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Archive for Saturday, March 6, 2004

MU ready to leave Hearnes

Kansas final opponent to visit Tigers’ arena

March 6, 2004

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Norm Stewart's scores of Hearnes Center moments and memories are intertwined with the more than 300 victories he notched there. None, he insists, is more precious than the other.

When the arena made its debut Nov. 25, 1972 -- a date Stewart still recites by memory -- he coached the Tigers past Ohio. More than a quarter century later, it was at Hearnes where Stewart walked away from coaching, his legend evidenced by the hardwood floor bearing his name and the rafter banner honoring his retired No. 22 jersey -- a nod to his 1950s playing days at Missouri.

Hearnes had been a trusted friend to Stewart, the comfy spot where his Tigers went 344-58 -- a gaudy .856 winning percentage.

Come Sunday, in the same fashion his stepping down in 1999 passed the torch to the youthful Quin Snyder, Stewart plans to return for one last cheer for the site giving way to a bigger, better $75 million arena to open next season.

"I'm a great believer in change. It's a part of life," Stewart said in anticipation of the Hearnes finale, fittingly against archrival Kansas. "Hearnes has served us well, and it's still a great building. But we have a new building coming, and it'll be one of the best in the country, if not the best. It's time to move on."

Hearnes isn't really going anywhere. It will still be used for volleyball, gymnastics, indoor track and wrestling, trade shows, concerts and other events.

But the place always was about basketball for a program that is 403-70 under its roof.

Stewart, with 634 victories in 32 seasons at Missouri, is loathe to single out his favorite moments or players, insisting "if you do that then you leave out somebody. That's the toughest part."

Under Stewart's watch, the Tigers won eight Big Eight regular-season titles. Willie Smith averaged 25.3 points in 1975-76, helping produce Stewart's first league title and the school's first league crown since 1940.

Steve Stipanovich and Jon Sundvold led Missouri to four straight league titles in the early 1980s. Missouri clinched the second one in February 1981 by holding the ball for the game's final seven minutes against Kansas State.

From March 1988 to early December 1990, the Tigers peeled off 34 home wins in a row. In Stewart's final game at Hearnes, on Feb. 19, 1999, Missouri defeated Iowa State.

On Sunday, Missouri will recognize Stewart and invited players of the program's glory days. A commemorative poster and oversized ticket will be handed out to fans. KU players suspect the observance will have MU pumped up for the regular-season finale.

"Kansas-Missouri, last game in the Big 12, last game in the Hearnes Center -- the table's set," Kansas junior Keith Langford said, calling Hearnes' farewell "obviously a motivational tool for them."

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