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Mizzou's Greatest, #34: John Brown

The Savitar

HIs name doesn't do him justice. The only way it could be more forgettable is if his last name were Smith, like a couple of Mizzou's other greatest players ever. But when Michael Atchison posted his rankings of the top Mizzou basketball players of the century a while back (it's already been seven years??), Brown came in at No. 4, ahead of Derrick Chievous, ahead of Anthony Peeler, ahead of Jon Sundvold and Ricky Frazier, ahead of George Williams. He came along at a time when Mizzou needed a name-brand player, and he was everything the Tigers could have hoped for.

More than any other player, John Brown elevated Missouri basketball to prominence in the 1970’s. A rare blend of fire, finesse, strength and savvy, the six-foot-seven-inch, 220-pounder from Dixon, Missouri was Norm Stewart’s first marquee recruit and the prototype for so many others on this list – big, skilled, relentless and fearless. The big blond was a power forward with a soft touch, which he demonstrated as a sophomore when he averaged 14.9 points and 9.3 rebounds after missing the season’s first eight games with an ankle injury. Fully healthy as a junior, Brown dominated, leading the Tigers to their first 20-win season ever and their best winning percentage in 42 years, as he averaged 21.7 points and 10.5 rebounds per game and was named first team All-Big Eight. That summer, he earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic basketball team but did not play in the fateful Munich games because of an injured foot. Healthy again as a senior, Brown earned all-conference and All-America honors as he led the Tigers to another 20-win season in their first year in the Hearnes Center. His career averages of 19.7 points and 10.0 rebounds per game rank third and fourth, respectively, in Missouri history. Quite simply, a dominant player.

The 1969-70 Missouri team, Norm Stewart's third in Columbia, finished 15-11. It was Mizzou's best record since 1956. The Tigers knocked off Arkansas, Indiana, SLU, Arizona State, Texas A&M, and, most importantly, Kansas. It was a potential sign of what Stewart could produce at Mizzou, but it was also problematic: Six of the top seven players on the team were seniors. But in 1970-71, powered by a single senior (Henry Smith, another dynamic, memorable name) and an infusion of youth (including a certain sophomore from Dixon), the Tigers surged to 17-9 overall, 9-5 in the Big 8. The next year, they finished 21-6, reaching as high as 14th in the AP poll. The next year, they again finished 21-6, ranking as high as fifth and finishing 15th.

The supporting cast, with players like Smith, Al Eberhard (a star in his own right), Mike Jeffries, and Gary Link, was capable and important. But the reason for the surge was Brown. He was dominant in ways a Mizzou player had not been in 50 years, if not ever.

From Atchison's True Sons:

Coaches from far and wide visited little Dixon, Mo., to see the 6’7" kid with uncommon intensity and uncanny skills. Missouri was not the most successful program to recruit John Brown, but it was close to home, and the Tigers had a young coach with whom he could relate, another tenacious blond from a small Missouri town who built his legend in Columbia. As Norm Stewart recuperated from back surgery in 1969, Brown visited the hospital and made a commitment that invigorated the Mizzou basketball program. "Brown may have felt some sympathy for me," Stewart later quipped, "but I was willing to have surgery again if it meant signing someone like John."

Actually, I want to share a longer passage from True Sons as well. It's one of the best in the book, and it tells you everything to know about the legacy Brown left behind. From his senior year:

At 6-4 in league play, the Tigers traveled to Lawrence. After trailing by 18, they staged an astonishing rally. In the second half, as a deluge of paper cups pelted the Missouri bench, the Tigers ran the Jayhawks out of their own gym. Brown and Eberhard combined for 49 points and 37 rebounds in a 79-63 triumph. As he bounded toward the locker room, a jubilant Norm Stewart surveyed the projectile-hurling crowd and hollered "The worst fans in America!" In the win, Brown moved into second place on MU’s all-time scoring list, just 23 points behind Charlie Henke. A fairly ordinary effort in Mizzou’s next game could secure the record. But Brown’s performance was anything but ordinary.

Jumpers from the elbow, turnarounds from the baseline, finger rolls at the hoop. Eighteen minutes in, Brown had already scored 22 points.

Oklahoma State came to town, and with echoes still ringing in his ears, Brown destroyed Andy Hopson. While Charlie Henke watched, Brown unleashed his entire arsenal. Jumpers from the elbow, turnarounds from the baseline, finger rolls at the hoop. Eighteen minutes in, Brown had already scored 22 points. Then, shortly before halftime, he flicked a spinning jump shot from the free throw line. The bucket put Missouri up by 14, and brought the game to a halt. The Hearnes Center crowd rose to salute the most prolific scorer in school history. After the delay, Brown continued to pour it on. He finished with 41 points and 19 rebounds in a 79-73 win, a historic performance on a historic day.

After dropping a game at Iowa State, the Tigers came home for senior day for Brown, Jeffries and Salmon – and Brown went out fighting, literally. Early in the second half, Brown and Nebraska’s Don Jackson exchanged a flurry of fists before being ejected. Junior forward Gary Link responded with 21 points and 11 rebounds to lead MU to an 86-70 win that secured a share of second place in the Big Eight, and earned the 21-5 Tigers a spot in the National Invitation Tournament.

Mizzou opened against Massachusetts, and suffered a terrible blow in the game’s first minute when Felix Jerman crashed into a basket support and ruptured a tendon in his knee. John Brown, ever heroic, stepped up and made 13 of 16 shots from the field on his way to 35 points and 16 rebounds. But he got too little help, and in the game’s critical moments, Missouri faltered. Late misses from the field and the line spelled the end of the Tigers’ season and Brown’s career. Mizzou bowed out of the NIT, 78-71.

A fighter, a tenacious rebounder, a program savior, and, at the time, the program's best ever scorer. Yeah, I would say John Brown belongs pretty high on this list. He should perhaps be even higher.