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The rise and fall of Cecil Estes

The Hickman basketball star helped define a generation of athletes

February 21, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Cecil Estes, then a junior at Hickman High School, dunks against Hannibal in February 1982. He helped lead Hickman to the state final four one month later. Missourian File Photos.

On March 6, 1981, in a raucous Rock Bridge High School gym, the Bruins and Hickman Kewpies boys basketball teams met for the first time. Administrators had never allowed an intracity game until then, hoping to prevent a divided Columbia. This time they had no choice. The state playoff bracket forced them into the same gym, going head-to-head for the district title and the right to move on.

The game wasn’t just the first meeting in a budding cross-town rivalry. It also featured some of Columbia’s finest players. The late ’70s, early ’80s era saw a wellspring of basketball talent in mid-Missouri, but fans had never had a chance to see it all come together in one place. Artificial boundaries had deemed some Kewpies and others Bruins and denied the community the show it wanted. Until now.

“Everybody in Columbia went to that game,” says Maverick Jordan, who was 9 years old when he saw the game. “Everybody. It was standing room only, and that was one of the best games in Columbia that anyone has ever seen.”

Senior forward Ron Nunnelly led the Bruins. Nunnelly, who was averaging more than 30 points per game that season, would go on to a hall-of-fame career at the University of Central Missouri, and he played several years professionally overseas. Junior guard Charles Lane had made a name for himself at Hickman; he later played at MU. A slew of other gifted athletes filled each roster.

But perhaps the biggest reputation in the gym belonged to an unassuming sophomore forward for Hickman, a 6-foot-4-inch pogo stick named Cecil Estes, maybe Columbia’s best basketball player that ever — and never — was.

“It was like man walking on water, man,” Jordan, Cecil’s cousin, says. “He was just that good. Just seeing him play, it was unbelievable. Unbelievable.”

The Cecil Generation

An entire generation of Columbians has been born and raised since Cecil last graced the hardwood at Hickman High School or the Hearnes Center. Times have changed. The city has nearly doubled in size. Douglass Park, once the proving grounds for mid-Missouri’s best basketball players, has become an afterthought in Columbia basketball culture. A third high school is set to open next fall; presumably, no administrators fear the repercussions of another athletic rivalry.

But one thing has remained constant for the post-Cecil generation of Columbians. They have never borne witness to a basketball talent like him.

Both Hickman and Rock Bridge have had talented players over those 30 years. Josh Kroenke helped lead Rock Bridge to a state final four in 1997. Lance Harris was an all-state player for Hickman in 2003. Ricky Kreklow and Travis Jorgenson, like Kroenke before them, each took Rock Bridge to third-place finishes in the state tournament in recent years, and the Rock Bridge girls team took home state titles in 2008 and 2012. But none of them could captivate an entire community. They didn’t help define a generation. None of them were quite like Cecil.

Despite that, memories of his exploits have faded. Once a high school all-American who turned down a host of college basketball blue bloods to play for MU, Cecil dropped out after just one season and left behind worlds of untapped potential and legions of fans wondering what could have been. Those legions quickly dwindled; today, more than half of Columbia’s population was born after Cecil played his final game.

Cecil spent his adult life working construction and as a janitor at Jefferson Junior High School. In 2002, almost 20 years after leaving MU, the father of three sons died of an undisclosed illness. He was 37 years old.

In 2011, Cecil’s name began to re-emerge thanks to a charity game held in his honor. The local annual event raises money for a scholarship, but it also increased interest in Cecil’s basketball legacy. An occasional news story reflected on his brief career, but there were still unanswered — maybe unanswerable — questions.

The era that helped create Cecil and his contemporaries was a special time in Columbia hoops history, current Hickman Head Coach David Johnson says. “There was a hunger,” he says. “There was just a desire to really want to be the best and compete against the best, and Columbia was kind of a mecca of basketball in those decades.”

MU was at its peak, winning four straight Big 8 titles from 1980 to 1983, and players from all around mid-Missouri would come to Columbia to play pick-up games at Douglass Park. It was like Columbia’s own little Rucker, the historic Harlem basketball court.

