Curses, Foiled

I am prone to belief in the divine, but not the supernatural. I recognize the existence of coincidence, happenstance, and random events of bad fortune. Never in my life have I believed in curses. Except when it comes to the Missouri Tigers.

There are the lightning bolts of cosmic scorn that even casual fans know: Colorado’s fifth down, Nebraska’s kicked ball, Tyus Edney’s zero-to-heartbreak in 4.8 seconds. There have been other moments, equally powerful but more obscure, like first round NCAA flameouts against Rhode Island and Northern Iowa back when I’d never heard of Rhode Island or Northern Iowa (geography, alas, was not a strong suit). And then there were those times when we were made to pay for our prosperity, like when the undefeated, top-ranked football Tigers lost their shot at the national title by falling to Kansas in the 1960 season’s final game, only to have the game futilely forfeited back later. Or Norm Stewart being blindsided by cancer at age 54 in the midst of a season in which he had one of his best and toughest teams. Or 2002, when an ascending basketball program welcomed Ricky Clemons to town and became a national punch line. Sadly, I could go on. There’s more where that came from.

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Despite what rational thought tells you, sometimes you have to believe your eyes. When water falls from the clouds, it’s rain. When calamity pours from the sky, it’s a curse.

After one remarkable week in Kansas City, though, I proclaim Mizzou to be cleansed. The curse is over.

It started on a Sunday night, in a reborn downtown, in a shimmering building, when Norm Stewart took his place in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. As the coach stood at the podium nearly nineteen years after beating cancer – and helping countless others do the same through his charitable efforts – you knew that he was blessed. He was surrounded by family, including Virginia, his wife of fifty-one years, and his son Lindsey, who gave a world-class induction speech, full of the humor and fire he inherited from his dad. Coach Stewart also was joined by the other starters from his high school basketball team, and by members of the Stalcup, Faurot and Devine families who brought him back to Columbia in 1967. And he was surrounded by his players, Tiger titans like John Brown, Willie Smith, Steve Stipanovich, Jon Sundvold and Derrick Chievous, who won eight league championships and eleven conference tournaments (five old holiday affairs, six post-season events) in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. To see this living history mingling in the same room, it was plain that the good times have far outnumbered the bad, and hard to fathom that we might ever have considered ourselves unlucky, let alone cursed.

It continued the next night in the same building, when the Tiger basketball team played eleventh-ranked Michigan State. I had heard laments that years of scandal and mediocrity had crushed fan enthusiasm, as evidenced by only 5,000 turning out to see the Tigers play Central Michigan on a Monday in Columbia. But what I saw in the Sprint Center suggests that the problem may be playing Central Michigan. On a Monday. In Columbia. In Kansas City, against a top-flight opponent, an overwhelmingly pro-Mizzou crowd of more than 18,000 turned out, and those fans were fierce and hungry for success. And though the Tigers’ rally from sixteen points down fell just short, they played with purpose, and the crowd loved them for it. The next night, when those fans returned to see the Tigers drill Maryland – a program with a national title this decade – it was plain that Mike Anderson’s team is immune from the voodoo of Mizzou’s recent past.

Then, on Friday, already surrounded by a family of Tigers in town for Thanksgiving, I drove to the airport to meet my friends Scott (in from Denver) and T.J. (New York). In recent years, with the demands of careers and families, our gatherings had been limited to weddings and funerals. But with our alma mater’s football team set to play its arch-rival in the year’s biggest game, we ran out of excuses not to get together. As we caught up and remembered winter nights at the Hearnes Center and spring Saturdays at Simmons Field, I realized that the Missouri Tigers had blessed me with the chance to share time with these great friends.

And then, of course, came Saturday night. I’ve never seen a stadium so electric, or a Tiger team so self-assured. From my perch on the verge of 40, it’s easy to forget how young these guys are. Chase Daniel and Martin Rucker are barely old enough to remember the past’s great disappointments. They don’t believe in curses, they believe in each other. When Stryker Sulak and Lo Williams fell down like hard rain on Todd Reesing to secure a heart-stopping triumph, I looked to my right at my wife, who has shared the joy and despair of Tiger sports with me for nearly two decades, and I saw relief. I looked left at my father-in-law, who played on that star-crossed 1960 team, and I saw vindication. Then, as I thrust my hands in the air and looked up into the night sky, from which no calamity had fallen, my mind drifted to the elegant toast T.J. made at Scott’s wedding. Traditionally, he said, the guests bless the newly wedded couple. But when a bride and groom like this share their moment, they bless us.

Missouri Tigers, you bless us. The curse is dead.

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