an error and the team unraveled to lose the pennant. They haven’t made the playoffs in six years.
Times are tough.
The Town of Friendship was established in 1815. If you think that’s a bizarre name for a city, note that the town was originally named Bloody Corners because of the two gangs who used to fight each other in the middle of Main Street. To ease the tensions, the town changed its name to Friendship in the late 19th century, at which point it became a pinnacle of the manufacturing industry. Doctors, dentists and lawyers lived in some of the large houses downtown. There were shops. A positive, upbeat vibe.
Then the people with money retired and either moved away or left very little money to their children. Over the next several decades, Walmart and K-Mart and Target and Sears opened across the country, and little towns like Friendship, off the beaten path of Interstate 86 in the rural Southern Tier of Western New York, lost most of their local business revenue.
Nowadays, Friendship is ranked by Business First as the poorest town in the region. Most of the residents live paycheck-to-paycheck. About one-fifth of them simply rely on welfare. There is no industry. Beautiful Main Street has mostly transformed into rubble. At the edge of downtown, across from the firehouse and Town Hall, three once-proud buildings have been abandoned for a decade.
Times are tough.
“It is heartbreaking,” said Susan Stickley, the town supervisor.
The people of Friendship aren’t Cubs fans. You’ll spot some of them wearing Yankees hats, but many of them probably don’t watch baseball or even know who the Cubs are. Chicago is 600 miles away.
But they’re just like Cubs fans. At the turn of the 20th century, the Chicago Cubs were one of the best teams in Major League Baseball, and now they’ve gone a century without another World Series. Friendship used to flourish; now it’s floundering. Stickley estimates the town needs about $250,000 to rebuild some of the vacant spots on Main Street, and they’ve set up a group called Friendship Revitalization Economic Development (FRED) in a desperate plea to save their town.
They’re taking any donations.
“We’ll take 10 dollars,” Stickley said.
At least it’d be a start.
“When you have this many people who don’t work, who move to a town like this,” Stickley said, “there is no pride in this town. There is no vested interest.”
“We want to make this what it once was.”
Spoken like a Cubs fan. Except the Cubs and the Town of Friendship aren’t just a random, “sports-to-life” analogy. They are tied together by a real, tangible bond, and it all began in the early 20th century.
And it just so turns out that Friendship might be the reason the Cubs won the World Series in 1908.
In those days, there were no divisions in baseball– just a National and American League. The winners of each league would play each other in the World Series. In 1908, the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs were embroiled in a late-September pennant race. On September 23, 1908, the Giants had runners on first and third in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Giants’ Al Bridwell hit a single, which appeared to score the run from third and give his team the win.
Except the runner on first, Fred Merkle, never touched second base. He tried to escape the crowd, which had rushed onto the field in celebration of the apparent victory. When the Cubs realized they could force him out at second base — and nullify the run — they got the ball to the second baseman so he could step on second base. The umpires stripped the victory from the Giants and called the game a tie, which wound up costing them the pennant and forced them to play a one-game playoff with the Cubs after the regular season. Chicago won, of course, and qualified for the World Series.
The event now has a name: “Merkle’s Boner.” It is one of the most infamous blunders in baseball history, but it wouldn’t have happened without one of the Cubs’ players retrieving the baseball after Merkle missed second base.
That’s where Friendship comes into play.
“There were stories around here,” Stickley said, “that we had a famous ballplayer.”
Wellman Field sits on the edge of downtown Friendship, just a short walk from the school and town library. It has sat in the same spot for a century, and at one point, Stickley said it was considered one of the top fields in all of the Southern Tier. The maintenance crew still does a fine job on Wellman Field, but it is no longer a palace. Instead, it’s just a little-league baseball field with oversized grass, metal bleachers and wooden dugouts.
In 1886, Floyd Kroh was born in Friendship. He started playing at Wellman Field almost immediately, and in 1904, he played for the town team. He was a prodigy. By 1906, he played professionally for the Boston Americans. They promptly released him during the 1908 season.
The Cubs signed him. He rarely pitched, since Chicago’s pitching staff was so talented and Kroh was only a youngster. Known to his friends as “Rube” Kroh, the 22-year-old pitcher officially appeared in only two games during the 1908 season.
But even though he didn’t play much, he was physically present at the Polo Grounds on September 23, 1908. He watched Bridwell single to center for an apparent walk-off RBI hit, and he saw the crowd storm onto the playing field.
Apparently, he also noticed Merkle fail to touch second base. So, as his teammates described to local newspapers, Kroh is the man who stole the ball away from a fan, threw the ball to the second baseman and thus won the Cubs the pennant and subsequently the World Series in 1908.
Most of Friendship doesn’t know Kroh ever existed, nor that he played an integral role in the Chicago Cubs last World Series victory.
“It’s unique to Friendship,” Stickley said. “We try and hang on to those things.”
It’s also fitting. The man who helped the Chicago Cubs win the World Series before 100 years of despair grew up in a town that would also slowly deteriorate.
But Cubs fans don’t give up. They pack Wrigley Field all summer long. Eight games under .500? There’s always next year. They’ll win the World Series again some day, right? It may be 104 seasons and counting without one, but if it happened back then, maybe it can happen again.
If Main Street in Friendship used to have shops, and people, and hope, then maybe that can happen again, too.
“I hope so,” says Scott, sitting comfortably at the diner on Main Street. “But I doubt it very much. It still is a nice town. They have a beautiful school.”
“And they’re great on baseball.”
Not even the Chicago Cubs can claim that.
SOMEWHERE IN NEW YORK – A sign of life. Finally. This is the first living, breathing thing I have seen in at least a half-hour, and it just might be my ticket out of here.
I am lost in Allegany State Park. It is well after midnight, I am facing mini-blizzard conditions on a blistering November night, there are no homes or even cabins anywhere in sight, the radio reception in my car has turned to static, my cell phone and GPS service have cut out, and I’ve resorted to searching for the North Star because I’m pretty sure that’s the only way I’ll be able to figure out where in the world I am. For 30 minutes, all I have seen is snow, snow, more snow, trees, even more snow and, at one point, some sort of body of water.
But finally, a sign of life darts across the road, forcing me to hit the breaks. We make eye contact. He is my last hope for survival.
He appears to be a local to the area, but I am still a bit nervous about getting out of my car and asking for directions. He looks friendly, but looks can be deceiving. I continue to stare at him. This will help me analyze him. Is he good? Is he bad? Is he dangerous? Personally, I’m starting to find him a bit smug. He’s acting like he’s too good for me. He won’t even say a word to me. I don’t even know if we speak the same language.
That’s because he is a deer. The only living thing I have seen in 30 minutes is a deer. I am in the middle of the wilderness, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a state park with a snow-covered road that’s leading me nowhere, having a staring contest with a deer. And it’s taken a comedy of errors for me to even land in this position.
I am in the middle of Allegany State Park because I was searching for a red house. I was searching for a red house because I got lost in the Town of Red House, (which is located just off Interstate 86 and is most famous for, as you might guess, having a red house), and if I was already lost in Red House, I might as well look for the red house. I was on Interstate 86 because I missed the cut-off for U.S. Route 219. I needed to get to U.S. Route 219 North because that would take me back to Buffalo from Olean, which is where the news of the day sent me on this Sunday evening work shift to meet a photographer for a story at St. Bonaventure University. But because of this long sequence of events, I have somehow ended up in Allegany State Park, and if this is a horror movie, I’m surprised I’ve even lasted this long.