Douglass doesn’t draw talent like that today, though, for multiple reasons. Jordan points to drugs infecting the neighborhood. Johnson, who returned to Hickman three years ago, points to national trends. “You don’t see as many players out in the parks playing,” he says. Instead, parents worry about their kids getting in trouble. Coaches worry about their players getting hurt. Gone are the days when kids teach one another the game in unstructured environments.

“With time,” Johnson says, “everything changes.”

A Local Legend Begins

View A Map of Cecil's Columbia Playing Grounds in a larger map

The inaugural crosstown basketball game between Hickman and Rock Bridge might have been the first big public stage for Cecil, but his legend had been growing already. He was dunking in games at West Junior High School, and around that time a friend gave him the “Magic” moniker, after Magic Johnson. It didn’t take long for much of Columbia to hear about the rising young basketball talent.

Cecil had been playing the game for only a few years by then, but he’d already received an education on the court. Cecil, his older brother Rodney Estes, Nunnelly and others grew up together playing in MU’s Brewer Fieldhouse and at Douglass Park. More than he probably knew, these adolescent games would help define Cecil. Those courts are where he became the player he would be.

From his peers, Cecil learned how to grab a rebound, how to value each possession, how to compete. How to win. On those courts, a loss might mean you were done for the day. The informal structure taught him the game, and in that win-or-go-home world, it wasn’t long until Cecil was king. One thing he never picked up from those pick-up competitions, however, was the bravado often associated with modern street ball.

“You know how some people talk about themselves or want people to talk about them?” Jordan asks. “He was the opposite. That’s one thing he never did. He never said: ‘I can do this, I can do that, I’m the best. Nobody can come close to me.’ He was more in the background. He talked everybody else up before he talked himself up, and sometimes he didn’t say anything about himself.

“He was raised that way. He was just a modest person. He was loyal to his friends and his family.”

And those friends and family loved him dearly. All of Columbia did, it seemed. Johnson, a senior at Hickman when Cecil was dunking on junior high courts, was no stranger to the hardwood himself. After high school, he was a first-team All-American at Arkansas Community College, an honorable mention All-American at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., and a professional in Australia. But he wasn’t Cecil. “I can just remember how Cecil was such a legend in the community when it came to basketball,” he says. “Everyone thought so highly of him.”

One of the first major decisions Cecil had to make was one familiar to even the most unathletic of Columbians — Rock Bridge or Hickman? Transfers were more common then. At Rock Bridge, he would have the opportunity to play with his older brother Rodney, but at Hickman, he would face bigger schools and better competition.

He chose to be a Kewpie.

As a sophomore at Hickman, Cecil quickly grabbed a starting position. By the time the district tournament rolled around at the end of the season, he’d established himself as a dominating force on the court. In the district semifinals against Jefferson City, he scored 18 points, including two thunderous dunks. That set up the first-ever meeting with Rock Bridge.

The Bruins entered the game undefeated and ranked first in the state. They had size. They had athletes. And with Nunnelly, they had one of the top scorers in the entire state. But Cecil was the one everyone was talking about.

“Everybody was saying Cecil was going to do this and Cecil was going to do that,” Rodney Estes told a Tribune writer following the game. “Well, I decided I’m going to do it, too.” Columbia’s first intracity showdown became an intrafamily battle.

Cecil wasn’t even the best Estes that night. Although he finished with a team-high 22 points, Rodney, fueled by a familial desire to top his little brother, bested him by two points, leading Rock Bridge to a 60-56 win.

That was the last time Cecil would lose to Rock Bridge.

