Derrick Chievous left his neighborhood of Jamaica in Queens, New York, at 15. He knew then he wanted to go to a place he could stay.
He landed in Columbia. It might as well have been a different planet.
“I was like an alien here,” Chievous recalled Tuesday, 35 years after he arrived. “The things I did and the things I said, people looked at me like, ‘This dude…’ Even some of my teammates was like, ‘Yo, this dude…’”
His trade of basketball translated. His 2,580 career points are the most in Tiger history by a wide margin. Missouri retired his No. 3 jersey during halftime of its game Tuesday night against Kentucky, making him the sixth person to receive the honor.
Chievous is the best scorer Missouri basketball has ever known. He was slippery, able to squeeze into the tiniest cracks on the floor that allowed a path to the basket. He thrived on contact, drawing fouls at a ridiculous rate and possessing a unique ability to finish within 10 to 12 feet.
His unique skillset, combined with his quirky personality — his trademark was wearing a Band-Aid for every game, a good luck charm he brought with him after scoring 45 points with one on in high school — made him the face of Missouri’s program as it entered a new era of college basketball. Chievous’ career coincided with the inception of the shot-clock and the 3-point line, the expansion of the NCAA Tournament to 64 teams, and college basketball's introduction to cable television.
“He is the Mizzou player that was really emblematic of the team at the time the game really became the modern game,” Michael Atchison, the author of “True Sons: A Century of Missouri Tigers Basketball,” said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Chievous played three seasons in the NBA and retired in 1991. He stuck to his original plan when he left Queens. Columbia was the home he returned to.
During his initial stay in Columbia, he was one of the town’s most prominent figures — the all-time leading scorer for what has historically been the city’s best-loved team. On his return he has purposefully stayed out of the limelight, and his impacts have almost all been in relative obscurity.
“I live here, and not a lot of people know I live here,” Chievous said Tuesday. “That’s a beautiful thing to be in a place and still be yourself and help the community, but be like a solar eclipse: seldom seen.”
For more than a decade, Chievous has worked for Woodhaven, a non-profit organization that assists adults in Columbia with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Chievous works the “weekend relief” shift, which puts him on the clock for 40 or more consecutive hours. He arrives at the home of an individual with a disability on Friday night. He stays there until Sunday morning.
He’s never brought attention to his work despite his status as a local celebrity. Doing so would take away from the people he helps, he says, and would make the acts self-serving.
The way it is now, Chievous explains, the work touches his soul.
“He just wanted to work with individuals where he could make an impact on their life, a change in their life in some way,” Cathy Kleinsorge, his superior at Woodhaven for eight years, said.
Kleinsorge said Woodhaven works with adults with a wide range of disability, from those that are high-functioning to those with limited skills. Chievous works with them all, she said, including individuals that require “total care.”
“Some of the individuals he works with, physically and mentally, they need a lot more care but yet he’s comfortable with that,” Kleinsorge said. “He worked hard to get to know those individuals. Even though they might be non-verbal, he looks at their routines and what they like and he’s observant to what they like so he can try to incorporate that into his shift.”
He’s a figure in the community, even if he prefers to stay behind the scenes. On the request of coach Cuonzo Martin, Chievous accompanied Missouri on its trip to last year’s NCAA Tournament. Martin also asked Chievous to speak to the team before their first-round game — Chievous was hesitant, having gone 0-3 in the NCAA Tournament in his career, but he did so anyway.
He’s been something of a mentor and role model for Columbia’s most-high profile athlete today, Sophie Cunningham. Cunningham has known Chievous since she was in middle school, and he requested she be a part of Tuesday night’s ceremony. She presented him a signed jersey with her name and number (3).
“He was feisty,” Cunningham said of Chievous’ playing days. “He’s like, ‘You replicate my game more than anyone else has.’ … Once I saw it, I was like, ‘Dang, we were both kind of pit bulls.’”
Chievous still owns plenty of real estate in the Missouri record book with his playing career 21 years in the rear-view mirror. The next-leading scorer in program history, Doug Smith, trails Chievous’ record by 396 points. (Going by Smith’s average of 17.1 points per game, he’d need 23 more games to catch Chievous.)
Chievous’ free-throw record is on a different level of untouchable. He attempted 963 free-throws in his four-year career, 290 more (or 43.7 percent more) than second-place Anthony Peeler. Chievous made 764 free-throws; second place Peeler made 522.
In Missouri history, Chievous is second in scoring average behind only two-year star Willie Smith. He’s second all-time in field goals attempted and field goals made, behind Doug Smith in both categories.
During Tuesday’s ceremony Chievous gave special recognition Sally Nichols, who he met upon arriving in Columbia and ultimately “changed his life.” Underneath a denim jacket he wore a T-shirt with a picture of former Missouri basketball player John Brown, who played from 1971-73 and was later a mentor for Chievous during his career with the Tigers.
“When I chose a school, I knew I wasn’t going back to New York. I had to find somewhere I could live, set up shop,” Chievous said. “I was blessed to meet so many important people that’s still in my life. I still set up shop.”
An alien when he arrived, maybe. Not anymore.