I am lost. But I think that’s a good thing, because nobody really ever gets lost anymore. So even though a string of illogical decisions has left me in a rather precarious position, driving around in the snow in the wee hours of the morning with wild deer ready to attack at any moment, I decide to embrace being lost. I can’t call for help because my cell phone has no service. I can’t look up directions on my phone’s GPS system because there is no Internet service here. The visibility isn’t great because of the snow, the roads obviously haven’t been plowed, I have yet to see a single car on this road, and I’m beginning to wonder whether this is even a road at all.
For a change, I’m going to have to figure this one out on my own. They say the millennial generation can’t troubleshoot or think on their feet, so I’ll have to prove them wrong. The first decision I make is to keep driving. If I turn around, there’s a chance I’d get stuck in the snow trying to make a four-point turn, and it also appears to be a one-way route. I figure if I just keep driving, I’ll find some sign of civilization, and at that point I can get back onto the highways.
After miles and miles of driving, I finally see a light. It’s a cabin. And then I see more lights. Houses. I’ve made it! I begin to see cars— all covered in snow, of course. But there’s something funny going on here. All the cars have weird license plates. They don’t look like the ones I’ve become accustomed to in New York. Finally, the winding road takes me from the woods to the center of a small town, but the license plates still look strange.
I couldn’t have.
Could I have?
“You’re in Pennsylvania,” the woman at the convenience store says with a wide smile. “Welcome!”
Improbably, I have arrived in Bradford, PA. The charming downtown area strangely reminds me of East Aurora. It looks just like Western New York – quiet and snowy— except it’s not. It’s Pennsylvania. I tell the woman from the gas station convenience store the exact same story I’ve just relayed to you. She smiles, laughs at the fact that I’m not even in the correct state anymore and then reveals to me that the red house in Red House is actually right next to the interstate, so it’s rather unbelievable that I couldn’t find it (UPDATE: There is no red house anymore in Red House. It was knocked down more than a century ago). Then, she finally put me on the route to Buffalo. Although I could use my GPS for these directions at this point, I’m in an old-school mood, and I like the idea of being the lost foreigner who needs directions from the friendly local.
Two hours later, I’ve crossed state lines back in Buffalo. It’s been a long night, but there is something fascinating about winding up in a place you’ve never been, interacting with people you’ve never met. I think the most refreshing thing about getting lost is that it helps you realize that no matter where you get lost, people are generally the same. A year ago, I was covering a college basketball game in Omaha, Nebraska, and faced a similar situation: I didn’t know where I was, and on my way back to my home in Missouri, I’d gotten confused on the highways and seemed to be on an endless loop to nowhere. When I stopped at a gas station in Council Bluffs, Nebraska, I encountered a mother and two young children, who’d walked a few miles during the pitch-black hours to fetch some gas for their broken-down car. All they had was an orange can. They filled it, and then I gave them a ride back to their car. They were complete strangers, but even after interacting with them for five minutes, I felt like I’d known them for a while. That’s exactly how I felt with the woman at the gas station in Bradford. I mean, here I am, some kid who grew up 1,000 miles away in St. Louis, and we’re laughing like old friends. Whether you’re in Nebraska, Missouri, New York or Pennsylvania, you can find common ground with just about anybody. You can grow up poor, rich, black, white, in the South or the North, the United States or in South America, but the mere fact that you’re a human being allows you to connect with everybody at the most basic level, so there’s really no need to fear getting lost.
I’ve decided I need to get lost more often – preferably during daylight hours next time – because being lost keeps you on your heels. Being lost makes you uncomfortable. And if you’re waddling through life feeling perfectly comfortable with your surroundings every day, you’re probably not living much of a life at all.
Published after the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s 81-71 loss against Appalachian State
His name is Snoop, but you only know that because a strong feminine voice behind you is screaming it on every possession. Stay with him, Snoop! Watch weakside, Snoop! There you go, Snoop! It’s OK, Snoop!
When she’s not yelling, the woman is explaining Snoop’s life story. His brother, Skyler, has a two-year-old son named Josiah. Skyler left home to play basketball when he graduated high school, but he transferred back to a local NAIA school because he couldn’t stand being away from Josiah. He would hear stories about Josiah on the phone from his mother, and he would miss his son so much he could barely stand it.
Snoop used to have braids, but he decided to cut his hair this year. He went to high school at Wyandotte. His nickname has no affiliation to the rapper Snoop Dogg.
You have never met Snoop before, but you already feel like he’s your best friend. The name on the back of Snoop’s white-and-blue UMKC jersey says “Hall.” As in Trinity Hall. The woman behind me is his mother. “Snoop is such a mama’s boy,” she says before the game starts.
When the public address announcer begins his pre-game introductions, you know it’s Trinity Hall’s turn to run on the court even before the booming voice calls his name. “From Kansas City, Kansas…”
On the first possession of the game, the officials whistle Snoop for a foul. A few minutes later, before even the first media timeout, he picks up another foul. Hit the bench, Snoop.
“Snoop used to play with four fouls in high school because they didn’t have anybody else on the bench,” his mother says.
But UMKC has a lot of players on the bench, so Snoop will have to sit for the rest of the first half. His mom is disappointed. So is Snoop’s sister, whose young son is roaming around the stands with an orange whistle in the shape of a basketball. When Appalachian State shoots a free throw, he blows the whistle in an attempt to disrupt the shot. He runs back and forth between his grandmother and his mom, who’s wearing a sweartshirt with the words “Senior ’11” on it. Snoop is sitting on the bench, but his family stays focused on the game. This is a game UMKC can win. It lost by 52 points to Louisville last Saturday and faces Iowa State on Wednesday, but as Snoop’s mom explains, Appalachian State has lost its last seven games.
“They’re playing all these games against these big teams this year,” she says, “But they can win this one.”
They didn’t end up winning. Snoop played only 10 minutes and scored four points. The rest of his team fell apart midway through the second half, so his mom and sister and nephew and girlfriend and other family members will now have to wait a few anxious days for the next game.
Somewhere out there, the families of the other players and coaches involved in this game are watching. If they live nearby, some of them are probably in the Swinney Recreation Center, seeing the action with their own eyes. Others are probably listening to the radio or following some sort of Gametracker on the Internet.
I thought maybe the Korvers would be the kind of people that might make a trek to their son’s game, so I looked for them all over the arena. The Korvers have four sons. Kyle plays for Atlanta Hawks after etching his name in Creighton history as one of the best players to ever come through the program. Klayton played on a Drake team that won the Missouri Valley Conference in 2008. Kaleb played for Creighton, too.
Kirk Korver is the only kid in the family not to play in the Missouri Valley. But, as Snoop’s mom points out, Kirk is just like the rest of his brothers. “They’re all the same, all three-point specialists,” she says.
He missed all three of his attempts from beyond the arc, but you can tell he’s a Korver just by looking at him. Shaggy hair, distinguished features and a demeanor that screams small-town Iowa basketball. The Korvers are from Pella, Iowa, and after Kirk presumably graduates after next season, they’ll no longer have any reason to road-trip across the Midwest to see Mid-Majority basketball games.
