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  • April 8th, 2011


It is the end of an era of sorts.  Gary Filbert recently died.  He was 80.  Gary had been director of the Show-Me State Games, a landmark sports program that involved folks from all ages in various competitive sports.  Before that he was coach of the Missouri Western College basketball team and before that he was athletic director/basketball coach at Mexico High School when I was the sports editor at the Mexico Evening Ledger.
For a decade we hung around together, went canoeing on the Little Piney, played on a town team basketball team, partied and were, most important, friends.  Of all those years, I most remember one incident.  I wrote about it and here is what I wrote:
Gary  Filbert was the Mexico Bulldog basketball coach.  He had been a couple of years ahead of me in college, a Marine Corps veteran called “Pops” by the rest of the team because he was 24 years old to their 18-20, married and with children.
He was a fine coach who later went on to a successful career coaching the Missouri Western College basketball team and finally as the administrator of the Show-Me State Games, an annual event that gathers pickup teams in various sports from around the state which became the largest and most successful such program in the country with nearly 40,000 entrants.  The Games have an estimated $8-9 million direct impact on Boone County where the University of Missouri/Columbia is located, and $15-16 million or more in indirect benefits.
Gary and I became friends beyond the usual coach/reporter relationship (which sometimes is contentious and no fun—ask those who covered Bobby Knight or Vince Lombardi).   Gary and I went on a canoe trip together and caught green sunfish and we socialized.  But Gary was not beyond using my sports page criticism to inspire the team.  “You gonna let that little son of a bitch talk about you that way!” he said before a big game. The Bulldogs came snarling out of the locker room, determined to show the local press how tough they were and they did.
It might not have been Knute Rockne exhorting his team to win one for the Gipper, but it had the same effect.  I never held it against him—probably would have done the same thing myself.
He allowed me to play on a town basketball team which mostly featured him and a couple of the other coaches.  We played other town teams and, for me, the excitement came in having a real uniform that fit.  When I was a freshman in high school I weighed about 112 pounds and there were no uniforms small enough for me, so I wore one that hung on me like a banner reading “Benchwarmer!”  I also didn’t own a jock strap and was terrified that my briefs would become as loose as the uniform pants (which in those days were short, unlike the baggy knee-length britches of today) and would expose my shortcomings.
Gary hosted the coach of the French Moroccan national basketball team, a budding athletic program that then probably played on the level of a fairly good American junior high school.  Moktar (either last or first name—I never did learn) was to spend a week with Gary and his family and he supposedly had some English.
I supposedly had some French—13 hours, of which none were conversational.  “You know anybody that speaks French?” Gary asked.
“Well, I had some in college…” I began.
“You’re my interpreter!” Gary declared in a tone which brooked no disagreement.  “Make this guy feel at home.”
“Feeling at home” was impossible if I couldn’t figure out a way to import the Moroccan desert.  It was midwinter when Moktar deplaned after dark in St. Louis, a bitter wind dropping the wind chill far below the mid-20s air temperature.  There were no palm trees, camels or other trappings of his native land.  I also couldn’t speak Spanish, Arabic or Berber, the other languages of the country.
To make it even more traumatic for the poor kid (and he wasn’t much older than I was), Gary had organized a party to welcome Moktar.  Only problem was that while Gary was collecting Moktar in St. Louis we were back in Mexico sucking up beer.  By the time the exhausted Moroccan and Gary got back to the house we were having a wonderful time.
I’ve often wondered since what this bedeviled Bedouin thought.  Plopped down in a foreign country after an exhausting flight, barely able to speak rudimentary English, then a 100 mile ride through a bitter, snowy night with someone who spoke no French, then dragged into the middle of a bunch of boisterous drunks.  I don’t know if he was Muslim or not, eschewing alcohol, but I feel pretty sure he wasn’t in the mood to tie one on.
I really liked Moktar and desperately wanted to make his brief stay in the United States a meaningful moment in international relations.  It devolved into something more like Graham Greene’s The Ugly American, but not because I wanted it that way.
The next day Gary corralled me and we headed for Columbia to meet with Kent Kurtz, the basketball coach at University High School.  Moktar and I chatted on the way to Columbia, mostly in sign language and free form French that would have had Ward Dorrance, my college French professor, writhing on the floor, clutching his roiling stomach.
It’s amazing how chummy you can get with someone who is in the same boat you are.  Moktar spoke English just about as good as I spoke French.  My only advantage was a French-English dictionary, which I clutched like a dead chicken.  When we stumbled on an unfamiliar word (about every third or fourth one), we’d pass the book back and forth, depending on which language we were mangling at the moment.
My secreted copy of Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller never got thumbed as avidly as that dictionary. Then we reached Columbia and met Kent in the gym which was alive with the echoing sounds of basketballs and player shouts, a sound that instantly evokes memories in anyone who ever played for a small town team in a gym with a varnished floor, turned orange by age, with dim lights and backboards only inches from the wall.  “This is Moktar,” Gary said.  “And this is our interpreter.”
Kent shook hands with me, unsure whether I was French, Moroccan or maybe somebody from the State Department.  “He’s the Ledger sports editor,” Gary added.  “Explain how you run the fast break.”
Kent launched into an involved explanation which I would have had trouble translating into real English, much less French.  “Eh, bien,” I mumbled.  “Le fast break, vous comprenez?”
“Fass brick?” Moktar said, his brow furrowed like a spring cropfield.  “Fass brick, qu’es-que ca?”
Vite!  Vite!” (Shit, what’s the French for “break”?).  “You know, I mean vous savez, le rebound et trouvez le balle downcourt…un moment!”
I frantically thumbed through the Good Book, looking for “rebound,” “downcourt” and other basketball terms that were not there.  And I realized that I’d told him to find the ball downcourt, not pass it there.  And Moktar looked close to tears.
This game he’d been hired to coach was impossible.  He’d come to learn the magic of basketball and all I could do was make it even more mysterious.  It was a low moment in international relations and possibly the root cause of Mideastern unrest in modern times.  Morocco never has had a world class basketball team, even as other nations have raised their court ability to compete with the United States.  It’s all my fault and I’m just really sorry.