By January of the following year, Hickman had established itself as one of the top teams in the state. The Missouri Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association voted the Kewpies fourth in 4A in the first poll of 1982. Like Hickman, Cecil had taken his own game to a higher level. Not only was he an exceptional athlete who could score points, but he was also a facilitator with a flare for the dramatic. Behind-the-back passes and game-saving blocks became commonplace, and he continued to grow as a scorer. He could always put points on the board, but as a junior he began making those points count at crucial moments. In the state playoffs that year, a Cecil steal and transition slam gave Hickman a two-point lead with a minute left in sectionals. In the third-place game the next week, he dominated the first half then set the tone for the second with two big dunks. Whenever his teammates needed him, Cecil was there.

His exploits soon drew the attention of some of the biggest names in college basketball. Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. Georgetown’s John Thompson. Dean Smith, the legendary North Carolina head coach. All hall-of-fame coaches, and all made overtures. Cecil, however, wanted to stay home. He loved the idea of being a local hero. In November of his senior year, he signed to play with Norm Stewart’s Missouri Tigers.

After a standout career, Cecil Estes (far left, second row) signed with Norm Stewart’s MU Tigers in 1982. He played one year at MU and spent the next season at Moberly Area Community College. Photo courtesy of MU Athletic Department.

Cecil’s quickness was one of the first things Stewart saw. It was an unexpected kind of quickness, the kind where you didn’t notice he was about to make a move until after he’d done it, Stewart says. “Cecil was an outstanding athlete,” he says. “Outstanding athlete from the standpoint of balance, he was good with the ball, could handle it, dribble it, could jump, quickness. All those attributes. And I liked his demeanor. To me, he was an excellent competitor, but he didn’t show a lot of emotion.”

Cecil also had the added benefit of being local. Stewart says he liked recruiting players from Missouri, especially those in Columbia. He wouldn’t take a player just because he was a local kid — he had to have the talent, too — but in-state players brought something extra with them. “When you have someone like that, he has a following, and there’s a lot of things that go with the following,” Stewart says. “He wants to do well for them, they want him to do well, and hopefully you can put that together, and he will do well.”

One of the few things Cecil didn’t have, Stewart says, is a great outside shot. He’s hesitant to make direct comparisons between players, but he does point out a parallel between Cecil’s freshman season and that of another Tiger player. “It’s like when Melvin Booker was a freshman,” Stewart says. “He wasn’t a prolific scorer for a number of reasons, but one of them was range. So (Cecil’s) in that category.”

As a senior in 1994, Booker was a first-team All-American and led MU to an undefeated conference season.

Even without a great outside shot, Cecil was able to carve out an important niche with the team. He started 10 games, was fifth on the team in minutes, sixth in scoring and third in assists and steals. He did a little bit of everything.

MU opened the season against North Carolina, led by Michael Jordan. Stewart doesn’t recall Cecil spending much time defending the future NBA star, but he didn’t rule it out. “He would have been quick enough,” Stewart says.

That quickness came into play later in the season at Dayton. “They had a chance to beat us if they could score on one of the last possessions,” Stewart says. “Cecil played it so well that this guy, it looked like the guy threw the ball to him when he really didn’t. He was just in a great position, and he stepped up, caught it with both hands. He didn’t knock it down and steal it. He caught it with both hands.” Stewart laughs as he recalls the play.

It wasn’t the only crucial move Cecil made that night. With seconds on the clock and Dayton ahead by two, Cecil drained a short jumper to tie the game and force overtime.

But neither compared to the shot Cecil hit against Iowa State. With seconds left and the Tigers trailing, he launched a shot from near the half-court line. It went in, nothing but net — one of the biggest shots of his Tiger career.

And also one of the last.

Asphalt Artistry Redux

Cecil left MU at the end of his freshman season. He played the following year at Moberly Area Community College, joining his brother Rodney at the school; the 1984-85 team, which finished the year ranked third in the nation, still holds the MACC record for most wins in a season. And then Cecil’s college career was over. As talented as he was, he never loved the classroom, and he didn’t graduate from Moberly. Neither Stewart nor Jordan believe Cecil lacked academic ability. But for reasons no one seems able to explain, he failed to graduate. Without the degree, he was unable to transfer to another four-year college.