Like the Korvers, the Wedels are familiar with Our Game. Near the end of the first half, Snoop’s mom mentions how much she loves number four, Mason Wedel. “I don’t even see him on the bench, though. I don’t know where he is.”
He wasn’t on the bench because he was somewhere more important.
“Oh, wow, he’s actually in the game. Look, he’s on the court,” Snoop’s mom says. “Good.” I remembered a Ryan Wedel from Drake. I couldn’t imagine there were many Wedels roaming around basketball courts in America, and my quick Google search confirmed that the two are in fact brothers. Ryan was a very good player in the Missouri Valley, but his brother is just a freshman. He has a long way to go.
He plays hard, though. “He was diving all over the floor at the end of that Louisville game,” Snoop’s mom says.
I don’t know if the Wedels were in the building on this particular afternoon, but I’m willing to bet they were hiding somewhere among the quiet, relaxed crowd.
I can say with certainty, however, that Jason Capel’s brother was not at the game. Jason, the head coach of Appalachian State and a former star at North Carolina, is not the most famous Capel in his family. That title goes to his brother Jeff, the former VCU and Oklahoma coach who got booted from Above the Red Line and now works as an assistant under Coach K at Duke. Jason looks just like Jeff, except skinner, taller and more baby-faced. Duke doesn’t have a game until Wednesday, so maybe Jeff was watching the game via an illegal stream on a sketchy European website.
Jason Capel may have once played in a Final Four for UNC, but the most recognizable person in the building was a college kid sitting in the fifth row of the stands.
“Am I the only person that notices that Travis Releford is sitting over there?” Snoop’s sister says.
Travis and his brother, Trever, a guard at Alabama, have come out on their day off to watch some of their local buddies play. Snoop’s mom says Trever used to play with Snoop, but she can’t remember where he goes to school. Oklahoma, she thinks. Or maybe Oklahoma State. Doesn’t matter, she says. But everyone in the building knows Travis plays at Kansas. if you didn’t know, you could tell by his bright blue Jayhawk warmup jacket.
When I walked into the bathroom during halftime, I heard a father mutter to his son that Travis Releford was here. “He plays for KU basketball. He’s signing autographs.”
This game was at a tiny student rec center, where popcorn cost one dollar and the guy who made a halfcourt shot at halftime won just 50 dollars. None of the players involved in the actual game were signing autographs. But as I walked out onto the court after returning from the restroom, I noticed a young boy getting his picture taken with Travis in the stands. It looked like a proud moment for his father.
Nobody wanted any pictures with Snoop after the game, but there’s no need to feel sorry for him.
‘He told me once, ‘Mom, I’ve played against a lot of great teams and I’ve done just fine against them,” his mother says. “And if I can just keep playing like this for the rest of my time here, I think I’ll be happy.”
He just needs to stay out of foul trouble next time.
Published for WGRZ-TV and WGRZ.com
CAPTAIN WESSEL WHITTAKER was from Buffalo. The man knew a good waterfront when he saw one.
The one he fell in love with, the one he believed he could build into a lakeside mecca and transform into America’s next major port, he found because of a fluke.
In 1834, Captain Whittaker set sail from Buffalo, N.Y., en route to Chicago, a tiny, new city on the edge of Lake Michigan. He never made it to his final destination. A violent storm crossed his path, sending him scrambling toward the opposite coast.
Washed along the empty shores of the Great Lakes, Captain Whittaker and his crew marched toward civilization. Along the way, something caught the captain’s attention. The Galien River. It ran right into the southeastern tip of Lake Michigan’s waterfront. The intersection of the river and the lake looked like a perfect place for a harbor. There was so much land here, so much water, and the view was stunning. He could build a dynasty here.
Captain Whittaker believed this dynasty could be identical to his hometown. Perhaps it could become an even more impressive replica of Buffalo, which was creating its own momentum as a booming commercial hub on the Erie Canal. With this in mind, Captain Whittaker immediately began plotting his new city. He went back to Western New York with a blueprint, recruited a few of his friends to help, and returned to this shore on Lake Michigan in 1835.
But Captain Whittaker didn’t forget his Buffalo roots. He would always be from Buffalo; he just wanted to make a new Buffalo.
So he named his city New Buffalo.
Officially established: 1836.
Two centuries later, New Buffalo, Mich., still stands. It has endured numerous brinks with economic ruin, and for 178 years, it has watched idly as Chicago, its neighbor seventy miles to the west, has grown from a town of 350 people into one of the most influential cities in North America.
New Buffalo was never supposed to be Chicago, though. It was supposed to be Buffalo.
And, strangely enough, if you look hard at New Buffalo, even all these years later, you’ll still see remnants of the Queen City.
Only a glimmer of sunlight remains over Lake Michigan on the New Buffalo beach, which means one thing for the Chicago suburbanites on this July night: time to retreat for the evening. From Libertyville, Naperville, Wheaton and Arlington Heights, the summer vacationers flock here to escape the monotony of the Windy City burbs. New Buffalo Township’s population technically hovers around two or three thousand, but during the summer, that number just about doubles. Located on the southern border of Michigan, near the intersection of the Illinois and Indiana state lines, New Buffalo provides the perfect getaway location for city slickers.
When the tourists need a break from the beach, they stroll toward Whittaker Street, the central road through downtown New Buffalo. They shop at the Whittaker House and stay in the Whittaker Suites. They tee up at the Whittaker Woods Golf Club. They buy their necessities at the New Buffalo Pharmacy, situated on the corner of Buffalo Street and Whittaker Street. In a peaceful, forested area, off the grid from downtown, there is a short road, no longer than one hundred yards in length, named Elmwood Drive. Like our Buffalo, the City of New Buffalo also has a Clinton Street and an Eagle Street near its downtown, not to mention a Ridge Road, a North Drive and a Jefferson Street.
The church on Buffalo Street in New Buffalo is named St. Mary of the Lake. We have one of those in Hamburg, too, and it might not be an accident, because Hamburg is where Captain Whittaker grew up.
Some of the restaurants in New Buffalo call their chicken wings “New Buffalo wings.” The Liberty Hound is the restaurant on Buffalo’s waterfront. The Stray Dog is the restaurant on New Buffalo’s waterfront.
In Buffalo, the Niagara River intersects with Lake Erie. In New Buffalo, the Galien River intersects with Lake Michigan.
The coincidences are subtle. But they are impossible to miss, and they are a rare, two-century-old connection between two cities that appear at first to have little to nothing in common anymore. To even reach New Buffalo, Mich., from Buffalo, N.Y., a driver needs to travel 474 miles, navigating through five states, three toll roads and a never-ending stream of rest stops, gas stations and rural flyover communities.
In Wessel Whittaker’s days, it may have taken weeks to arrive in Buffalo from New Buffalo. But these days, it’s about an eight-hour drive. They call New Buffalo the “Gateway to Michigan,” because it’s located off Exit 1 on Interstate 94.
