I almost reserved a spot in the Greatest 100 just for that picture. It is a classic, one I remember seeing (and loving) before I came to school at Mizzou, one I remember seeing at Brady Commons for years, and one I still love now. It really is a thousand words in a snapshot, describing Melvin Booker's career at once. There's Booker, moving forward more quickly than those around him, celebrating an accomplishment rare to both Mizzou and, really, college basketball.
Melvin Booker was the poster boy for the "[recruiting] stars don't matter!" set, a player who went from a pass-first freshman point guard on a team loaded with weapons (Doug Smith averaged 24 points per game that year, and Anthony Peeler averaged 19) to an "everything to everyone" senior. He always played major minutes (28.5 per game as a freshman, 34.8 as a senior), scored when he needed to score, passed when he needed to pass, logged nearly 150 steals, and even blocked a few shots. He was more efficient than a guard is supposed to be as a senior, shooting 41 percent from 3-point range while still passing first, distributing the ball to Mizzou's many weapons, and becoming the face of Missouri's 14-0 run through the Big 8. He is a Mizzou legend if ever one existed.
Throughout the year, Melvin Booker had been Missouri’s best player. At Kansas, he made a case for being the best in the league. Mizzou trailed by eight points with less than nine minutes to play when Booker took over. He scored 10 points in a 90-second span to bring MU even with the fourth-ranked Jayhawks. Then he kept scoring. Seventeen of Booker’s 32 points came down the stretch of an 81-74 win that clinched at least a share of the conference title. After the game, Norm Stewart focused on the total team effort. “We dug ourselves a hole, and everyone had a part in getting us out,” he said. But Kansas coach Roy Williams praised the kid from Moss Point, Mississippi who had come to Missouri as an unheralded recruit less than four years earlier. “Melvin Booker was sensational,” Williams said. “All those recruiting experts, it shows how much those guys know.”
Little fanfare accompanied Melvin Booker’s arrival in Columbia. Norm Stewart discovered the unassuming point guard from Moss Point, Mississippi, while recruiting a more heralded peer. Good thing he did, because Booker spent the next four years maximizing his ability as well as any player in the Stewart era. A starter as a freshman, Booker deferred to Doug Smith and Anthony Peeler on the court. But he began to come into his own as a sophomore, averaging 11.6 points and 3.9 assists. With Peeler’s departure after the 1991-92 season, Booker assumed leadership of the team. His 15.8 points per game led the club in his All-Big Eight junior season. But it was Booker’s remarkable senior season that sealed his place among Mizzou’s all-time greats. His averages of 18.1 points and 4.5 assists per game do not begin to tell the story. On his way to becoming the Big Eight Player of the Year and a second team All-American, Melvin Booker imposed his will on each game, hitting every clutch shot in a season that saw the Tigers go a perfect 14-0 in the Big Eight and advance to within one game of the Final Four. Though his career began in virtual anonymity, it ended with Booker ranking among the greats in Missouri Tiger history.
The first time I ever saw Missouri play in person, I left with two favorite players: Mark Atkins, whose seven no-conscience 3-pointers staked Missouri to a 104-94 win at Oklahoma on February 5, 1994, and Melvin Booker, who smoothly guided the ship in the most hostile of environments. He both scored 18 points and took a backseat to hot teammates like Atkins, Jevon Crudup (25 points, 15 rebounds) and Paul O'Liney (20 points).
At that point in the season, Missouri was still a bit of a question mark. They had not lost in quite a while, but they were ranked just 20th in the country, and they were not yet halfway through their undefeated run through the Big 8. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from them, but they blew me away with their confidence, their explosiveness, and their cool under pressure. Tied at 89-89 with just over two minutes left, Mizzou went on a 13-0 run, sparked by an Atkins 3 and some Booker free throws.
In many ways, Booker's storied career as a Tiger mirrored two other recent Mizzou greats: Marcus Denmon ... and Brad Smith. Like Denmon, Booker let the game come to him, absorbed every lesson he learned, and turned into an incredible leader over his final two seasons. Like Smith, his impact-to-fanfare ratio was incredible. At a time when Mizzou was bringing in blue-chippers like Doug Smith and Anthony Peeler, Booker, who would almost certainly have been a two-star recruit had Rivals existed in 1990, allowed Mizzou to thrive when both stars (and others) had left. The photo above is one of the most famous in Missouri's basketball history, and there is no more deserving a star than Booker to have been in it.