There’s a pause before Mike Anderson walks onto the court.
Arkansas sprints out of the tunnel after the starters are introduced, but their coach isn’t with them. He’s standing in the visitors tunnel as the home fans boo his team, knowing his reception will be even more unpleasant.
He walks out, head down, high-fiving players while cameras flash in his face and boos ring in his ears.
This is what Anderson gets from Missouri fans now that he’s at Arkansas. He had fans’ admiration and respect when he was coaching the team they love. Since he’s left, they’ve jeered. The coach who said he would never leave returned to Mizzou Arena on Tuesday night and received the reception one might expect for a coach who left the program he helped resurrect.
A spewing vitriol of obscenities and disgust from the 15,000-seat arena that houses Missouri basketball.
"I think most coaches, when they come here, they get booed," Anderson said. "I didn't know what to expect. This is a basketball game, that's where you are. You got fans of basketball. Emotions sky-high. Passion. That's what — there's passion again. When I got here, it was empty. All of sudden now, its changed. That's good, I think that's good."
For Anderson, that passion is collateral damage. He led Missouri to an Elite Eight in 2009, had two mildly successful seasons afterward and then fled Columbia for Arkansas.
"I said the purpose was to do what's best for me and my family," he said. "That's a tough decision, and I still say that. But that's what it was — a tough decision."
That his arrival came on senior night didn’t help matters much for the former Missouri coach.
The jeers from fans didn’t wait until the game. They started days before on Twitter, and once the gates opened Tuesday night, they were at the arena.
The sign was simple but hard to miss. A fan in the student section was waving it around frantically. And no, the sign wasn’t of a senior athlete’s face or a thank you to anyone on the team. No, it was Anderson’s picture with a thought bubble next to him.
“I’ve made a huge mistake,” it read.
Even when Missouri went up by 15 points before the half, the hate didn’t end.
As Missouri shot a free throw, echoes of “Anderson, you suck!” circled the stadium, loud enough for the man himself to briefly glance away from the game.
"When I came in here, I told (Missouri Athletic Director) Mike Alden 'I will make you look good, I will do the job and I will make it be one of the top programs in the country," Anderson said. "I told him that it's going to be a brand, and that brand is going to be the kids are going to be first class. They're going to graduate, and they're going to do the right things on and off the floor. Five years later, I think we did that. Not only that, we changed their lives. I think we're changing guys’ lives. I think that's something that's getting missed out on."
“I never expected it to happen”
Ever since Anderson first recruited him from St. George's high school in Memphis, Laurence Bowers has stuck by his former coach. He avoids negative comments about the man who brought him to Columbia and ducks questions he doesn’t feel he needs to answer about their relationship.
After five years and two knee injuries, Bowers finally got his senior night. When he first signed with Missouri, Bowers imagined Anderson would be a part of his final Missouri game — but he didn’t think he would be coaching against him.
Although Bowers was surprised by Anderson’s abrupt departure from Missouri, the two remained close. Unlike his former teammates, like current NBA player Kim English, Bowers never spoke unkindly of Anderson. Before traveling to Arkansas to play the Razorbacks on Feb. 16, he discussed their relationship.
"I never thought (he would leave) when I came here," Bowers said. "I never expected it to happen."
Anderson was in Columbia last May to celebrate Bowers’ graduation from Missouri with a B.A. in Sociology and has been a constant presence in Bowers’ life.
Bowers said Anderson still sends text messages to him, sometimes to check how he’s doing and other times to congratulate him on a good game.
At the end of Tuesday night’s game, Anderson and Bowers shook hands for the second time this season. Not as a team, but as opponents.
"That was special," Anderson said. "That was saying 'I'm so proud of you. He is my son. That's special, that's really special. I was touched by that."
But just like Anderson was at Bowers’ graduation, he showed up to senior night for the player he jokingly said he brought to Missouri as “a basketball infant.”
“It goes beyond basketball,” Bowers said. “He’s the coach of the family.”
Frank Haith took over for Anderson and had one of the best season in Tigers history, posting a 30-5 mark and leading MU to a Big 12 Conference Tournament championship in his first season.
But that doesn’t mean he wants to talk about playing against Anderson. The day before the game, he refused to take questions about Anderson’s return, only agreeing to discuss senior night and that week’s slate of games.
He said he wasn’t worried about the politics and storylines of the game. He cared about the seniors going out with a win and not much else.
Tensions were high for the two bench bosses, and they engaged in some tense exchanges throughout the game. They both brushed it off.
“I'm emotional, and I was emotional for my team,” Haith said. “I was encouraging my team, and I think he thought I was saying something else, but I was only talking to my team."
For Haith, the win over Anderson wasn’t about showing superiority over his predecessor. It wasn’t about getting back at the team who beat them in Fayetteville about a month ago. Haith wanted it to be about the senior class going out with a home win, and that was it.
"It was just an intense game in terms of we needed to get a conference win,” Haith said. “I did talk to our team about dialing down the emotion. Obviously, you're not in your normal routine.”
Rivalry Starts Here
Arkansas didn’t leave Missouri with a win, and that’s the only thing that seems to bother Anderson. It’s not the fans jeering at him and mocking what he saw as a major life decision. Like Haith, Anderson isn’t worried about anything outside of winning the next game.
Once Missouri completed its perfect record at home, Anderson shook hands with the home team and retreated back to the visitor’s locker room.
"It ain't just basketball with me," Anderson said. "Even as I'm gone, it ain't just basketball with me. So when you talk about regrets, I have no regrets being at the University of Missouri. The people were great to me and I thought my family and I appreciated the time we had here. We did the best we could do and, as a coach and as a person, that's all you can do."
This isn’t the last time Anderson will have to deal with Mizzou Arena, but he isn’t letting his memories cloud his current agenda.
"I think in life sometimes you gotta move forward," Anderson said. "That's what I've done."
He can bear it. Just as Bowers said, it goes beyond basketball.
As the Razorbacks filed off the court after the loss, Anderson let his entire team pass him. Assistant coaches followed by players and finally team medical staff walked by as the coach slowed his pace, making sure there was no one behind him.
Anderson patted a player, hung his head and headed to the locker room. Last one on, last one off.