Two centuries ago, Bonnie Kliss’ ancestors made a slightly longer commute to New Buffalo. They came from Germany in 1835, and, like Captain Whittaker, they didn’t intend to stay in New Buffalo. As Kliss tells it, her ancestors had set their sights on Milwaukee, but while crossing the Atlantic on the first leg of their trip, they’d also endured a nasty storm. When somebody told them they had to take another boat across Lake Michigan to get to Milwaukee, they wanted no part of it. So they stayed.
Kliss is glad they did. She grew up in New Buffalo, and she has spent her whole life studying her New Buffalo roots. As the bookkeeper of the New Buffalo Township Library, there is probably nobody in this town who knows this place better.
“The old-timers, the people who were here a long time ago, most of them are long gone now. It’s only us descendants,” Kliss said. “If you don’t keep the history alive, nobody’s going to know about it.”
Kliss has read and re-read just about everything ever written about Captain Wessel Whittaker. The library even carries a copy of “The New Buffalo Story,” published years ago as a way to preserve the town history. Drawing on first-hand accounts and information from the Berrien County history book, it describes Whittaker’s storm; his dream; and the new beginnings of a town created by Buffalonians.
“There’s probably all kinds of people here descended from Buffalo, New York,” Kliss said. “Maybe even more than we know.”
At the very least, the road names descended from our Buffalo. The name “Whittaker” is everywhere. There’s also a Willard Street and a Barker Street, named after Nelson Willard and Jacob Barker, two Buffalonians who bought interest on the property back in 1834 for the small price of $13,000.
“Basically, the streets were named after the people who came,” Kliss said. “All the people who came with Whittaker, certainly they must have had family, too. That’s the way it was. You had relatives, and you went wherever your relatives were.”
But the Buffalo pipeline did not last long in New Buffalo. A year after the establishment of the village in 1836, the Panic of 1837 decimated the community. Suddenly, Whittaker and his partners couldn’t sell the land. According to the book Harbor Country, only 123 people lived in New Buffalo by 1840. Whittaker died in 1841 without any money. And by 1842, the population had dwindled to two families.
The railroad offered New Buffalo’s only chance at redemption. The Michigan Central Railroad Company created a terminus in New Buffalo, meaning people could stop here before hopping on a boat to Chicago across Lake Michigan. It pumped new life into the community. The remnants of the booming railroad industry remain to this day, over near the famous New Buffalo Railroad Museum. A rusty sign hangs over the tracks, printed in bold letters: “SAFETY TODAY: YOUR INVESTMENT FOR TOMORROW.”
By 1853, however, the railroad company created a track to Chicago. People didn’t need to stop in New Buffalo anymore. Chicago became Chicago, and New Buffalo remained New Buffalo.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A number of locally-owned shops have carved a niche for themselves in downtown New Buffalo, and new condominiums constantly seem to pop up all over the place. One website has dubbed New Buffalo as “The Hamptons” for Chicago.
Tom Jennings, a lifelong native of Berrien County and the owner of the restaurant Casey’s New Buffalo, jokingly describes the city as essentially a distant suburb of Chicago, because that’s where all the vacationers seem to come from.
“Without the suburbs of Chicago,” Jennings said, “none of the restaurants here would survive.”
It has to feel a tad ironic that, 180 years after Wessel Whittaker created New Buffalo as a rival to the Windy City, his city’s economy now depends on Chicagoans.
Still, some people just get hooked on New Buffalo once they get here.
“There are some people who’ve migrated here and live here full-time now, and absolutely love it,” Kliss said. “A lot of them just wanted to get out of the city. They didn’t want to live in Chicago.”
Many of the vacationers in New Buffalo appeared both bewildered and fascinated by the Captain Whittaker story, but not all the people who live here are oblivious to the Buffalo roots. Charles Burke, a Chicago native, has spent his summers in this area for the past 56 years. He and his wife have even made the permanent move now to nearby Lakeside, Mich.
Burke knew the Wessel Whittaker story. Or, part of it, at least.
“He founded New Buffalo,” Burke said. “He must have been from Buffalo!”
These days, the link between New Buffalo and old Buffalo is vague, and, realistically, somewhat forgotten.
“I don’t think anybody really puts that connection anymore. You know, that we’re named after Buffalo, New York,” Kliss said. “In fact, I don’t know how many people really know that.”
But haven’t you heard? “There’s Always a Buffalo Connection.” Even in a town hundreds of miles away, hundreds of years removed from Buffalo’s original influence, there are small, eerie coincidences all over New Buffalo.
Take James O’Neill, who brings his wife and two kids to New Buffalo each summer from the Chicago suburb of Woodridge. His mom’s best friend lives in Buffalo. More importantly, for the past 25 years, he’s rooted for the Buffalo Bills, and not just in a casual, hope-they-win kind of way. At the very first mention of “Buffalo,” O’Neill’s wife and kids just about jumped out of their skin—Buffalo? You have got to meet my husband, she said.
“Just started following football back then, and I picked the Bills, so ever since, that’s what I’ve been doing,” O’Neill said. “They are everything.”
His five-year-old daughter can even sing “Shout!” The Bills run in the family now, even though his four-year-old son tragically admitted that he likes soccer better. Naturally, there’s a good chance the O’Neill family will be at Soldier Field in September, when the Chicago Bears open the regular season at home against the Buffalo Bills.
“I’m just hoping we have a good year,” O’Neill said. “We’re due.”
There are even more direct connections to Buffalo. Charles Burke’s family lives in Tonawanda. His sister used to live in Lakeview.
“I thought Buffalo was a very nice place,” Burke said. “More like a Midwestern city.”
Burke has visited Buffalo on numerous occasions. Unfortunately, he’s traveled to Buffalo at the wrong time before: during the winter.
“I got snowed in there once for five days,” Burke said. “It’s coming from Canada. You oughta tell the Canadians to stop that snow.”
Buffalo, N.Y., can still be quite foreign to some people in southern Michigan. At the Casey’s New Buffalo restaurant, Jennings said the only Buffalo connection he can remember is the one time he knew a Bills fan.
“We’ve had customers from all over the country,” Jennings said, “but never from Buffalo.”
At The Stray Dog, the New Buffalo waterfront restaurant with a strangely similar name to The Liberty Hound in Buffalo, manager Joey DiMaggio said his only link to Buffalo comes from the confused callers who make Google search errors and think they’ve stumbled across a Western New York delicacy. To New Buffalo, it’s kind of like their version of every Buffalonian’s favorite question: “How Close Do You Live to New York City?”
“They’re trying to Google ‘Stray Dog New Buffalo,’ and they forget the ‘new,'” DiMaggio said. “Buffalo, New York, is obviously the first thing that comes up.”
Martin Lukaszewski, who currently lives permanently in Minneapolis but grew up in nearby South Bend and once briefly lived in southern Michigan, feels a distant connection to Buffalo because of the connection to his heritage.
“There are a lot of Polish people there, and I know they do an excellent Dingus Day celebration there,” Lukaszewski said. “And being Polish, we do Dingus Day in this neck of the woods, too.”
Of course, even our friends in New Buffalo can’t resist a good jab at our weather.
“We don’t want winters like Buffalo, New York,” Burke said.
“Here in this area, when they talk about Buffalo, New York, it’s usually with, ‘well, we get Lake Effect snow, just like Buffalo,” Lukaszewski said. “We get the same thing.”
