They lived in an old dorm in downtown Poplar Bluff and, because they didn’t have a gym on campus, had to practice either at area high schools or at a state youth correctional facility.
And yet from those humble beginnings rose the 1979 Raiders of Three Rivers Community College, the school’s first men’s basketball team to win the juco national tournament.
Some 13 years later in 1992, Three Rivers won it all again, this time with – get this – seven players who went on to major NCAA Division I teams.
All in all, call them special, thrilling and full of excitement. And now call them members of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, which is proud to induct coach Gene Bess’ 1979 and 1992 NJCAA national tournament teams with the Class of 2016.
The teams will be honored during the Enshrinement in Cape Girardeau, set for a noon reception and 1 p.m. luncheon and ceremony on Sunday, November 6. (See ticket information below.)
“It was kind of like everything aligned at the right place and the right time,” said Thurlon “Sam” Weaver, the MVP of the 1979 National Junior College Athletics Association Tournament. “We had a pretty good team the year before, with Otto Porter (father of the NBA’s Otto Porter Jr.) and Danny Foster, and only two guys were coming back.”
The 1979 team included assistant coach Roger Pattillo, Don Brown, Mark Guethle, Robert Kirby, Sylvester James, Marvin “Moon” McCrary, Dale Purnell, Milton Woodley, Pat Niemcyzk, Chuck Johnson, Dwayne Walker, Wes Murray and manager Rick Alsup. Assistant coach Herb Slate had recruited McCrary, Kirby and Woodley out of the Memphis area.
“We only had seven or eight guys who played,” Bess said, noting injuries took a toll. “We had to dress two managers if we got into foul trouble. … And I remember going into that season, the newspaper in town predicted we were be right about .500. That was a motivator.”
The team finished 38-3, beating Mercer County 60-59 in overtime for the championship on Woodley’s free throws with 10 seconds left.
So many breaks fell the Raiders’ way that March. They scored a 109-103 double-overtime win in the semifinals against Western Texas, then guided by future Arkansas Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson and featuring future NBA standout Paul Pressey. McCrary’s 20-footer sent the game into a second OT after.
“That was 40 minutes of hell before ’40 Minutes of Hell’ came to Arkansas,” Weaver said.
Weaver’s own 20-footer sent the championship game into OT, where McCrary hit one of two free throws off a controversial technical foul – Mercer got whistled for installing a player not listed in the scorebook. That made it a 58-58 game, a point that proved significant just minutes later.
“We had great team chemistry and no selfishness,” McCrary said. “And we played defense. If you know anything about Coach Bess, you know you play defense before you play offense.”
Bess’ 1992 team finished 35-3 record and featured seven future NCAA Division I players: Anthony Beane (Kansas State), Justin Wimmer (Memphis), Shone Peck-Love (Alabama), Brian Blackburn (Arkansas State), Benjy Johnson (Idaho State), Belvis Noland (Kansas State), Brian Price (Mississippi State). Eric Schweain (D-II Northwest Missouri State) was the two-guard, and the team included Mario Beamon, Isaiah Hart, Todd Wulf, Thad Rancher, assistant Tom Barr and trainer Thomas Brundage.
The Raiders, who opened the season ranked No. 1, got blown out in their regular-season finale. “We just had our worst loss of the season,” Schweain said, “and I remember Coach Bess saying, ‘Some of you think you are tired. You are not tired. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’m not tired. You will overcome adversity and get through this.’
“He was always great at putting things into perspective.”
In the national tournament, the Raiders beat Daytona Beach, Fla. (88-82), Sullivan, Ky. (102-99), Southern Idaho (76-74) and topped Butler County, Kan., 78-77 in the championship game.
In the semifinals, the Raiders rallied from a 21-point halftime deficit. At that point, Beane spoke up, saying, ‘Fellas, we’re going to win this game.’” That they did, thanks to scoring a number of 3-pointers to pull even just minutes into the second half. In the championship game, Beane’s jumper was the game-winner before Wimmer sealed the win with a blocked shot.
It was a magical ride, to say the least.
“For whatever reason, we all ended up at Three Rivers,” Schweain said. “It was a great group of guys who came from different backgrounds. And we just blended together.”
Enshrinement in Cape Girardeau
What: Missouri Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2016
When: Noon reception & 1 p.m. luncheon & ceremony on Sunday, Nov. 6
Where: The Show Me Center, Cape Girardeau
Missouri Sports Legend: Three Rivers Community College basketball coach Gene Bess
Inductees: Blake Dewitt (Sikeston/Dodgers/Cubs/Braves), James Wilder (Sikeston/Mizzou/Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Mark Littell (Gideon/Royals/Cardinals), Eddie Moss (Poplar Bluff/Southeast Missouri State/St. Louis Football Cardinals), Dr. Rick Wright (Sikeston/Mizzou/St. Louis Blues), track standout Miles Smith (St. Louis/Southeast Missouri State), high school basketball coach Lennies McFerren (Charleston/New Madrid), softball coach Lana Richmond (Southeast Missouri State), soccer/basketball coach Brad Wittenborn (Notre Dame High School), high school football coach Bob Stolzer (Ste. Genevieve), Capahas semi-pro baseball program (Cape Girardeau), the Scott County Central High School boys and girls basketball programs (Sikeston), the Valle Catholic High School football program (St. Genevieve), and the 1979 and 1992 Three Rivers Community College men’s basketball teams (Poplar Bluff) that won NJCAA national championships.
President’s Award: Poplar Bluff attorney Joe Scott, a former Gainesville/Mizzou basketball standout
Tickets: Call 417-889-3100. An individual ticket is $125. A table of eight is $1,250 and includes autographed print of Coach Bess, an autographed print of the induction class as well as sponsorship recognition at the table and in the printed program. Numerous sponsorships are available, too, such as congratulatory ads.