He didn’t stop playing ball, though. The hardwood courts on college campuses hadn’t suited him, so he returned to his roots. For the rest of the ’80s, Cecil and his friends did what they’d always done — dominated games at Douglass and anywhere else they could find competition.

They had a multi-year run mowing through opponents in the Show-Me State Games. “For years, I can count on both my hands, I think, they won it back to back,” Jordan says. “It was just one of the best teams to come out of Columbia.”

They’d find games in unexpected places, too, visiting various penitentiaries in the state to play against inmate all-star teams. Cecil struggled to deal with the expectations of being a collegiate athlete. The pressure, friends say, might have been too much. But in these unstructured environments, these freewheeling games that had always allowed him to flourish, Cecil was still king. It didn’t matter who the competition was. Felons with mean streaks and little to lose? No sweat. MU stars making a quick trip down Providence Road to test their mettle against Columbia’s finest? Next. Cecil wasn’t just an athlete. He was an artist, and these courts were his canvas.

But what’s a great painting if so few get to see it? This wasn’t how Cecil’s story was supposed to end. His love for the game had never been an issue. The expectations that came with greatness, however, were a different story. The pressure of pleasing everyone was too much for Cecil to handle; he couldn’t block it all out and just play, Jordan says. Cecil’s personality wouldn’t allow him to distance himself from the needs of his community, which were plentiful. He was expected to be a savior, to bring the community up with him, and the weight of that crushed him.

“I think from seeing him and talking to him, you could hear there’s more pressure,” Jordan says. “He was wore out from everybody putting everything on his shoulders, for him to come out and be this and be that instead of saying: ‘Hey, take your time. You be you.’”

Johnson, who knew Cecil well through basketball circles and common friends and relatives, says he understands the kind of pressure a player can face when he stays at home. “The best move I made was to leave Columbia,” he says, “and I think with Cecil, probably sticking around here affected his growth as a person as well as a basketball player because he was around too many friends, too many family. I think a lot of people would probably agree that maybe the best thing would have been for him to leave and get away.”

For many great athletes, and even some mediocre ones, the admiration of a community can be their undoing. They convince themselves they’re invincible, that hubris becoming their fatal flaw. Not only was Cecil a modest competitor, but he was also a selfless one. It was that selflessness, some say, that leaves people still wondering what if.

“I think if he would’ve went and said, ‘Hey, I love Columbia, I love Missouri, I love my family and my friends, but I have to take care of me,’” Jordan says, trailing off. The thought of what could have been, even three decades later, hurts. Maybe if Cecil had done this. Maybe if we had done that. Maybe he would’ve made it to the NBA and used that success to help the community he came from. But no one seems to know exactly what went wrong. Just that something did.

The pressure that comes with being a star athlete isn’t unique to players who stay at home, though. It happens everywhere, Stewart says. “When you’re in athletics, you have people who are going to try to influence you because they want to be either noticeable themselves or whatever reason,” he says. “You always have that, so you have to make judgments. Sometimes maybe his judgment wasn’t that good. But that was his decision.”

The allure of big-time college athletics and someday the NBA, the stress of supporting a community and dealing with would-be hangers-on — Cecil apparently decided he could live without either. Nowhere Cecil could have gone would have given him what the asphalt courts at Douglass did. “It gave him a chance at freedom to be himself instead of having to do what everybody else wanted him to do,” Jordan says. “So when he got on the court, it’s him being free.”

Recapturing the Culture

Cecil soars for a jump ball against John Frerking, then with Rock Bridge High School, in January 1982. Cecil, a junior, led all scorers with 18 points in the 59-32 Kewpie win. The cross-town matchup was a rarity at the time.

Next week, Hickman, the top-ranked team in Missouri, will host the Class 5, District 9 tournament. It’s been 30 years since Cecil roamed the high school courts of Columbia, and though his legend has faded, no one has stepped up to claim his crown, but for a few days in February, five teams will convene on Columbia to try.

It took Columbia awhile to catch up to an evolving basketball culture. The community struggled to adapt to a post-street basketball world. There were still good players and good teams, but the culture wasn’t there to breed another transcendent talent. The culture wasn’t there to create another Cecil.

