Missouri State University men's basketball head coach Dana Ford
Missouri State University men's basketball head coach Dana Ford would occasionally introduce a light moment into the Bears' practices. In October 2023, he challenged players to touch the backboard glass higher than he could. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

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OPINION|

The last basketball game that I covered was the women’s gold medal game on Aug. 4, 1996 at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Team USA beat Brazil, 111-87, with Lisa Leslie leading the Americans with 29 points.

Team USA forward Lisa Leslie jumps between two Brazilian defenders in the gold medal game of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

In mid-June of 2023, the Hauxeda’s CEO, David Stoeffler, reached out to ask if I was interested in working with freelance sports writer Lyndal Scranton on a series following the Missouri State Bears. Of course, I said yes.

I am among the least sports-oriented people you will ever meet. One disastrous year of running cross country my freshman year in high school was the extent of my attempts at athletics. I was more of an arts and theater guy. I have casually rooted for various professional teams, but the world of NCAA basketball has, for the most part, passed me by. I do like a good storyline, so give me a Caitlin Clark experience and I’m in.

What I am interested in is how sports can build community and how participation can contribute positively to a person’s character. Those two qualities — and the captured moments of strength and beauty that can come together through a combination of color, light and the human body.

While working on this series, the first place I found community was among the players. Team, teammate, teamwork… The players instinctively hold each other accountable and help each other up. There are rituals of celebration, fist bumps, chest bumps, hand slaps and high fives that are a constant for even the most routine basketball accomplishments.

A 20-minute intrasquad scrimmage in late October 2023 brought out the Missouri State Bears' competitiveness. Cesare Edwards, left, Tyler Bey and Raphe Ayres battle for position to rebound a missed shot. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

The people I met in the Bears family

The Missouri State Bears' tradition of circling the court at Great Southern Bank Arena after a win gives young fans a chance to get up close to the players for high fives. Some of the players, including Matthew Lee, seemed to get back as good as they gave. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

The Bears' coaches and student managers are also part of the team’s community, as is the pep band. All are members of an extended family, if you will.

Riley Hesterly and his favorite player, Missouri State guard Raphe Ayres, slap hands 35 minutes before a game against Belmont (TN) University. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Then I noticed a young man with Down syndrome, Riley Hesterly, whom the team brought into their tightknit circle of 14. “Like a little brother…” is how several players described the players' relationship with Riley. The team’s community grew in front of me.

Randy Peele runs through a drill with NJ Benson during a practice
One of Randy Peele’s duties is working with the post players on Missouri State’s basketball team. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

And coach Randy Peele. At 66, the special assistant to head coach Dana Ford could have been any one of the players' grandfather. Every practice found Peele bumping up against players one-third his age and between 6 and 14 inches taller than him. A self-described X's and O's guy, he can and will talk defense for hours, but he will also listen to and counsel a young player who is going through a slump. Coach Peele is like the guy who is always sitting on his front porch and calls out a greeting to passersby that becomes a 10-minute conversation that sticks with both parties for the rest of the day and builds community.

The things I didn't see in viewfinder

Missouri State men's basketball fans head to the exits at Great Southern Bank Arena at the beginning of the fourth quarter as the Bears lose to the Bradley Braves, 86-62 on Feb. 21, 2024. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

What I never found while reporting this story was much of the city of Springfield or the community of Missouri State University students. I attended every men's basketball home game and the 11,000 seat Great Southern Bank Arena was never anywhere close to full. The student cheering section was almost empty at most games, as were the 24 suites. The upper decks rarely had more than 100 fans in them, if that. If a local business sponsored a game, a representative would show up for an on-court photo and a handshake. Giveaways were mostly limited to free coffee or time at a driving range.

There was never a Bass Pro Shops or Grizzly Industrial “employees day” (to cite two obvious local businesses). There were special days for some Springfield educators, and “kids days” seemed popular, but not enough to make an apparent difference in fan interest.

This is not a commentary on attendance at Bears’ games. This gentleman was always one of the first fans in the doors and in his seat at home games, including at this 69-60 loss to Illinois State on Jan. 20, 2024. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

By the way, hats off to the season ticket holders who showed up for almost every home game.

Much has been written elsewhere about possible reasons for all those empty seats. I’m not going to go there, (except to say ticket prices, cough-cough).

An opportunity for sports fans of all sorts

On the game days that he was a starter, Damien Mayo Jr. would dash past his teammates during introductions and flex biceps with freshman guard Kanon Gipson. Reporter Lyndal Scranton has called Mayo “the heart and soul” of the Bears. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

What I will say is that it’s a missed opportunity for Springfield residents and MSU to build community. The Bears did not have a great year, but some days they played great basketball. A couple of thousand more fans cheering loudly might have made the difference in those close games.

There is a saying among journalists of a certain age that there is to be no cheering in the press box. During my Saturday afternoons and Wednesday nights sitting on the pine at Great Southern Bank Arena, I contained myself. But it’s a lot more fun to go into the locker room of a team that has just won than a team that just lost.

Missouri State University men's basketball coach Dana Ford had about 10 last minutes with his players in the locker room to drive home goals for the day’s game before they headed out to the court to take on the Evansville Purple Aces on Nov. 29, 2023. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

It was a pleasure to see young men that I got to know a little bit work hard in their own community of team. It was a treat to be let into their world and to be able to show the Hauxeda’s readers a glimpse of it.

As I wrote at the outset, it had been 28 years since I last covered basketball. As I look back on the last seven months, I think I’ll be back at Great Southern Bank Arena this fall.

Now, about those Lady Bears…

Lacy Stokes, Missouri State University basketball guard
Lacy Stokes on the move during a March 2, 2024 game between the Missouri State University Bears and the Illinois State Redbirds at Great Southern Bank Arena in Springfield, Missouri. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

How Jym Wilson made the photos for Bears Insider

I covered 14 games at home, one away, and two at the Arch Madness Tourney in St. Louis while working with writer Lyndal Scranton on “Bears Insider.” We both also attended multiple team practices.

I used three Nikon mirrorless cameras and five different Nikon lenses. I made approximately 3,000 exposures at each game, of which 300 were worth a second look. The Daily Citizen typically published ten photos after a home game. Hundreds of photos were set aside for possible use with the “Bears Insider” series.

For the photo tech curious: All photos were taken with available light. My average ISO was between 8,000 and 10,000. Exposures were generally 1/1000th of a second with the lens’ aperture wide open.

Photos made in the Bears’ locker room required considerably lower shutter speeds.

Photos were mostly recorded in RAW format to capture the most usable information. They were then processed in Adobe Photoshop on an Apple computer. There was no digital manipulation of photographs beyond what is considered acceptable within photojournalism circles.

Jym Wilson

Jym Wilson is a veteran photojournalist who has covered a multitude of topics throughout his career. He’s a Vermont native who began his career at the Burlington (VT) Free Press. He worked as a photo editor at USA Today for 18 years, specializing in entertainment coverage. His work has appeared in the Hauxeda since the day of its launch in 2022.
Email: jymwil@gmail.com More by Jym Wilson