So here’s the moment when I absolutely knew that my team was special.
It was back in January. My Missouri Tigers were playing their first Big 12 game of the year. Mizzou had been written off during the summer, when the Tigers lost Laurence Bowers — an All-Conference-caliber power forward — to a knee injury. The Tigers were playing small ball, with nobody on the team above 6’8”. Kim English, a 6’6” shooting guard, was being asked to guard players who were anywhere from three to seven inches taller than him.
And then something weird happened: The Tigers clicked. I was there in Kansas City the night Mizzou beat Notre Dame by 30. The next night, against the Pac-12’s best team, Cal, the Tigers won by 40. I was there in New York when the Tigers steamrolled Villanova at Madison Square Garden. By the time the calendar hit 2012, Mizzou was 13-0 and ranked #6 in America.
I was there in the stands for the Big 12 opener. Mizzou beat Oklahoma by 38, and it was memorable mostly for being such an absurd display of offensive skill. But one play stands out.
There’s 1:17 left in the game. Mizzou’s got three walk-ons in the game, and we’re up 85-49. Our point guard, Mike Dixon, takes a runner and misses. Oklahoma gets the rebound and the run-out. It’s a one-on-none fast break, and Oklahoma’s going to get a meaningless layup.
Except that Mike Dixon starts running. There’s no reason for him to; the team’s up 36, and he plays 30+ minutes a game for Mizzou. Nothing good ever comes from trying to make a play here.
Except that this time, something does. The Oklahoma player slows up for the layup, and Dixon — all 6’1” of him — comes flying from behind. The shot goes up, and Dixon swoops in and blocks it into the fourth row.
Michael Dixon is not a shot blocker. He has blocked five shots in three years at Mizzou.
And yet, there he was, chasing down a player shooting a meaningless bucket in an already-decided win. It was as tremendous a hustle play as I’ve ever seen.
That’s when I knew I loved this team.
One of the things I’ve learned in my 20+ years of watching college basketball is how to recognize when a team is great. Great teams don’t come around every year. It takes talent, and it takes effort, and it takes desire, and it takes a kind of chemistry that you need to see to understand. Few teams have it.
I’ve only seen a few teams in my life that were truly, truly special. But as soon as you saw them, you knew. And you didn’t miss a game.
You don’t miss an opportunity to miss that kind of magic. You have to understand in the moment that they might not be around much longer. When the spark’s there, you can’t not watch.
That’s why I went to Kansas City and New York this year to watch my Tigers. It’s why I snuck into the student section for the final Kansas game this year. It’s why I flew to Austin to see us beat Texas(1). It’s why I’m in Kansas City today for the Big 12 Tournament, and it’s why if Mizzou ends up in New Orleans for the Final Four — and I think we will — I’ll go, even if it means driving all night to get there.
My fellow Mizzou fans, I fear, don’t understand how special this team is, and they might not until after the season is over. They are witnessing an amazing season, but they don’t have a frame of reference to understand it. One day, they will.
Just not this year.
But when they do, they’ll never fail to recognize it again. I feel so blessed to recognize the moment my Tigers are in right now. I know that sounds absurd, but understand: At its core, I watch sports to be inspired. I watch sports for the moments when someone does something that I’ve never seen before — and couldn’t have even imagined until that very moment.
And in those moments, there is an absolute joy in knowing that I’m watching my fellow man push himself to limits that defy all explanation.
And so, yes, I feel blessed to watch a Tiger team as special as this, in a season an amazing as this. When you understand the moment, you’re willing to make sacrifices to appreciate something as special as this.
And yes, understanding the moment goes beyond basketball. Two years ago, in San Antonio, I realized that there was a big conversation happening in journalism, and I wasn’t a part of it. I didn’t yet understand my role, but I recognized the moment. And I did something a little bit — okay, a whole lot — crazy to give myself the time to appreciate and be part of the moment.
Moments like that pass all too quickly. I’ve let the pitch go past before, and I wasn’t going to do it again.
That’s why the Dixon chasedown block versus Oklahoma was so amazing. It was the surest sign that my team had started to understand the moment.
See, the greats don’t take plays off. They have one setting:
I saw Dixon’s block, and I knew: These boys would not quit. Ever.
Meaningless layup? To the fans, maybe. But not to those players. There is no quit in those players. They may not win the National Championship, but I know they will not quit along the way.
After all, they understand the moment, too.
- I’m the tall guy in the yellow shirt in the bottom right corner of that screengrab, above. ↩