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  1. John S. Waggett

    April 8th, 2011 at 12:02 pm


    Hi, Joel:

    Perhaps you don’t remember me, but I was MHS ’59, a basketball player of modest sorts,and a big Gary Filbert admirer. Stumbled across your blog this afternoon and am glad I did so — thoughtful stuff, well written; just as I recalled from your Ledger days. I’ll plan to drop by this site again.

    With best wishes,

    Jack Waggett

    • joelvance

      April 8th, 2011 at 2:36 pm


      Hi, Jack, I certainly do remember you since that was my first team at the Ledger. Charlie Williams, Bill Singleton, Wayne Kindig…it was a fine and fun team to watch. One of Gary’s best if not the best during the 10 years I was at the Ledger. I kick myself for not having kept in touch with Gary and will miss him–as I said, the end of an era for me. Pass along the word on the blog. I change it a couple times a week.

  2. Michael Patrick

    April 11th, 2011 at 9:04 am


    Great story. Trying to navigate in another language has always been impossible for me. I can’t imagine trying to interpret basketball.

  3. Lydia Filbert Craft

    April 13th, 2011 at 9:44 pm


    I am Gary Filbert’s youngest daughter, Lydia. I enjoyed your blog about my father and Moktar, I remember him well and wish I could tell you if that is his first name or last. I don’t think you ruined U.S. relations or the teenager, as he is a Moroccan dignitary or was the last time I asked about him.
    Moktar and dad kept in touch after all those years and I have found out half of his players did too. Thank you for the kind and funny thoughts and experiences you shared, it seems to help some how.

  4. Karl Miller

    April 14th, 2011 at 12:58 pm



    I remember Gary Filbert well, along with Med Park, Bob Reiter, et al. I got to know him better after I retired and returned to Columibia. Gary and I used to swap Chuck Denny stories, which by the way, would appear unbelievable to those who did not know the “bull in a china shop” MIZZOU basketball post man.

    • joelvance

      April 14th, 2011 at 1:25 pm


      Hi, Karl, That was a good team to watch. If you remember Gary was one of the last two basketball players on earth to shoot the two-handed set; the other being the kid from New Franklin, whose name escapes me. I got to play with Win Wilfong once in Mexico on Gary’s town team. He was in town and out of shape, but still better than anyone on the team. The function of everyone else was to pass him the ball so he could shoot–kind of like playing with Linneman. Wilfong flunked out at MU, went to Memphis State and made All-American. He developed cancer, bone I think, and died pretty young, again kind of like Linneman. As you well remember, playing on the same court as Denny was risking life and limb. I don’t think he distinguished between his teammates and the opposition. They all were there to be battered and bruised. Incidentally, Maya Moore went to the same grade school as our kids. She started out at Thorpe Gordon in Jeff City before moving. Wish Butler had won the men’s title. They impress me every year. I am less impressed with Haight, but we’ll see.

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