Team's success has been built for years, on and off court

Bill Althaus
The Examiner
Bob Buckley, center, one of the founders of the Bears Tomorrow program, poses with William Chrisman girls basketball players who were developed in the program after they won the district championship this year. Players Jacque David, Jolee Spinks, Gia Moore and Krysta McAllister all got their start in Buckley's Bears Tomorrow program, and now they've advanced to the state final four for the first time since 1993.

Bob Buckley, one of the founders of the William Chrisman High School Bears Tomorrow Program, will never forget his first game as a coach.

“We lost 38-2,” said Buckley, an Independence lawyer whose love of basketball and William Chrisman knows no bounds. “It was 2007, and all of us were crying."

“After the game, I told our girls a story about a boy asking three bricklayers what they were doing. Laying bricks, said two, but the last one said they were building a cathedral. And it takes years to build a cathedral.”

The final brick in that cathedral was laid Saturday as the host Bears crushed Smithville 42-23 in a Class 5 state quarterfinal to earn their first trip to the state final four since 1993.

More:Beloved assistant coach Jim Underwood helps Chrisman girls' basketball reach final four

That was a dream for Buckley, whose Bears Tomorrow program teaches basketball fundamentals and life skills to elementary school boys and girls who will attend William Chrisman.

“We desperately needed something like the Bears Tomorrow program at Chrisman,” he said. “We have a lot of dedicated parents and coaches and I can’t say enough good things about the Independence School District."

Bob Buckley and his Bears Tomorrow players pose for a photo after winning a championship at the College Basketball Experience in Kansas City. That team included four players on this year's William Chrisman girls basketball team that has advanced to the state final four, including Amanda Szopinski (44), Jolee Spinks (in front of Buckley), Krysta McAllister (32) and Gia Moore, center front.

“We have not paid a cent for the use of the gym, and if we need something, I just call (activities director) Greg (McGhee) or one of our coaches, and it’s done. When we started, we just wanted to help kids learn how to play and become better young people, and now, they’re going to the final four.”

No one on the present Chrisman team was part of that initial program in 2007.

“Most of the current team was in kindergarten when we played that first game,” Buckley, who also serves as the Bears’ basketball PA announcer, said as he choked back tears. “Bears Tomorrow has been blessed with outstanding coaches, many of whom are my best friends.

More:Junior basketball team captain Jeremy Paige helps lead Falcons to state final four

“I knew in 2014 that this group had the chance to be great. They deserve all of the praise for being coachable and never quitting.”

Yet it is coach Scott Schaefer’s remarkable 23-5 team – which has won 16 games in a row heading into Thursday’s 7 p.m. matchup against 22-4 Whitfield at JQH Arena in Springfield – doing the praising of their Papa Bear.

“Bob has always been a father figure for me,” said senior guard Gia Moore, whose 3-point accuracy opens things up inside for another Bears Tomorrow alum, senior center Jacque David.

“I was introduced to basketball by the Bears Tomorrow, and I always felt so fortunate because I felt like I had two fathers, my biological father, and Bob. He loved each and every one of us like we were members of his family.”

David, who played three years in the Bears Tomorrow program before joining an elite AAU team, has fond memories of Buckley.

“Bob was more like a father figure than a coach, because we were so young, and he didn’t just teach us about basketball,” David said. “He taught us about life and how to be good citizens. I learned to love basketball because of him.”

As did senior point guard Amanda Szopinski, who made such an impression on Buckley he had to make a difficult decision.

“Back then most girls didn’t have the skill set you see today, and Amanda was such a great player I moved her from our girls team to one of our boys teams – she was that good,” Buckley said, chuckling. “We’d have won a lot more games if we’d have had Amanda, but I wanted to do everything I could to make each of my players the best they could possibly be.”

Szopinski laughs when reminded about the days of wheeling and dealing against boys teams.

“The boys played at a much faster pace, and Bob wanted me to learn to play at that pace, and it did make me a better player,” said Szopinski, who runs the offense and is the metro area’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.32). “You can look back at photos of our teams, and so many of the girls on this year’s team played in the Bears Tomorrow program. That’s pretty cool.”

In fact, the Bears Tomorrow program was influential in Schaefer leaving his highly successful coaching days at Gardner-Edgerton and McPherson, Kan., to come to Independence.

“I was meeting with Dr. (Dale) Herl (the superintendent of the Independence School District) and he told me about Bears Tomorrow, and I was very impressed,” said Schaefer, who claimed his 600th career victory this season.

“For decades in Kansas I ran programs that were feeders to our high schools, and I know what a chore that can be. To find out that Chrisman already had a feeder program – a successful feeder program and a gentleman like Bob running – was influential in me taking the job at Chrisman.

“The passion Bob Buckley has for Bears Tomorrow and this high school is special.”

So, Thursday night, Buckley will be at JQH Arena, realizing a dream come true.

“These girls, this program and our coaches, will always be so special,” Buckley said. “Back when we started the program, I knew we had players with the hearts of lions. All they needed was the opportunity."

“And we gave that to them.”

He paused for a moment, and added, “And believe me, I’ve been given back much, much more than I could ever give any of them.”