When the Denbow family gets together during the holidays, the conversation invariably turns to basketball. And every now and then, an argument breaks out about which of the Denbows is the best basketball player?
The list of basketball-playing Denbows has quantity and quality, starting with Doyle Denbow, a two-time high school all-American at Morehouse in the mid 1950s, and ending with Ben Denbow, a senior at Licking High School who scored his 2,000th point this year on a thunderous dunk against Stoutland.
Over the past half-century or so the Denbows have scored over 13,000 points and been a part of 800 wins in Missouri high school basketball.
It all started when Doyle Denbow overcame a few of life’s hard knocks to become one of the most heralded prep players in America.
He played for Morehouse, a school in the Missouri Bootheel that put together some great seasons and tradition in the 1950s. Morehouse made it to the state high school final four twice during Doyle Denbow’s career. He got a lot of attention and was recruited by some of college basketball’s biggest programs, including UCLA, Ohio State and Kentucky, coached then by the legendary Adolph Rupp.
It was a basketball career that almost wasn’t. In the sixth grade Doyle’s brother talked him into quitting school and helping farm 100 acres rented near Benton, which is near Morehouse, which is near Sikeston. Doyle was to get a bale of cotton for his work, but a flood came along and ruined the plan.
With no money and no school, Doyle headed to Morehouse one day and started shooting basketball on a backyard goal at a friend’s house. The Morehouse principal, who was also the basketball coach, saw Doyle shoot and talked him into coming back to school, and of course, playing basketball.
“I’d chop cotton and go to school,” Doyle Denbow remembers. “Then I’d get home and shoot basketball. I’d shoot when it was dark, listening for the swish of the net if I made it because it was too dark to see.”
Doyle still has basketball in his blood, and in his bloodlines. He is wintering in Texas but calls Ben after Licking High School games to see how the night went for the Wildcats, and of course, how the night went for Ben.
Ben continues basketball legacy
Ben Denbow made all-state a year ago and is likely headed for that distinction again this year. He’s a three-time All-Frisco League pick and is averaging 26 points and 11 rebounds a game for the 21-5 Wildcats, who play Mountain Grove 6 p.m. Feb. 28 in the district tournament thanks to a first-round bye. They are the second seed behind Seymour.
Denbow, at six feet, 5 inches, leads the way. He shoots 60 percent from two-point range, 30 percent beyond the 3-point line and 80.5 percent from the free-throw line. He is third on the team in assists, second in steals and number one in minutes played and spectacular plays.
“His stats show how much he can get done in every part of the game,” says Licking Coach Ben Glasgow, in his third year at the school. “He gets a lot of minutes and gets so many things done. Sometimes I look over at my assistant coach and say, ‘Man, I’m glad we’ve got him out there.’ ”
The same thing was said at one time or another about all of the Denbows.
Ben’s father Steve scored over 2,000 points for 30-3 Lesterville, including a 54-point night on the way to a win over Northeast Nodaway in the 1977 Class 1A title game. Steve, now principal for Licking High School, went on to play at the University of Tennessee-Martin and College of the Ozarks.
Steve stepped in at the last minute to coach the Licking girls’ team this year, so he doesn’t get to see all of Ben’s games in person. He watches video and continues to preach fundamentals, just like his father taught him.
Two of Steve’s brothers, Jim and Mark, also starred in high school. Jim was all-conference at Arcadia Valley and Lesterville, while Mark was all state at Lesterville before playing collegiately at Mineral Area College and Missouri Western. A sister, Christy Denbow, scored over 1,000 points for Linn and won a state free-throw contest to make it to the national finals.
“He (Doyle) started us at 2 years old,” Steve Denbow said. “We had a basketball in the crib. We didn’t just play with the basketball, he taught us fundamentals. That’s the way I did it, too. Basketball is all about fundamentals.”
Steve, a point guard most of his career, has been principal at Licking for 21 years. The great Wildcat basketball tradition – and a nice pay increase as an administrator – lured him and his wife Lisa from Plato. As a result of the move Licking High School benefitted from five young Denbow athletes, as at least one of the kids has played varsity sports for 17 of Steve’s 21 years at the school.
First was Bart, who made all state and helped Licking go undefeated in the Frisco League during a three-year varsity career. He scored over 1,300 points and was the league MVP in 1995, his senior year. He went on to play at Mineral Area College and for a national title at Central Methodist University. Bart now coaches at School of the Osage.
Then came the girls, Stephanee (1998), Ashlee (2003) and Alexee (2006). Stephanee was all-conference in basketball and volleyball and played collegiately at Lindenwood. Ashlee scored 1,000 points and was all-conference in basketball and all-conference and all state in volleyball. She played volleyball at Southwest Baptist University.
