November 2002, "Kewpie of the Month"

The king of the court
Death of local legend Cecil Estes leaves a void for basketball fans.

By BRIAN NEUNER Special to the Tribune, Published Sunday, October 13, 2002
There was a time in central Missouri when a group of guys would gather and argue who was the greatest area athlete of the 1980s.  Friends from Fulton would throw out the name Herbert "Junebug" Johnson.  The Capital City crew would contribute George Shorthose.  Most of the Columbia contingent simply said Cecil, and the argument often stopped there.  Cecil Estes died Tuesday at age 37 after a lengthy illness.

Tribune file photo
Cecil Estes, a 1983 Hickman graduate, was one of the best basketball players Columbia ever produced.
Rest of story by Brian Neuner  -  Story from a classmate  Send you story or picture


















I heard about Cecil two years before I ever saw him play. He was 6-foot-5, but he might as well have been 6-10, because that’s the way he played - bigger than everyone else. My first basketball encounter with him actually took place in the late 1970s at a junior high tournament in Columbia. In the first minute of the first game, he blocked five shots. My team lost to Cecil that day. He outscored all of us by himself. He might have had teammates, but I don’t recall them being on the court. Columbia prep basketball was Cecil Estes, and everyone knew it.

"He was the guy everyone wanted to watch," former Hickman player Brad Marcks said. "All the kids just wanted to play like Cecil."

Brian Marcks was a Hickman teammate of Cecil’s for two years.

"I just remember the first time I saw him dunk," he said. "It was after practice, and he did a reverse jam while wearing his blue jeans."

Cecil was intimidating, but that was only when he was on the court. Away from it, he was a different person.

"When he came to Hickman, we knew he was a special talent," former Hickman Coach Phil Driskell said. "But he was also very bashful. That was so noticeable."

In short, when Cecil wasn’t on the court, he was insecure. When he spoke in that high-pitched whisper, you didn’t think of him as a dominating athlete.

"When I think of Cecil, I just smile," Brian Marcks said. "He was such a great teammate, such a great friend."

Driskell recalled a Hickman vs. Rock Bridge game when Cecil was a sophomore. His older brother Rodney played for the Bruins.

"That night, in a packed gym, those two brothers put on a show as they went head to head," Driskell said. Rock Bridge won, but Driskell called it "the most exciting game I ever coached."

By the time he was a junior at Hickman, the whole state knew about Cecil. It was the 1981-82 season, and he led the Kewpies to the state final four. North Carolina, Georgetown and Syracuse recruited him throughout his senior season, but Cecil decided to stay in Columbia and play at Missouri. It was a decision he would later call one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

As a freshman, he played well against Michael Jordan and North Carolina. He hit a buzzer-beater to defeat Iowa State. But while his attention should have been focused on college basketball and academics, he was still interested in being the king of the court in Columbia. He was loyal and wanted to bring his friends and family along for the ride. On an almost daily basis, Cecil would venture back to his neighborhood and catch up with the fellas at Douglass Park. But while the king was holding court, he was also ignoring his classes.

After one year at MU, he dropped out of school.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would have gone away for school," he told me in a 1989 interview. "I should have never stayed in Columbia. I spent too much time in the neighborhood and not enough time in school."

I saw Cecil again while working on a television series about street basketball in ’89. I started spending a lot of time at Douglass Park. I arrived unannounced, and so did he. When you tote a camera to a playground, attention follows. But it was nothing compared to when Cecil showed up.

Excitement grew as he walked on the court. Two teenagers ran toward him and explained why the camera was here. Cecil looked at me, smiled and gave a nod. He was home. He was playing basketball. He was happy.

One of the younger boys yelled at me, "Now you’re going to see some real basketball. That’s Cecil Estes. He used to play at Mizzou."

I realized that, in a strange way, it didn’t matter that Cecil quit school. It didn’t matter that he didn’t go to the NBA. To the people in the neighborhood, he was still the king of the court.

For the next two weeks, I spent almost every evening at Douglass Park, taping games and taking in local lore. One night, a special buzz was in the air. Three players with MU connections - Derrick Chievous, Malcom Thomas and Doug Smith - were on one team. In the world of asphalt and steel nets, this was the biggest game of the year.

Only the best talent was on the court, and Cecil was right there. He was overweight but still had obvious talent. He played harder than I ever saw him play at MU. He was being challenged on his home court and did not want to be dethroned. The game ended with Cecil stealing the ball, driving the length of the court and throwing home a 360-degree jam. He looked back at the other players and simply said, "Next."

When I heard the news of Cecil’s death, I had an empty feeling. I couldn’t help but wonder what might have been.

"That’s the million-dollar question," Driskell said.

Cecil was the only one with the answer. Sure, he was disappointed in himself and his situation, but he chose to see the positive.

"I want the little kids growing up in Columbia to learn from me, know I made mistakes and what happened because of them," he said in that 1989 interview.

Noble words, but then again, they were coming from a king.

from the Columbia Daily Tribune
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Brian Neuner was the sports director at KOMU from 1989-2000.
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LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Former classmate fondly remembers Estes

Published Sunday, October 20, 2002
I would like to thank Brian Neuner for writing and the Tribune for publishing the nice article about Cecil Estes. It was a fitting tribute to an outstanding Columbia athlete.

I had the opportunity to get to know Cecil during the 1981-82 basketball season at Hickman High School. As a cheerleader, I often accompanied the basketball team and coaches and other cheerleaders on several bus trips for away games. Since many of those games were in St. Louis or Kansas City, we had long rides home and time to visit. That was a wonderful team, a magical season and a whole lot of fun.

Cecil intrigued me most not by his basketball skills but by his shyness off the court. An outgoing person myself, I did my best to draw him out. Over time it worked, and we became friends. I was thrilled when he signed with MU because I would be able to continue to watch him play. Only later did I realize this was a mistake, as Brian pointed out in his article.

As it always seems to happen when you grow up, you lose touch with those people from your youth. The past can seem very distant.

That is why I was jolted from current, everyday life back into time when I learned the stunning news of Cecil’s death. Living in another town, I had no idea he was ill. The number of people at his funeral did not stun me, though. It was a testament of his influence on so many.

The thing I will always remember most about Cecil is not his basketball prowess, but the kindness of his heart and his gentle spirit. I feel fortunate to have known him and called him a friend, even if it was so many years ago.

I am most saddened, however, that I didn’t get to say goodbye.

from the Columbia Daily Tribune
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Amy Sublett Deem
HHS Class of ’82
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