But Columbia’s basketball outlook is beginning to change. For almost 20 years, Johnson has worked to rebuild a foundation in youth basketball through Midwest Sports Challenge, which offers basketball training for kids as young as 3 years old, and those efforts are beginning to pay off. Basketball on the south side of town also took a step forward in 2003 when Jim Scanlon returned for a second stint as the Rock Bridge head coach; he previously led the Bruins to a third-place state finish in ’97. Concurrent with his return was a sort of revolution in south Columbia basketball, and for the next decade Rock Bridge would compete at the highest levels in Missouri.

Mike Petrik, a great-grandson of MU football legend Don Faurot, was one of the first standouts to help turn around the Rock Bridge program; he was a freshman in Scanlon’s second season. Petrik was also involved with a regional summer team that traveled to tournaments and allowed him to compete against some of the best talent in the nation. Finally, Columbia was making inroads into the basketball infrastructure that had replaced the old-school model. Petrik, who had year-round opportunities to play for a variety of teams against top competition, was emblematic of a step forward for mid-Missouri hoops.

“Going into my junior year, I was getting quite a few letters,” Petrik, now a student at Utah State, says. “I was getting letters from Colgate. Wisconsin was the No. 1 biggest name at the time. ... It’s hard to make it to the next level if you’re not playing year-round.”

He never did make it to that next level. More important than what he didn’t do, though, is that the system to achieve those ultimate goals was in place. Although he didn’t accomplish everything he hoped he would, he says he never lacked support or felt he needed anything that wasn’t there, which has not always been the case.

“There are some great players that are coming up now,” Johnson says. “I and many other people in this community have taken it upon ourselves to try to re-establish some of that old-school method as far as taking pride in who you are, what you are, where you’re from and wanting to compete against the best.”

The groundwork laid in recent years has continued to pay off. Kreklow signed with MU shortly after Petrik graduated from Rock Bridge; he’s since transferred to California, where he has missed all but five games this year with injuries. Jorgenson, who transferred to a New Hampshire prep school for his senior season, will play at Georgia Tech next year.

Other young players with college potential are coming up through the ranks, including Hickman sophomore Jimmy Whitt, the latest big name to emerge. Through 24 games, Whitt is averaging more than 18 points per game and leads mid-Missouri in steals — almost Cecil-like numbers. Johnson says Whitt has a great basketball mind and a lot of maturity for a player his age.

As future generations of Columbia athletes battle for hardwood supremacy, Cecil’s legend still looms. Cecil died more than a decade ago. The sanctuary at Second Missionary Baptist Church on East Broadway was filled to capacity for Cecil’s funeral. Johnson says he had to stand during the service and recalls people listening from outside. Stewart, who spoke at the ceremony, says the service was a celebration of Cecil’s life, and any time a person dies so early in life, “It’s a tragedy.”

For years Cecil remained enigmatic at best among those who weren’t witnesses to what he did. Recent efforts to resurrect his story have introduced him to a new generation, and Johnson has emphasized the history of Cecil and other Hickman greats with his players.

“I think it’s one of those stories that probably needs to be told more to many of our kids to make them realize that there was someone out there who was recruited by the Missouris and North Carolinas,” Johnson says. “Some of the top Division 1 programs in the country were interested in Cecil. He chose a different path, and maybe sometimes we need to think about the decisions that we make.”

Cecil’s story should not serve as just a cautionary tale. He didn’t ask to be a savior, but he was blessed with singular talent. He had the right blend of gifts at the right time in Columbia’s basketball history to become a paragon of athletic excellence, but he was also imperfect. No, Cecil didn’t become the star college player and NBA legend so many hoped for, but Stewart doesn’t think that makes him a failure or his gifts any less impressive.

“He was able to accomplish obtaining a scholarship to a major university on a basketball team that was in the top 15 programs in the country,” Stewart says. “That in itself is a very good accomplishment.”

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