It’s not like they’ve never seen snow in Michigan, though.
“Last winter, we had a bad winter. We probably had as bad a winter as you guys,” said Kliss, who, upon being informed that Buffalo experienced two blizzards this winter, still wasn’t fazed. “We had more snow if you go back into the ’60s and ’70s. A heck of a lot more snow than we have these days.”
Maybe we have more in common than we thought.
“I love it. We’re the New Buffalo,” Jennings said. “We’re like your sister city.”
According to the history books, the First Methodist Church on Whittaker Street is the “oldest house of worship” in New Buffalo. It was built in either 1861 or 1862; nobody knows for sure.
There are still original structures from that time period, but not many.
“It’s nothing like it was when I grew up here as a child,” Kliss said. “That’s certain. It’s changed over the years. We used to have brick streets; now everything is paved. Everything is more modern, but that goes with the times.”
After a tumultuous wave of highs and lows throughout the 19th and 20th century, New Buffalo finally revitalized its harbor in the mid-seventies. As Harbor Country describes, the creation of Interstate 94 in 1970 also drew a new wave of visitors to New Buffalo. The book describes this town as “the commercial center of Harbor Country’s resorts.”
“Economically, I think everything has been running pretty steady,” Kliss said. “The businesses we have along Main Street are pretty stable. They’ve been there for several years now.”
The recession hurt, of course, but New Buffalo doesn’t have a Rust Belt story or a saga of closed steel mills.
The tale of New Buffalo starts with Captain Wessel Whittaker of Buffalo, New York. It continues through the story of a violent storm on the water, a big imagination on the shores of Lake Michigan and an ambitious plan to re-create the Queen City. Ultimately, the tale ends with the comparison to that city to the west, and that feeling of what-could-have-been, had the Panic of 1837 never happened, or if the Michigan Central Railroad Company had just never built that railroad line to Chicago.
There must be a reason, though, that all those people come from Chicago to New Buffalo during the summer months. It could be the nightlife of downtown New Buffalo, the quaint shops on Whittaker Street, the slow pace of vacation life or the nostalgic ice cream stands.
Or, maybe, they just come for that stunning view of Lake Michigan from the beach of New Buffalo.
That’s why Wessel Whittaker fell in love with this place.
“It may not be exactly what Wessel Whittaker had in mind when he stumbled on the mouth of the Galien 170 years ago,” reads the passage in Harbor Country, “but New Buffalo has ultimately become a thriving, well-known community.”
No, it’s not Buffalo.
It’s New Buffalo, and it has its own backstory.
“You need to learn your heritage and know what happened here, if you’re going to live here,” Kliss said. “I’m proud of it.”
Special thanks to the New Buffalo Township Library for providing WGRZ-TV with access to “The New Buffalo Story,” as well as accounts from Berrien County history books and other literature.
Originally published by PowerMizzou.com
Two basketball jerseys hang from the rafters in Pattonville High School’s gymnasium in suburban St. Louis. Both belong to former Missouri Tigers, two lifelong friends who at one point seemed destined for the same career path.
|Tate finished up at Mizzou in 1997.|
The first jersey belongs to Corey Tate, an all-state selection as a senior in 1992. After initially landing at Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Mo., he transferred to Missouri and grew into a lovable role player with a big, bright smile, best known for slaying Kansas with a memorable game-winning jumper in 1997. Upon his graduation, Tate wasted no time figuring out his life. He latched on to Norm Stewart’s staff as a graduate assistant, and fifteen years later, he’s back at Mineral Area College. He’s the head coach.
The other jersey belongs to Brian Grawer, the leader and point guard for a Pattonville team that finished undefeated in conference play in 1997. He idolized Tate after meeting him in junior high school, and he followed in his Mizzou footsteps by helping the Tigers to three straight NCAA Tournaments from 1999 to 2001. Under Stewart and Quin Snyder, Grawer etched his name into Missouri lore as a fierce, indispensable leader. Like Tate, he was a fan favorite. Smart and reliable, he always made the right play, almost as if he were already a coach on the floor.
So when Grawer took a job as an assistant coach at a small school in Texas after graduating, it appeared he’d take the same track as his idol. He was tailor-made for coaching, and in 2002, the son of long-time Division I head coach Rich Grawer joined Snyder’s staff as a graduate assistant. Except unlike Tate, Brian Grawer came back to Missouri’s program at the wrong time.
When he returned to Columbia, Ricky Clemons happened.
And that’s the story of how the man who seemed almost predestined to coach basketball wound up taking an entirely different career path, leaving for good after just two seasons on MU’s bench.
“That situation just wasn’t something that was enjoyable for players or coaches, or anybody,” Grawer said. “Coaching wasn’t something that after three years of doing it, that I fully loved or enjoyed.”
“I can deal with the path my life is on now.”
Grawer couldn’t have drifted further from coaching. He’s now a salesman at Baxter BioTherapeutics, where he travels across Missouri, southern Iowa and southern Illinois selling an infusion product for a rare pulmonary disease. A decade ago, it would have seemed like a surprising career choice for the quintessential coaching prospect, but his experience at Missouri soured him from the profession. At a very basic level, Grawer likes coaching. He likes instructing, teaching and developing young players, but that’s only part of the battle of Division I coaching. When Clemons stepped on campus in 2002, Grawer saw the ugly side of coaching in his very first season.
There’s no sense in rehashing the whole Clemons story- it’s a painful memory for any Missouri fan. There was a domestic dispute with his girlfriend, jailhouse allegations of illegal payments from Snyder’s coaching staff and a summer ATV accident at the home of the university’s president.
All of it – the questions, the embarrassment, the NCAA representatives conducting an investigation on campus — occurred during Grawer’s two-year stint as an assistant.
“It was tough. I myself was interrogated by the NCAA,” Grawer said. “They interviewed me for an hour, two separate days, and they interviewed the players sometimes for longer than that, the staff sometimes longer than that, too. It was just a different, different dynamic.”
So Grawer, whose father would often come home from Saint Louis University practice drained, stressed and overworked during his childhood, shunned the glory of coaching and settled into a steady sales career and family life. He travels a lot for Baxter, but most importantly, he’s relaxed, a feeling his father never got to enjoy during his career.
“I grew up saying I would never do that to myself,” Grawer said, “and I couldn’t have done that to our kids.”
Coaching wasn’t for Brian Grawer, but it’s a perfect fit for Corey Tate.
“It’s no surprise that he has excelled at coaching,” Grawer said. “He has a smile on his face all the time, and I’m sure his players just love playing for him. And the character of the person that he is, it’s infectious.”
|Grawer played for Stewart, but coached under Snyder.|
Tate’s early coaching experience led him to a different conclusion about the profession. He learned under Stewart, a Hall of Famer, as a graduate assistant and then joined Mineral Area’s staff as an assistant in 2001. In 2004, he ascended to the head coaching position and immediately produced results. He won three conference titles in his first four years, winning 28 games during a banner 2006-07 season to earn him a second straight league Coach of the Year award. He has produced All-Americans and a Division I player in Darryl Butterfield, the tough-nosed forward who bruised his way through two seasons under Mike Anderson at Missouri.
The Cardinals have fallen on hard times during a recent rebuilding phase with two consecutive losing seasons. Unlike the Division I ranks, however, the junior college level presents a different type of coaching job for Tate.
