Three images hang on the wall of Independence attorney Bob Buckley’s office.
Two are Norman Rockwell lithographs – one of a gentleman speaking his mind at a town hall meeting, which is part of the master illustrator’s famous Four Freedoms series, and another of a family saying a prayer before they sit down for a meal.
The third photo might seem out of place, but it fits right in if you know Buckley and his history with the Bears Tomorrow basketball program that he founded along with his friends and coaches Rob Barnes and Rob Sandberg back in 2007.
Little did Buckley know that the Sunday night basketball program would impact the lives of more than 300 William Chrisman High School students – many of whom benefited more off the court than in a gymnasium.
The third photo of is of 2013 William Chrisman graduate and 1,000-point scorer Nieka Wheeler, who could not even look Buckley – or any adult – in the eye when he started driving to her home and taking her to Bears Tomorrow practice sessions.
“I owe the life I lead today, I owe everything – so, so much to Mr. Buckley,” said Wheeler, who won a junior college basketball national championship at Johnson County Community College and will soon get her bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Missouri. “Before the Bears Tomorrow program, I had no friends. I had no confidence. I really had nothing in my life, but for some reason, Mr. Buckley believed in me. He believed in me more than I even believed in myself.”
“He believed in me more than anyone else ever did, and it changed my life. I found out I was a pretty good basketball player. Lindsay (Thompson, the former Bears girls basketball coach) was also a big influence in my life. I owe each of them so much – but, I don’t even want to think about where I might be without the Bears Tomorrow program and Mr. Buckley.”
Thompson, who now coaches girls basketball at Fort Osage High School, praises the Bears Tomorrow program.
“When I was hired, we had won six games the season before I got to Chrisman, and we won district two years later – and the babies we saw grow up in the Bears Tomorrow program were a part of our success.”
“Watching Nieka grow, as a player and as a person, to watch her transformation, is something I’ll always remember. And there were so many other girls who experienced the same kind of growth.”
As Buckley shows off the photo of Wheeler, his eyes become moist, his voice softens and he sits behind the desk in his office to collect his thoughts. He said Wheeler wasn’t able at first to even look him in the eye.
“If I wanted to look her in the eye, I had to get down on my knees – down to where she could see me eye to eye – and talk to her,” Buckley said. “I watched her grow as a player, but more importantly, as a person, as a young lady and now, as a responsible adult. I get very emotional when I talk about Nieka and some of the other boys and girls who grew up in the Bears Tomorrow program.”
“I watched her dominate teams, take over games like no other player, but the way she has grown up and gone to college and made so much out of her life – that is what I dreamed about when I started the program back in 2007.”
While the Bears Tomorrow program is not as strong now as it has been in the past, Buckley and others are looking for strong, like-minded coaches to help bring the program to the point where it has produced every junior on Chrisman coach Jake Kates’ boys basketball team and many players on coach Scott Schaefer’s girls team.
“At my last coaching job, it was becoming increasingly difficult to get gym time, and I found that very frustrating,” said Schaefer, whose girls are enjoying a standout season. “That was something I addressed when I interviewed for the job here at Chrisman (five years ago), and I found out that there was already a program in place – Bob’s Bears Tomorrow program.”
“I was so excited when I found out, I couldn’t wait to get to Chrisman. I don’t know if I have ever met a man as giving as Bob, a man who seeks no personal gain. He just wants to help youngsters on and off the court. We talk a lot about character in our program, and character is an important part of the Bears Tomorrow program. He has given so many young people the opportunity to better themselves and he never asks for a thing in return.
This is Kates’ second year at Chrisman, and he has seven Bears Tomorrow graduates on his varsity team and three on his junior varsity squad.
“I was at Summit Christian Academy for 15 years, and we had a similar program there that started in fourth grade,” said Kates, who, like Schaefer’s girls team, is enjoying a remarkable season. “This is my second year at Chrisman, and we are doing something special. We are laying a foundation for future success and we are going it with many kids from the Bears Tomorrow program.”
“And the kids from Bears Tomorrow aren’t just good players. They’re great young men who represent William Chrisman High School in the classroom and in their community. That’s what makes the program so special for me.”
Two of those players are Isaiah Jackson and Zachariah Rowe, who are like brothers on and off the court.
“There were so many great men who coached me in Bears Tomorrow,” said Jackson, a junior guard on the Bears. “They had a big influence on my life, and I got to play with my ‘brother,’ Zachariah. We’ve been together a long time and we have another year to do more special things with the (varsity) team.”
Rowe nodded in agreement.
“I was always the smallest guy on every team I ever played on, and that just made me work harder,” said Rowe, who is also a junior guard on the Bears varsity team. “I am the person I am today because of my family and the Bears Tomorrow program.
“I learned about basketball and I learned about life because of Bears Tomorrow. I am so thankful I was a part of the program since, like, the fourth grade. Man, we have been teammates for a long time.”
Isaiah’s mother, Heather Jackson, works in the front office at Chrisman.
“I’m the sports mom, that’s what everyone calls me,” said Jackson, who has enough photos throughout the years of the Bears Tomorrow program to fill dozens of scrapbooks. “We have Mr. Buckley and some great coaches and wonderful parents. We have fundraisers and go to each other’s houses – we’re like one big family. If a boy ever needed a ride to practice, a coach or a parent would go pick him up.
“Our boys are so lucky to be a part of this amazing program. And so are the parents. We are truly blessed.”
Ask Bears sophomore guard Amanda Szopinski about Bears Tomorrow and a smile appears.
“When I was in fourth grade, I played up on a boys team – a boys team,” she said with a touch of pride in her voice.
And her coach back then, Jeff Dumas quipped, “And she might have been the best player on the team. She was so good, so talented, and that got her ready for varsity basketball.”
She said Bears Tomorrow changed her life.
“Bears Tomorrow gave me the chance to play basketball, to prove myself – to boys or girls – and I had so much fun,” Szopinski said. “The boys we played against would talk smack to me and I’d go score a basket and the boys on my team would support me like I was their sister.
“In a way, I guess I was, because we were one big family.”
Chrisman activities director Greg McGhee coaches a summer league Bears Tomorrow boys team that included most of the juniors who are on the Bears varsity and junior rosters.
“I love coaching these students, and I wouldn’t have the chance to if it weren’t for Bob and what he has done the past 10 or so years,” McGhee said. “Bob is phenomenal. He is Mr. William Chrisman High School. He is the (public address announcer) voice of the football and basketball teams and there isn’t an event at school that he doesn’t attend.
“He bleeds Chrisman’s school colors, and we are so blessed that he is a part of our Bears family.”