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Although most basketball coaches spend early-season practices putting their players through an endless throng of technical drills designed to work out the kinks of a kegger-and-cineplex off-season, Hazelwood Central coach Chris Pilz is a firm believer in the power of live action.
On team-picture day, the folksy Pilz -- a native of Rolla, Missouri -- is putting his squad through a four-on-four scrimmage. The offense his team runs is a carbon copy of the feed-tree-and-kick method that Hakeem Olajuwon and his jump-shooting minions -- Sam Cassell, Mario Elie and Robert Horry among them -- mastered during the Houston Rockets' back-to-back NBA titles in the Jordanless mid-'90s.
"Give it to him!" Pilz yells at five-foot-nine junior guard Kyle Hamilton, the lone white on the Hawks' varsity roster.
"Him," of course, is six-foot-eight, 260-pound Kalen "the Beast" Grimes, who is the nation's number-two-ranked junior at the center position, although he's projected as a power forward in college.
Hamilton follows orders and dumps the rock into Grimes, whose protruding chest and boulder-size shoulders conjure a young Kellen Winslow. Facially, he resembles Olajuwon, and when he damn near knocks highly touted six-foot-five freshman Alex Tyus on his keister in the course of a spin move to set up his patented jump hook, the Beast is all Elton Brand.
Two possessions later, Grimes -- a Windex man deluxe -- snatches a board, quickly outlets and freight-trains the length of the wood. On reaching the top of key on the opposite end, the Beast calls for the ball, only to fumble a tricky bounce pass at shin level.
Most onlookers would blame the turnover on the passer -- but not the state's top prospect.
"My bad!" Grimes yells. Like most bona fide superstars, Grimes would rather be thrown a difficult pass in traffic or transition than see his teammates play it safe. More often than not, Grimes is going to seize the motherfucking rock, drop his left shoulder into a punier opponent's chestplate and will the ball through the twine -- which is exactly what he does on the next three possessions.
There isn't a college in the country that wouldn't mind having Kalen Grimes as its starting power forward in two years. At this point, the hardest chargers appear to be Kentucky, Kansas, Illinois and, of course, Missouri and St. Louis University.
"'A zillion letters' is an understatement." says Grimes' mother, Glenda Grimes, of the incoming scholastic solicitations. "We went through an exercise to see who sends the most unique, creative mail, and those are the ones we open."
But for the college coach, focusing on creative calligraphy and the folks won't cut it in the convoluted rain dance of St. Louis hoop recruiting. Wooing prep hoop talent is a lot like courting a potential sweetie-pie. If you remember the orchid and box of chocolates on date one, you might flip skins by night's end. Show up all by your lonesome with only the merits of your program and a beat-up Ford Taurus, and you'll end up sharing a bed with the January issue of Hustler and a squeeze bottle of hand lotion.
"Guys who talked to Sister Theresa, those are the guys who are more memorable," says Cardinal Ritter College Prep athletic director Kevin O'Brien, reflecting on how Mike Krzyzewski's Duke University recruiting juggernaut -- at the time headed by current Mizzou head coach Quin Snyder, then a Duke assistant -- wooed Ritter star Chris Carrawell in a strategy of comprehensive schmoozing that involved chatting up everyone within earshot on Thekla Avenue.
The Grimes clan has been through the recruiting dog-and-pony show before, although not to this outrageous degree. Glenda's six-foot-four husband, Michael, starred at Sumner in the mid-'70s as a sharpshooting wingman and went on to play college ball at Central Methodist College in Fayette, Missouri. Kalen's brother, Michael Jr., is a junior forward at Creighton University.
"One of Michael's deciding factors was a Creighton assistant who'd seen him at an AAU tournament when he wasn't having a good game," says Glenda. "The coach came over and said something like 'It's gonna be OK.' Something small like that will make a kid think about a decision to go someplace."
Glenda Grimes really liked former SLU coach Lorenzo Romar -- who scooted for fatter benjis at the University of Washington -- and says it's "unfortunate" that he's gone. With Romar's departure, local hoop junkies are skeptical as to whether SLU and its first-year head coach, Brad Soderberg, can seal the borders against a highly regarded Snyder-Tony Harvey Mizzou recruiting tandem, regarded by Vashon High coach Floyd Irons as "the Lone Ranger and Tonto."
To pull this daunting trick, Soderberg will have to carefully navigate a basketball broth made more pungent over the years by the enhanced power of Amateur Athletic Union teams and dispersal of schoolboy talent to St. Louis County as a result of school desegregation, stiffer academic requirements and middle-class flight that has reduced, top-to-bottom, Public High League competitiveness to a one-trick Vashon pony.
Snyder's central challenge is not of his own making. Irons and Company believe Norm Stewart soiled his program's carpet by essentially ignoring St. Louis proper in his 30-plus years as the Tigers' commander in chief. But by signing Vashon wunderkind Jimmy McKinney, the first Public High League player to sign with Mizzou since 1971, Snyder has given St. Louis' king-shit talent brokers an early, life-affirming sign that he's serious about setting up camp in the River City.