“The kids I’m coaching are survivors,” Tate said. “It’s not that they can’t do the schoolwork but for whatever reason, they didn’t get it done. They just have to take a different route.”
Tate’s position isn’t always glorious, but it’s steady enough to allow him to spend time with his wife and four children. In that respect, Tate’s job doesn’t differ all that much from Grawer, who also has a wife and kids now. The juco level allows Tate to coach at its purest form, away from the bright lights, scandals and rat-race mentality of major Division I basketball.
“I think those kids that I’ve coached are really, really special kids,” Tate said. “I take a lot of pride in trying to get them to that next level.”
He was never a star at Missouri, but his college career carries a lot of credibility with his players- especially that shot he hit against top-ranked and undefeated Kansas in double-overtime as a senior. It was one of those “where were you” moments, a shot so important and so famous it defined Tate’s career as a player. Grawer, then a senior in high school, said he distinctly remembers gluing himself to the television as Tate picked up that loose ball and heaved it into the hoop to send the Hearnes Center crowd into a frenzy.
“That’s the number one thing that a lot of people remember about me but I’ll be honest with you, I just remember practices, plane rides, one-on-one time,” Tate said. “Good people [at Missouri]. Everybody liked everybody. It’s just amazing, all those people’s personalities.”
Tate never directly played with Grawer at either Pattonville or Missouri, but he was briefly on Stewart’s staff during Grawer’s playing days and often returned home to Pattonville during the summers to work with Grawer.
|Mineral Area CC|
|Tate is now in charge at Mineral Area Community College.|
Grawer’s father also recruited Tate to Saint Louis, but even his close bond with the family could not pull him to the Billikens.
“B.G. is like a little brother to me,” Tate said. “We really did play together… spiritually!”
Grawer and Tate both still keep in touch with former Pirates’ head coach Mark Hahn, and they also bug the new coach – former Tiger Kelly Thames — from time to time as well. The two best players in Pattonville basketball history form a unique duo, having both played at Missouri less than a decade apart.
“We were known at the time, and probably still are, as a football school,” Grawer said. “So it’s kind of bizarre.”
As for the Tigers, Tate is still very much a part of the basketball culture because his school is located in the eastern part of the state. Grawer said he has not met the current MU staff, but he did write a letter to Frank Haith upon his hiring in April 2011.
He also tries to make the trip to Columbia for a game at least once a year, even though it’s not so easy anymore with a wife and kids.
“You don’t realize as a player the sacrifice people from St. Louis and Kansas City make,” Grawer said. “Now that I have a family, I have to plan it, like, three months in advance to see if I can get to a Saturday game. You take it for granted when you’re in the middle of it, and you don’t realize the university has such great support.”
More than a decade has passed since Grawer graduated from MU. These days, he’s moved on with his life, even though he still relishes in his accomplishments every so often- like when a Kansas City radio host called him and informed him he was the answer to a trivia question. The man told a surprised Grawer he was the leading scorer the last time Missouri won in Lawrence against the Jayhawks, and with the rivalry on hiatus, “that record will live on forever,” Grawer says.
So will his legacy at Pattonville, along with Tate’s. The school recently honored the two players with a ceremony, pulling the salesman and the basketball coach back together for one last hurrah.
“I’m sure all the kids at Pattonville were like, who the heck are those two guys? I don’t think they have a clue who we are,” Grawer said.
The flight was almost full.
Save for a few open seats scattered throughout the airplane, there were dozens of people awaiting takeoff on an early Monday morning to voluntarily leave sunny, 75-degree Atlanta, Georgia, one of the largest and fastest-growing cities in the United States, for Buffalo, New York, which, on this particular day in September, had a weather forecast calling for a high of 57 and rain showers all day long.
And yet the flight was almost full.
A few rows behind me, a woman sat puzzled, openly questioning why so many people would fill a plane heading to Buffalo. She was simply connecting to another flight out of Buffalo Niagara International Airport, so she wouldn’t be staying long.
“I don’t know why it’s full. Maybe there’s just something really exciting happening in Buffalo,” she said sarcastically, as though it were scientifically impossible for anything exciting to ever happen there.
Although her comment bothered me, I didn’t feel the need to intervene. I sat silently, with a smirk on my face, because I knew exactly what would happen next. The three women in the row in front of me – who I could tell right away were Buffalo natives because of the way they’d been pronouncing “bar” (ba-hr) and “car” (ca-hr) – turned around simultaneously, almost as though it were clockwork.
“But it’s a great town,” one of the women said.
“You should try the food,” says the one in the aisle seat. “Then, you’ll see.”
“It really is a great town,” the other one says.
One innocent comment from that perplexed woman behind me then turned into a heartfelt discussion about which restaurant makes the best wings in the city, how many games the Bills would win this year now that it looked like E.J. Manuel was a competent quarterback and whether people in other cities also use the word “the” before referring to their highways, like The 90, The 190 and The Scajaquada.
We didn’t hear a peep from that woman the rest of the flight.
This attitude, my friends, is why I love Buffalo.
I moved here four months ago from a foreign land called Missouri, which, to Western New Yorkers, may as well be Mars. As I sat on this airplane, I was flying back to Buffalo from Atlanta after taking a trip to visit my older brother and watch our hometown St. Louis Rams play the Falcons. For the first time since moving to Buffalo, it was the first weekend I’d traveled outside of the region and had the opportunity to proudly tell people that I lived in Buffalo now. The reaction is almost universal. Buffalo? I heard it when I originally took the job at Channel 2 in the spring, and my parents say they’ve heard it whenever they tell people they have a son who moved to Buffalo. And I heard it in Atlanta again. Buffalo? They say it with the same inflection that the woman on the plane had– a confused, what-in-the-world-are-you-talking-about expression that bothers me every single time. Why in the world would you move to Buffalo?
When I get this reaction from people, I just smile, look them in the eye and tell them the truth: that Buffalo is awesome, and they have no idea what they’re talking about.
I could try to convince these people by talking about things like the food, Lake Erie, the beautiful summers, the observation deck at City Hall, the architecture, the history, the friendly people, Niagara Falls, the nightlife, Delaware Park or the proximity to Canada, but this traditional recruiting pitch hardly works. To the outsiders, Buffalo is just a snowy wasteland, a place that might technically be in New York but still isn’t New York City. Tom Brady, Willis McGahee, a random guy from the Toronto Star, Dan Marino and countless others have taken public shots at Buffalo, and people soak this stuff up. So when you travel across the country and tell people you live in Buffalo, you get that universal reaction. Buffalo? What’s in Buffalo?
Except this all plays into exactly why I love this place and all of you that grew up here. When you’re told over and over and over and over again that you’re inadequate, you begin to fight back. You begin to form an unbreakable bond with each other and an immense pride in the fact that no matter what anybody else says, Buffalo has a lot to offer. You begin to believe it is a great city, even if nobody else in America can see it. This community has done that. When I tell people here that I’m new in town, you don’t scoff at me or dismiss me. Instead, you tell me where to eat dinner. You ask me where I decided to live and whether I’ve been to Wegman’s yet, because people here care about where they’re from, protect it with all their power and seem to enjoy sharing it with people such as myself, who’ve chosen to make it a new home after moving from somewhere else.