Then came Alexee, called Lexee by friends and family. She was a three-time Frisco League all-conference pick and scored over 1,000 points in her career. She was going to play college ball at St. Louis Community College Meramec, following in the footsteps of so many Denbows before her. But she was injured in an automobile accident Father’s Day, 2006, just after graduation, and is paralyzed from the waist down.
The community and all of this part of the Ozarks came together to support the Denbow family during that trying time.
Now comes Ben, who arguably has more tools and potential than any Licking player has ever had, and he makes a strong case as perhaps the best of the Denbows.
“No doubt,” says Doyle Denbow. “He can play for anybody. I’ve got a lot of kids, so this isn’t grandpa talking.”
Making college choices
Ben Denbow has drawn the attention of several colleges, but says he will wait until the season is over and “see who still wants me,” then make a decision. The largest school to take a look is Missouri State University, but he says they have not made an offer.
Denbow’s credentials and potential are great. He averaged 17 points a game as a freshman, 23 as a sophomore, 28.9 as a junior and then 26 so far this year. Denbow has failed to score in double figures just once the past three years. He plays point guard, shooting guard, wing and post, depending on where Licking needs him on a given night.
Denbow doesn’t just play offense. He works all over the court. Of his 272 rebounds, 90 are on the offensive end. Perhaps the most remarkable stat is despite playing so many minutes and handling the ball so much, he averages just 1.6 turnovers a game.
“He’s a complete player, and he’s not just doing that against normal defenses,” Glasgow said. “He sees triangle and twos, with two guys on him all night. He sees lots of different defenses, and he knows how to handle every one of them.”
Against Seymour in the first game of district play last year Denbow had 42 points and a season-high 17 rebounds, but the Wildcats lost 64-59.
“He didn’t want our season to end, and you could see it in his intensity,” Glasgow said. “He missed four shots (inside 3-point range) that night, and three of them he got the offensive rebound and scored.”
Ben honed his skills in AAU ball in St. Louis, where he traveled Wednesdays and Saturdays in the offseason and played with some of the best players in the state. He started, performed well and gained in experience and confidence.
“That’s really made a difference for me, and I came back here with a lot of confidence,” he says. “Those guys are really good, and I could play with them. We had some good teams.”
Says Glasgow: “He’s a great natural talent who has put in a lot of work to get where he is. If there is anything extra he can do, he’s going to do it. If he has an off night shooting free throws, he’s going to be in the gym the next day shooting free throws.”
Denbow had attempted 423 field goals through the first 23 games, and the next closest Wildcat had attempted 156. There is no doubt who the go-to-guy for the Wildcats is, and Glasgow says that doesn’t mean team chemistry is a problem. He said the team talks about Denbow and his special talent often, and that other players fill important roles to make the team what it is.
Sophomore Jake Hood is a two-year starter and leads the team with over 100 assists and 74 steals. A freshman, Lane Duncan, is second on the team in scoring at 8.5 points a game and second in rebounding. Every player has a role.
“When this team is playing well together, they are very good, and that’s what we keep talking about,” Glasgow said. “Sometimes when Ben gets the ball it’s the Michael Jordan syndrome, you want to sit back and watch. We don’t do that. We think this is a good team that happens to have a star on it. Ben will give up a few points, too, for a win.”
Basketball opened a few doors
Doyle Denbow took a couple minutes this past weekend to reflect on what basketball has meant to his family. The games played and coached, the teammates, the relationships and the experiences have been meaningful to his family over the past six-plus decades.
Even after retirement, basketball had its lure, and he came back to coach Richland’s boys and Dexter’s girls for a few seasons.
Doyle Denbow never did make it to the basketball big show, but he really didn’t think he was cut out for it anyway. He went to Arkansas State, hurt his ankle playing, of all things, soccer, then transferred to Hinds Community College in Raymond, Mississippi. From there he went to Bethel College in Tennessee, where he got a degree and launched a career in education. Basketball helped get him there.
“I didn’t think I could live without basketball, but I found out I could,” Doyle says. “Basketball has been good to us, all the family. It got me through school when I couldn’t pay attention. Heck, when I was in Mississippi I’d pick up pecans to bring home for Christmas presents. We had nothing, but it opened some doors for me.”
Basketball has opened a few doors for most of the family, and Doyle wonders where they’d all be had the flood not washed the crops away back in the early 1950s, sending him and his family tree on a quite a basketball journey.
He still loves basketball, still loves teaching and preaching fundamentals, the same fundamentals he taught to his sons, and they taught to countless others since.
“That’s (fundamentals) the name of the game,” Denbow said. “The average person who goes to the game doesn’t realize the ton of fundamentals you have to have. When you put the fundamentals together and your skills are good enough, you are going to beat your man.”
Grandson Ben Denbow puts on the Wildcat burnt orange and white a couple nights a week and offers proof positive that fundamentals, and a good dose of basketball genes and hard work, make a really good player and a strong argument for being perhaps the best of the basketball-playing Denbows.