The last thing Larry Salter remembers is Tyus Edney crossing half court and dribbling the ball behind his back. He was on a barstool at The Heidelberg with a nearly empty basket of wings in front of him.
“I was finishing off a drummie,” he said. “I wasn’t even drinking hard liquor.”
It was 1995 and Salter had faked a vasectomy surgery to get out of work at Schnucks.
“I didn’t even have a girlfriend at the time,” he said. “But the boss bought it.”
The University of Missouri men’s basketball team was on the verge of history. With fewer than five seconds left on the clock, Mizzou was up by one on the UCLA Bruins. It was the Bruins’ ball and Salter had just decided he was going to the Final Four games, no matter what it cost. He had the end of the wing in his right hand as Edney took the inbound pass. He was chewing when Edney put the ball behind his back and cut right.
“The next thing I remember, Truman the Tiger was standing in my hospital room, and a bunch of people were taking pictures of me with what I have since learned are called ‘smart phones,'” Salter said.
Lisa Culpepper, now the Vice President of Operations for Lockheed, was managing The ‘Berg that night. She still remembers the moment.
“Edney hit the shot, and the place just exploded. I’ve never heard the words (expletive) and (expletive) billy goat (expletive) screamed so loud,” she said. “It went on for 15 or 20 minutes before we had to call the police to clear the bar. Nobody saw Mr. Salter until that.”
When the police dispersed the crowd, they found Salter unconscious on the floor. Someone, presumably thinking Salter was dead, had laid a copy of The Maneater over his face.
“No hard feelings about that,” Salter said. “From what I understand, we lost a lot of good men that day. I probably would have done the same thing.”
Police reports outlined what happened next:
Salter saw Edney hit the shot, screamed “You (expletive) sons of (expletive), I hope you wake up in a puddle of your own (expletive) (expletive). There is no God if you (expletive) exist!”
Patrons described seeing Salter suck the chicken bone into his throat and begin to choke. Within a couple of minutes, Salter lost consciousness and fell backward off his barstool. The impact dislodged the bone but also caused a severe head injury. Salter remains unconscious at University Medical Center.
Witnesses said they would have tried to help Salter but, “After what we just saw, what’s the point?”
No charges were filed.
“I’m not proud of what I said,” Salter said Monday, “and my relationship with God clearly still exists. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have Cuonzo.”
Missouri’s new coach played a role in the recovery that no one could have predicted.
Salter remained in a coma for 22 years. Doctors expected he would never recover, but lacking a next of kin to make a decision about life support, they continued to tend to Salter for the next two decades.
“I always got the sense he was just waiting for the right moment,” nurse Bonnie Marsh said.
That right moment came last March when Mizzou announced Cuonzo Martin had been hired as the basketball coach.
“He just opened his eyes,” March said. “He asked if he could still make his flight to the Final Four. I just held his hand. I couldn’t bear to tell him.”
Hospital psychiatrists and counsellors forced Salter to take it slowly. They feared any shock to his system could reverse the progress he had made.
“They told me how long it had been. And then they told me Edney hit the shot,” Salter said. “I’m not proud of what I said in front of nurse Bonnie.”
“I don’t even know if an ocelot could do that to a basketball,” Marsh said.
Salter took baby steps after that. He learned his position at Shnucks had been made obsolete by technology and that a well-meaning student surgeon had actually performed a courtesy vasectomy after his admission to the hospital.
“I thought it was what he would’ve wanted,” said the then-surgeon, Hank Fischer. Fischer is now, coincidentally, a manager at the Schnucks on Forum Blvd.
“We had a good laugh over that,” Salter said.
In the months since his return to consciousness, doctors have revealed to Salter that Norm Stewart retired, Missouri joined the SEC, and that Mizzou basketball now has one of the best recruiting classes in the country.
“It’s been a very easy transition,” neurologist Bhavin Agarwal said. “We’re very fortunate he didn’t wake up in 2016. It could have been a much different story.”
In the season before Salter’s injury, Larry Smith’s football team went 3-8-1, winning just two games in the Big 8.
“My understanding is that nothing has changed,” Salter said. “It’s very comforting.”
Salter will be honored at Missouri’s first SEC conference home game vs Florida on January 6. The first 2,000 fans through the door will receive a coupon for chicken wings at The Heidelberg.