Buffalo is The Underdog City. Coming from someone who grew up in St. Louis, which is constantly told by outsiders that it isn’t Chicago and has nothing to live for besides baseball and Budweiser (which, to our dismay, wound up getting bought out by a Belgian company anyway), I respect this underdog status as much as anybody. So the next time people who aren’t from here tell you how terrible Buffalo must be, don’t even bother wasting your energy by trying to change their minds. Just do what I do. Smile and take pity upon them for missing out. Embrace the fact that you know something they don’t. Embrace this place as a hidden gem, and absolutely refuse to allow other people to define what you’ve created here. Because even when other people are wrong about Buffalo, you know you’re right, and that’s all that matters.
It’s too bad the woman sitting behind me on the airplane was only passing through the airport in Buffalo. She’d probably love it here if she gave it a chance. I have no clue where she headed next. But for the first time since I moved here, I stepped off that plane and didn’t feel like a tourist anymore. I will never be able to claim myself as a true Buffalo native because I didn’t grow up here, but I’d like to ask you to accept me as an honorary member. I get Buffalo. I understand it, I think, because I’m from a city that’s just like this. Just like you guys, we love our sports teams and hometown beer in St. Louis a little bit too much, but we’re proud of what we have and constantly defend ourselves against the outsiders who seem to get a sick, twisted enjoyment out of making fun of us.
Just remember: we don’t live in Buffalo. We live in Buffalo, which is our city, not theirs. And you know what’s funny? On my original flight from Buffalo to Atlanta, the airplane was about half-full. According to the antagonist of this story, that clearly means there was nothing exciting happening in Atlanta.
BUFFALO, N.Y. – The car might have been an Oldsmobile. Or maybe a Pontiac 6000. Maybe light blue, maybe gray. Whatever the car looked like to the only human being alive capable of describing it, police never found it.
In the middle of the night, in the middle of an intersection on the East Side, in the middle of the darkness, a man emerged from a car with a revolver. The gun was definitely gray— the witness seemed certain of that in her interviews with police. It had a long and skinny barrel and a round cylinder, she told police, but the detectives never found this, either. The man holding the gun stood at about 5-foot-8 or 5-foot-9, she thought. He was about 25 years old, black skin, light beard with a goatee, roughly 250 pounds. He had pimples on his face, she said in her sworn statement.
It was May 26, 1997. Memorial Day. About 4:30 in the morning, following a long night out at the clubs. At the corner of East Delevan and Chelsea Place, a man walked toward her red Alfa Romeo and approached the passenger’s side window, where the witness was sitting. Her best friend, Tomika Means, was in the driver’s seat. After a few choice words, the man drew the revolver, pointed it at Means and shot her in the face. She died the next day. Prosecutors said the killer was merely experiencing a fit of road rage, looking for payback after a near-accident on the streets a few blocks back. It was a matter of seconds, the witness later testified under oath. But she believed she knew what she saw that morning, and more importantly, she believed without hesitation that she knew who she saw that morning with a gun in his hand.
In a case without physical evidence, her words put a man in prison for second-degree murder. 2 On Your Side has chosen not to name this witness and was unable to locate her for this story. Her listed address and phone number appear to have changed, but according to a private investigator who spoke with the witness two years ago, her confidence in the identification has not wavered.
She believes she saw a man named Cory Epps on the morning of May 26, 1997, which led to an arrest, an indictment and eventually a conviction. Epps is serving 25-to-life in the Attica Correctional Facility. He was 26 years old when police arrested him. Now, he’s middle-aged.
Two decades later, legal experts are questioning the merit of the eyewitness identification. The Exoneration Initiative, a New York City-based non-profit that focuses specifically on non-DNA cases and wrongful convictions, first learned of Epps’ case from a jailhouse letter.
“Memory is a funny thing,” said Rebecca Freedman, the Assistant Director of the Exoneration Initiative. “Cory is undoubtedly innocent.”
Just as they never found the shooter’s gun or his car, detectives also never found his matching fingerprints. The man who murdered Tomika Means left behind no physical evidence, meaning the key to the Buffalo Police Department’s investigation rested with Means’ best friend and her recollection of the crime from the passenger’s seat. Police showed her the faces of possible suspects on the morning of the murder, but she said with absolute positivity that not one of them was the man she saw.
The next day, on May 27, she worked with police to create a composite sketch based on her memory.
More than a month passed. Means’ murder remained unsolved. And then, suddenly, it dawned upon a relative of the victim that the sketch reminded her of somebody. She told police it looked like Cory Epps, a 26-year-old former Riverside High School student. Based on this tip, police took a picture of Epps and placed it in a photo array to show to the witness on July 7, 1997.
Epps did not have pimples, and he was about 6-foot-2, but he roughly fit the description of that composite sketch from a month earlier. The witness had told police on the morning of the murder that she’d seen the shooter around town, but she didn’t know him personally. And when she saw Cory Epps in the photo array, something clicked.
“That’s him,” she told the detective, according to police records obtained by 2 On Your Side through a Freedom of Information request. “That’s the guy who shot Tomika. I swear to God that’s him.”
The detective knew who Epps was too. He told her his name after she identified him. She told the detective she’d heard of Cory Epps. Police then drove to Epps’ home, took him back to the station, asked him where he was six weeks earlier on Memorial Day and asked him if he killed Tomika Means. No, he said. They asked him why someone would pick him out of a photo array. ‘It’s a mystery to me. I don’t know. This [expletive] is really crazy.’
They asked him if he would stand in a lineup to clear his name. Yes, I will. So a few weeks later, on July 30, 1997, he stood in a lineup. The witness again picked him out. Twice. Police had their evidence; the prosecution had its case. He was arrested immediately, then indicted.
On April 24, 1998, a jury convicted him based on the testimony of the lone eyewitness, even in the absence of physical evidence. When Judge Joseph McCarthy sentenced Epps in June of 1998, he stated in court that “eyewitness testimony, in and of itself, is not the most satisfying of evidence that can be received in the courtroom.”
Epps has long maintained his innocence. I just don’t understand, Your Honor, he said during his sentencing. I look like a description so they slap me in a photo array, I get picked. What can I do? What can anybody do? They find you guilty about something because I look like a picture.
“I know what you’re saying, I hear you,” Judge McCarthy responded. “The only thing I can say on behalf of the court is that you were represented by an able lawyer, that there was full due process within the perception of due process before a jury of twelve.”
Two decades later, on a chilly morning in late January, Epps walked into the visiting room of the Attica Correctional Facility in his green prison jumpsuit. His three children are grown. He’s a grandfather now.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to tell my story,” Epps said. “I’ve been telling it, but nobody’s been hearing it.”
The joke is that everybody in prison is innocent, so when Epps tells people he didn’t kill Tomika Means, not everybody believes him. But some people do.
When Cory Epps wrote the Exoneration Initiative a letter, they listened.
“Considering how the human memory works, it’s problematic when there’s no other evidence to indicate guilt besides an identification,” Freedman said.
