It took a great leap of faith for self-described “city boy” Robert Yanders to come to the Ozark hills to play basketball for the Missouri State University-West Plains Grizzlies, but that leap proved to be one of the best decisions he ever made – for himself and for the Grizzly Basketball program.
“When I first came to West Plains, I thought I was in trouble,” the six-foot point guard from Milwaukee, Wis., admitted. “I was a city boy, and I came down to this small town. It was a whole new experience for me. But out of all of the good things that have happened to me and the great things I’ve done, my two years in West Plains were the best of my life.”
They were also among the best years of the Grizzly Basketball program, thanks in no small part to the efforts of this “city boy” who helped lead the team to its second National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Region 16 championship in 1998-99, its highest national ranking at No. 2 in 1999-2000, and its two best season record totals – 27-6 in 1998-99 and 27-5 in 1999-2000.
“He was a leader, from day one,” recalled Dean Smith, color commentator of the Grizzly Basketball radio broadcasts. “He wanted to win, and that’s basically what earned him his two NJCAA All-American honors – his leadership.”
Yanders was used to being a leader. He helped guide his Milwaukee Vincent High School Vikings to three state championships in a row, two city conference championships, and a nomination as the best high school team in Wisconsin. Along the way, he earned two all-conference honors, was named to the all-state all-tournament team and was heralded as a Wisconsin All-Star.
So, it was no surprise when he came into the Grizzly Basketball program in the fall of 1998 and began exerting his influence on a young, but eager, team. He showed he could put points on the board by consistently scoring in double figures, and he revealed he could be unselfish on the court, as well, by dishing off the ball to teammates who had better shots at the basket.
“He was a great point guard, unselfish,” Smith said. “I’d say he was our best point guard ever, and we’ve had some good ones. Not only could he score himself, he also had great court awareness and the ability to find the open man. He was your total package.”
Yanders also proved he was a steady hand in clutch situations. His free throws late in the game on Jan. 9, 1999, against then two-time defending national champion Indian Hills Community College gave the Grizzlies the cushion they needed to hand the Warriors their first loss after a record-setting 89 straight victories.
Yanders’ efforts during the 1998-99 season, which included a team-leading 471 points, 160 successful free throws, and 130 assists, earned him the respect of coaches in the region and across the nation. He received the second highest number of votes in the All-Region 16 balloting, which not only earned him All-Region honors but also made him eligible for All-American status, which he also earned at the third-team level.
His sophomore year proved just as fruitful, as he continued his double-digit scoring efforts and court guidance. Although the team placed second in the Region 16 championship game in 1999-2000, he again received first team All-Region and honorable mention All-American honors. As a result, Yanders became the first Grizzly Basketball player to receive All-American honors both of his seasons with the team.
Yanders, who was recruited by over 20 teams, finished his Grizzly career first in career free throws (241), career assists (279), season free throws (160 in 1998-99), season free throw percentage (83.3 in 1998-99), free throws in a game (19 vs. Northwest Mississippi on Nov. 17, 1998); third in season assists (1999-2000), assists in a game (10 three times in 1999-2000 season) and three point field goals in a game (7 vs. Mesa on Jan. 2, 2000); fourth in career points (918); and fifth in career scoring average (14.1). His 19 free throws in a game is still tops in that category, and his 83.3 percent free throw shooting performance in 1998-99, his 160 free throws in a season and his 241 career free throws remain second best among all Grizzly players in those categories.
After graduating from Missouri State-West Plains in May 2000 with an Associate of Arts in General Studies degree, Yanders transferred to Missouri State University in Springfield, where he helped lead the Bears to 13-16 and 17-15 records his junior and senior years, respectively. He received honorable mention All-Missouri Valley Conference preseason honors his senior year. He led the team in free throw shooting percentage (.855) and assists (105) his junior year, and three-point shooting percentage (.443) his senior year.
One of the highlights of his basketball career, however, came after his graduation from Missouri State University-Springfield in 2002 when he was invited to NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks camp to try out for the team. “It was my dream come true,” he said. “It was always a dream of mine to play in the NBA, and to be asked to try out for my hometown team, it was great! It was one of the best experiences of my life!”
Although he didn’t make the team, the tryout brought Yanders to the attention of many other professional teams, including those in Europe. Currently, he plays for the Scottish Rocks in Glasgow, Scotland. It is his fifth year in the British Basketball Pro League. He plans to fulfill his two-year commitment with the Rocks and remain playing at the pro level for another five to 10 years, he said, before trying to enter the collegiate coaching ranks.
“Missouri State-West Plains is definitely a big reason why I’m where I am, and why I am the person I am,” Yanders said. “The people there and in the West Plains community taught me how to be a better person, an open minded person. I’d like to thank the university for giving me the privilege of being a Grizzly, and I’d like to thank all of the people at Missouri State-West Plains and in the community for giving me the opportunity to be part of something special. I will always try to represent the university, West Plains and the Grizzly fans in a way that honors them.”