While visiting with Wes Murray last winter, Larry Southern’s conversation turned to a college basketball player he greatly admired. Southern appreciated the way he played the game and his toughness. He was awed by his work ethic. He loved his character.
After hearing of Southern’s admiration for Tyler Hansbrough, college basketball’s player of the year, Murray made it his mission for the two to meet.
“He said, ‘I’ve met a lot of people, but I’d love to shake that kid’s hand someday,'” Murray recalled. “That’s where it started.”
Unknown to Southern, Murray had a direct connection to Hansbrough. He made a phone call to his father, Gene, who he worked alongside several years ago at the hospital in Poplar Bluff. The wheels were in motion.
After a few quiet months, Murray called Gene Hansbrough again. He said Tyler was in town, but he’d be leaving soon for college. It was a long shot, but Murray knew it was worth the risk. He called Southern and Friday morning, they set off for Poplar Bluff, hoping their paths would cross with Hansbrough.
“This sounded almost like a dream, and I believe in dreams,” Murray said. “At any time possible you can help someone’s dream come true, you should do it. That’s part of the reason we’re here.”
Murray took Southern to Three Rivers Community College, where Murray played basketball for the 1979 national champion Raiders. There was a chance Hansbrough would be coming to work out.
Just minutes after arriving and introducing Southern to Gene Bess, the winningest coach in college basketball history, the door across the gym opened. In walked Hansbrough with a basketball tucked underneath his arm and carrying his shoes. Bess motioned the three-time All-American to come over and meet Southern, who mustered the energy with a little help to stand out of his wheelchair to shake Hansbrough’s hand.
“That reaction was priceless because I knew how Larry felt about it,” Murray said. “I can only imagine the number of people in this country that would love to shake Tyler Hanbrough’s hand. What Larry has done for the athletic programs and the community, it was one of those things that I thought, ‘How in the world could I at least not try.’ Larry is the type of person that has earned and deserves it.”
Southern has met many famous athletes during his lifetime. He’s had his picture taken with Payne Stewart, Yogi Berra and Arnold Palmer. He’s spoken with Albert Pujols and Stan Musial. He’s shaken hands with Michael Jordan. Southern said meeting Hansbrough, who he watched play high school basketball at tournaments in Springfield and Columbia, was just as memorable.
“I admire him so much,” Southern said. “He’s just an outstanding young man and basketball player. He’s a role model for young people to follow.”
Southern and Murray spent about 45 minutes chatting with Hansbrough. They each posed for photos with him and shared stories.
“It says a lot when someone comes from two hours away to meet you,” Hansbrough said of Southern. “He said he’s met a lot of people. To be compared with Arnold Palmer is pretty neat.”
Murray requested just one autograph. It was for Ben Yocom, a North Carolina basketball fan back home. Then they left with a memorable day behind them and surprise for an unsuspecting principal.
“I was overjoyed that Wes was able to do this,” Southern said. “It was an absolute joy and privilege to meet Tyler and talk to him.”