The Exoneration Initiative is currently investigating new evidence, with the goal of getting Epps’ case back into the court system. The group has contacted witnesses and hired private investigators to do “old-fashioned legwork,” as Freedman described it. As it probed deeper into its investigation, EXI became increasingly convinced that the eyewitness misidentified Cory Epps in both the photo array and live lineups.
Freedman said the reliance on a composite sketch seemed particularly troubling, considering more than a month passed between the creation of the sketch and the identification of Epps.
“It’s based on a fleeting encounter, and then no other evidence,” Freedman said. “Think about how many times you walk down the street and you see someone briefly, and you could never identify them for any reason in the future.”
The witness told EXI’s investigators a few years ago that she stood by her identification of Epps. Dr. Mark Paoni, a criminal justice professor at Hilbert College and a former Monroe County deputy with more than two decades of law enforcement experience, said the witness identification could have been corrupted by the intense and traumatic nature of the shooting. The witness also told police she had consumed alcoholic four drinks at the bar on the night of the crime.
“To have that amount of stress, of seeing a life taken in front of you, in a dark street when you might be next and you don’t know what’s coming next, and it’s dark out and maybe I’ve had some alcohol, and maybe I haven’t… that’s a lot of stress,” Paoni said. “I wasn’t there, I don’t know all the particulars, but she may really believe that her statements are accurate. That doesn’t mean they’re right.”
Epps simply believes it was a mistake by a traumatized witness.
“To have to go through that, good friend of hers, I couldn’t imagine being in that same situation,” Epps said. “I don’t hate her. Mistakes happen. It’s just that, if you know a mistake happened, you should correct it.”
Tomika Means’ family could not be located either, but 2 On Your Side also contacted roughly a half-dozen police and legal sources involved in both the direct investigation of Cory Epps and his trial in 1998. Sources said the witness was “adamant” in her identification, noting that she never wavered at any point during the investigation or trial. Lawrence Schwegler, the prosecuting attorney in the case, declined an on-camera interview but said he recalls it as a “hard-fought” case. Joseph Riga, the Chief of Homicide at the time, also declined an interview, as did Judge McCarthy.
“I just want them to dig deep and see the truth,” Epps said. “Because these mistakes could happen to anybody.”
“It’s somebody’s worst nightmare.”
Two decades later, the science surrounding eyewitness procedures has changed. The Buffalo Police Department no longer allows detectives who know the suspect’s identity to conduct photo arrays with witnesses, in order to avoid unintentional verbal cues that may sway the witness to pick the suspect. This past September, BPD adopted this “double-blind administration” tactic, which is a major reform effort across the country. It has been slow to catch on in some areas, according to a non-profit called the Innocence Project, but a Freedom of Information request in Niagara Falls shows that it has joined Buffalo by implementing a blind administrator policy.
In Buffalo, Chief of Detectives Dennis Richards said his department has also adopted a new photo array form based on the New York State District Attorney’s Association, which provides explicit directions to witnesses before lineups.
“The process has come along over the years, to more and more be unbiased,” Richards said. “In a way to not insinuate whatsoever who the investigator believes is the person who committed the crime.”
This is a contrast from the investigation into the murder of Tomika Means in 1997. According to police records, the detective who conducted a photo array with the witness in July of 1997 already knew who Epps was. After she identified Epps, the records show that “this writer informs her of his name, and she states I don’t know him but I’ve heard of him.”
Richards was not involved in the Epps investigation, but in general terms, he said any comment after the identification would be unacceptable.
“Not to say you did good, not to say you did bad, not to say you picked the right guy, you picked the wrong guy, or anything like that. Nothing leading at all, even after the process,” Richards said. “So the real answer on that would be that there shouldn’t be any comment after other than, ‘we’ll be in touch.'”
In addition to the procedures, the mere fact of a one-witness case troubles some legal experts. Rebecca Brown, the Director of State Policy Reform at the Innocence Project, said that some prosecutors and police departments nowadays are uncomfortable going forward with only one eyewitness and no corroborating evidence.
“It is incredibly dangerous,” Brown said. “Certainly eyewitnesses can be correct, but a lot of the time, we have very confident – but not correct — witnesses. Obviously, a good investigation would ensure that evidence would be corroborated.”
THE ALIBI AND THE OTHER SUSPECTS
The main point of evidence in the case focused on the eyewitness, but Epps’ defense attorney also tried to poke holes in the prosecution’s case by providing an alibi and alternate suspects. Andrew LoTempio and his team of attorneys, who represented Epps in 1998, argued that Epps was with his girlfriend – now his wife – eating breakfast at a restaurant in Amherst during the time of the shooting. Epps’ girlfriend testified that she was with Epps at Perkins on Maple Road, and she provided a receipt from 5:01 a.m. on the morning of the murder. Police said the shooting happened around 4:30 a.m., so the alibi would have eliminated Epps as a possibility, the defense argued.
But the prosecution said the timeline was perhaps possible, and Schwegler told the jury that the alibi was ineffective because nobody at the restaurant identified Epps and his girlfriend, even with the existence of the receipt.
“The receipt, it tells you what they did, it tells you what they ate. Okay. Who are they? That’s the question. Was he there?” Schwegler argued in court.
Epps believes the prosecution also used his prior drug conviction to destroy his credibility.
“I never had any violence on my record,” Epps said.
LoTempio also questioned the police department’s investigation of other suspects. On the morning of the murder, police found several suspects in cars matching the description of the car and brought them back for “show-up” identifications. The witness did not identify any of them as the shooter, but the defense argued these other suspects should have been investigated further.
But the jury didn’t hear about every other suspect.
In fact, the Exoneration Initiative believes the original jury never heard key evidence, which arose in the post-conviction phase.
“It really pointed to an alternate perpetrator having committed this crime, and that’s an angle we are very focused on investigating right now,” Freedman said.
After the conviction, LoTempio received an anonymous letter from someone named “Pumpkin.” This woman told LoTempio that she knew who the real killer was— a “cruel and heart less man who have to be stopped (sic).” Police had interviewed this woman after the murder of her boyfriend, and she claimed in an appeal that she told the officers that the man who killed her boyfriend also admitted that he killed Tomika Means. The man was eventually convicted of the other murder and is now in prison. Police, however, testified they had no record of “Pumpkin” providing this information during the other murder investigation, and the judge eventually denied Epps’ appeal.
“Whether or not she told police, it does appear the person she told police killed Tomika Means, killed Tomika Means,” Freedman said. “I think there were enough people that knew he did it, that a little more investigation could have narrowed the field a little more, and his photograph could have been put into an array and done a lineup.”
“Unlike the case against Cory, there would have been evidence out there to corroborate an identification of him based on a composite.”
Freedman said the man they believe committed the murder looks similar to Epps. According to records obtained by 2 On Your Side, the witness to Means’ murder admitted to a private investigator that this alternate perpetrator had a “definite similarity” to Epps.
“But the composite sketch is vague enough that it could be either of them, or countless other people. And that’s the danger of a composite sketch, because the witness is comparing them to the composite sketch, and not necessarily to their own memory,” Freedman said.
Epps didn’t want to publicly share his theory on an alternate perpetrator.
He said he’s just concerned with clearing his own name.
“I don’t believe the Exoneration Initiative takes on cases it doesn’t believe in. I believe God’s got his hands on me,” Epps said. “It’s time for me to get out of here.”