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Some of the royalty of Missouri State men’s basketball returned to campus earlier this month for what is set to become an annual alumni gathering. Topping the list was Curtis Perry, considered by many to be the greatest player in school history.
Asked what it’s like when people call him the greatest Bear — or GOAT — Perry answered with a serious face.
“They’re right,” the 74-year-old Perry said, before busting out a few seconds later with a belly laugh. There are different ways of looking at the term, he explained.
“I tell people who ask me, who’s the GOAT? Lebron James or Michael Jordan? I say the GOAT is Muhammed Ali,” Perry said. “There’s no more discussion about who’s the greatest.”
‘We were the greatest’
As for being the Missouri State GOAT, Perry said it’s about more than just him.
“I had a niche with rebounding and the great teams I played on that made me stand out,” Perry said. “As much as is attributed to me is attributed to my teammates. We were the greatest.”
The record book backs up the 6-foot-8 forward, who played at what was then Southwest Missouri State from 1966-70 and helped the Bears reach the NCAA Division II national championship game in 1967 and 1969.
Perry’s jersey No. 54 hangs in the rafters of Great Southern Bank Arena and his statistics have stood the test of time. He is No. 3 on the school’s scoring list with 1,835 points and his 1,424 rebounds are 291 more than runner-up Danny Bolden. Perry averaged 13.6 rebounds a game for his career and set a school record that might never be broken, with 31 rebounds in a February 1970 game against Texas-Arlington.
“He was dominant and he was determined,” said Andy Newton, a Springfield native and Bears standout from 1974-76, who rarely missed a game Perry played in McDonald Arena.
Perry went on to play eight seasons in the National Basketball Association with the San Diego/Houston Rockets, the Milwaukee Bucks (where he was a teammate of the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the Phoenix Suns.
A back injury in 1978 wound up ending Perry’s NBA career. He finished with averages of 9.5 points and 8.8 rebounds in 480 career games.
Game has changed, but key is the same
Reflecting back on his college and pro career during his Springfield visit, Perry said how the game is played has changed over the years, but one key element hasn’t. Teamwork, he said, is the common thread in successful basketball teams. He spent a few minutes during his visit speaking to the current Bears about that subject.
“I said the best thing you can do is make your teammates better,” Perry said. “Don’t worry about who scores the most points, who gets the most rebounds or who gets the most publicity. In this day and age, publicity rules more than anything else. You can be really successful when you make your teammates successful.”
Perry said having good teammates and a supportive coach in Bill Thomas was the key to his development when he arrived in Springfield in the fall of 1966 from Washington, D.C.
“When I got to SMS, I was 17 years old and had played a year and a half of varsity high school basketball,” Perry said. “I grew and matured here. I learned how to play college basketball. Fortunately, there were seniors that allowed me to grow.
“I didn’t have any burden of any weight on my shoulders. I could pick up things, I could learn and I could play. I didn’t have to carry a team. I couldn’t anyway because I wasn’t that good at that point.
“Being allowed to develop, that’s what I remember most of all. If it wasn’t for my teammates, I wouldn’t have been as good. That’s not just blowing smoke, that’s the truth.”
Perry said it’s a bit surreal when he returns to Springfield and people still remember him for what he and the Bears were able to accomplish.
“It’s flattering,” he said. “They remember that I worked hard. I would go out and I would play hard, I practiced hard. Coach Thomas would have to drag me off the court after practice because I wanted to be better. I wanted to be the best.
“To see that people 50 years later appreciate that part, that’s one of the most flattering and appreciative things.”
Seeing how much the campus has changed, 52 years later, is striking to Perry.
“I cannot believe this is Southwest Missouri State, as it was called in those days,” Perry said. “One of the things that is so impressive is how people remember me. I cannot believe that after 50 years, half a century, I still have a little bit of an impact.
“Where they play today (Great Southern Bank Arena) is so impressive. It makes it look like UCLA out here. It’s a wonderful looking place. I’d love to have played there.”
Became a teacher after NBA career
Perry now is retired and living in the Phoenix area, but after his basketball career, he went to become a school teacher back in Washington, D.C., for more than two decades. He taught fourth grade and laughed about when students learned he used to play professional basketball.
They often asked if he knew Lebron James or Michael Jordan. No, he told them, but he used to play with or against Hall of Famers such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and John Havlicek, among others.
“They had no idea, but their parents did, and they would tell their kids to Google me,” Perry said, laughing. “You can Google anything. And they found out there actually was basketball before Michael Jordan or the 3-point shot.”
Google also will tell you that Perry was involved in one of the great games in NBA Finals history in Game 5 of the 1976 finals. Boston beat Perry’s Phoenix Suns 128-126 in triple overtime to take a 3-2 series lead. Perry is remembered for making a pass to Garfield Heard, resulting in a buzzer-beating shot to tie it at the end of the second overtime.
Perry had 23 points, 15 rebounds and 6 assists. Those numbers are largely forgotten due to the pass to Heard.
“My man Garfield Heard says he made me famous. Which he did,” Perry said. “That’s another thing. I made the pass and he made the shot. He says he made me famous. I’ll take that.”