SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- 2003 to 2005 could be considered the "Golden Era" of prep hoops in the Ozarks. Three Southwest Missouri boys teams captured state titles (Kickapoo, Ozark, Marionville), while an amazing six Southwest Missouri girls teams took home top hardware (Kickapoo, Ozark, Republic, Stockton, Skyline, Chadwick).
While there will always be debate, it's hard to argue that the 2002-03 Kickapoo Chiefs are Southwest Missouri's all-time best team (with all due respect to the "Jolly Green Giants" of the early 1960's). Veteran head coach Roy Green led the Chiefs (30-1) to the class 5 state title that year, 65-43 over Raytown South; finishing the year ranked 12th in the nation by USA Today. One who has seen a lot of basketball during his lifetime, Green believes whole heartedly the 02-03 Chiefs are the all-time best.
"That question has come up, is this the best team, and my answer is yes, and I've seen them all," said Green, who won 588 games during his Hall of Fame career.
Anthony Tolliver, then a power forward for the Chiefs, now a veteran NBA player, echoed Green's sentiments.
"Not a question. Not a question," said Tolliver. "Name one team that had four or five D-1 players. You couldn't match that size and athletic ability and shooting. If you name another team that's even close I'd be surprised."
To fully respect their talent you would need to see them play. However, a deeper analysis of the roster certainly gives credence to the high billing.
6'1" point guard Spencer Laurie led the way. Later named "Mr. Show-Me Basketball", Laurie spent two seasons at Mizzou before finishing his career as a three-year starter at Missouri State.
6'5" shooting guard Kelly Byrne stretched the floor with his sharp shooting perimeter game. Also a top notch defender, Byrne went on to start all four years in college, including two national tournament appearances at D-2 St. Clous State.
6'5" small forward Deven Mitchell was best known for his high flying dunks. He later became a top 20 scorer at Missouri State before a successful pro career, including being named Austrian League MVP.
6'7" Brandon Argo was the big man in the paint, pulling down rebounds, and putting back anything around the rim. Argo received D-1 interest before a successful career at College of the Ozarks and William Jewell.
And last but not least, 6'9" Anthony Tolliver roamed the paint with powerful dunks, while stepping out nailing 15-footers. A-T as he's known, went on to an All-MVC career at Creighton before playing the last five years in the NBA (Spurs, Blazers, Warriors, Timberwolves and Hawks). As another indicator of just how dominant the Chiefs were, consider Tolliver was considered by many as the fourth best player on the team.
"From being a little kid through high school I don't think I was ever the best player on the team," said Tolliver. "But that made me work harder."
In addition to a starting five that would've been nearly any teams star, the Chiefs had a deep bench, including Spencer's little brother Shane, who later played at Missouri State; Dre Dokes, a 5'9" point guard who went on to an All-American football career at Northern Iowa; and 6'11" Landon McCarter who played junior college basketball before giving up the game.
One of the highlights of the season was a January night in Lebanon when Mitchell shattered the backboard on a strong baseline dunk (video at bottom of story). Following an hour delay, the two teams resumed action in the auxiliary gym, a game the Chiefs won 96-56.
"After that game was the first time I really felt like a celebrity," said Tolliver, who jokingly claims to have softened the rim with three prior dunks. "I remember getting mobbed by kids wanting autographs after the game."
Tolliver and the rest of the 2003 Chiefs celebrated their 10-year high school reunion last weekend at Finnegan's Wake in downtown Springfield. Three nights before, four of the "Big 5" got a chance to rekindle their old game at the Court's Pro-Am League.
All five of the starters have started families of their own. They remain friends to this day, including Tolliver and Byrne who are business partners in real-estate investments and development.
Ten years ago they achieved their dream of winning a state championship and did so in dominating fashion, winning by a margin of 28.8 points per game. The debate will continue as to who is the Ozarks' all-time greatest team. Regardless, the '03 Chiefs were just glad to be a part of the journey.
"It's just great to be a part of a group that are doing the right things in life," said Tolliver.
2002-03 Kickapoo Chief Raw Highlights