Nothin' But Net

An obsession with basketball takes CBC seniors Ryan Johnson and D.J. Hogue through a successful -- but heartbreaking -- season

Bob Steiner, head coach at DeSmet, responds, "Our kids won the sportsmanship trophy on Saturday (at the state tourney). That's voted on by a panel appointed by the state. That tells you all you need to know."

Cusamano, a former teammate of McCormack's, uses the championship game between Vashon and DeSmet as an example. "Vashon is representing the city of St. Louis in those games," he says. "DeSmet or CBC is representing the county, especially with DeSmet. The white kids from the county, the state champs from the county. The black kids from the city, the state champs from the city. It couldn't be more defined."

To Irons, what happened that Saturday came about because of the chants from the CBC side, though they seemed fairly innocuous: "Fire up, CB, fire up," "D.J., D.J." and things along that line. CBC also travels with one of the smaller student sections in the MCC, even getting outyelled in their own building by traveling DeSmet and SLUH fans.

A deeper emotion simmers just beneath the surface when Vashon plays CBC, with race, obviously, a key component. More than any group of players or any particular swing in the action, it appears to be the real source of that Saturday's friction.

"Normally we do not get that type of cheering or behavior until we play those types of teams," Irons says of his fans. "A lot of our kids feel that even the black kids at CBC look down on the kids from the inner city. Even with the deseg kids or the kids that go to the county schools, they feel that they have a house -- and I hate to use the word -- but a house-Negro mentality. That's the way it's displayed. For D.J. and the others, that's the way the kids see them.

"I don't disapprove of what Bob is trying to do. I just hope he's not doing it just for the purpose (of winning). That's something you would hope they wouldn't do."

McCormack responds, "People don't realize when I went in, the team was already predominantly African-American. It's not the least bit different than it was when I went here in the late '70s. We accept any race. A lot of people can't accept it, and I don't understand it. It's unfortunate.

"I don't understand the way some people think. I grew up in a primarily African-American community on the north side of Olive, in University City, a block from Pagedale. For me, to come in and work with African-American kids is a pleasure. I didn't come in thinking of them that way, one way or another. I see them as kids -- rather as good basketball players -- and as good people."

When his team was matched against Vashon at UM-St. Louis, though, other feelings came to the fore.

Even Irons wondered what some thought when leaving the building. "I imagine some people thought, 'Was that more of a basketball game or a racial match? Was I at a basketball game or a grudge match?'"

"I think he's right on in that the games at UM-St. Louis are just loaded with racial tension," says Cusamano. "When (DeSmet's Matt) Baniak and (Vashon's James) Williams were seniors, there was more racial tension in that gym than I've ever seen in my life. My son Alex, who was 4, was at the game, and I shoved him under the scorer's table. Thankfully, nothing happened after the game.

"As long as there's no shenanigans after the game, it's fine. There's not a more passionate atmosphere anywhere in town, pro or college, than those 75 minutes at UM-St. Louis. The lessons these kids learn ... boy, it's super."

"People are going to come after you no matter," sums up Johnson. "You face that in college and the next level. If I go out and play my best game, they'll respect me regardless. After the game, still to this day, people have said, 'You played a helluva game.' People tell me, 'You carried the team on your back as far as you could.' I don't care what anyone says. I know how I was brought up. I don't worry about anyone else.

"I know a lot of Vashon guys -- I grew up across the street from Vashon. That's why I don't like them mentioning it being a city school against a county school. It's about playing basketball. It's not a racial game. Let the best team win."

Against Vashon, Ryan Johnson did everything he could to make sure that his was the best team, the effort just coming up short.

A series of deft passes and daring, acrobatic shots pulled the team from a deep halftime deficit into the lead, only for Vashon to rally back.

At times during its season, CBC relied on big points from Hogue, Maclin, Van Hee and Larry Jones. But with the game in the balance, a trip to the state finals hanging by a thread, there wasn't much doubt who would take the ball up the court in the last seconds of the season. Everyone in the building knew what was coming, which made the scene no less thrilling.

With four seconds left on the clock, CBC point guard Ryan Johnson took an inbounds pass and headed, with a purposeful aggression, into an attacking full-court sprint.

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