Feed the Beast

Everybody wants Hazelwood Central's Kalen Grimes and St. Louis' junior class of hoopsters. But recruiting in the city is a courtship dance and a high-maintenance affair.

However, the game doesn't end once the prodigy's on campus. It's flatly insufficient to merely coach an inner-city St. Louis product. If the kid doesn't have a daddy back on the ranch, you're expected to be his pa for life, because that's what he's become accustomed to in the Lou.

"Rich [Grawer, former SLU head coach] said: 'There's a certain bond about your kids. When they got to SLU, they didn't leave Vashon,'" recalls Irons.

In other words, the Snyders and Soderbergs of the world had better come correct with the frequent heart-to-hearts and Sunday-afternoon barbecues with their talented youngsters, lest they suffer eternal hellfire like Stormin' Norman or get Judased like Grawer, whose intercollegiate dirt nap came quick on the heels of a prominent ex-Vashon player's abruptly quitting his Billikens.

Legendary Vashon coach Floyd Irons beats recruiting allegations and opponents with equal vigor.
Jennifer Silverberg
Legendary Vashon coach Floyd Irons beats recruiting allegations and opponents with equal vigor.
DeSmet coach Bob Steiner runs his practices with military precision.
Jennifer Silverberg
DeSmet coach Bob Steiner runs his practices with military precision.

And, as is always the case nowadays for elite prep prospects, coaches also must recruit against the Los Angeles Lakers.

"I'd like my kids to get an education," says Glenda Grimes of her son's potentially leapfrogging college for NBA riches, "but if we knew he had a great chance at it, we'd be foolish not to consider it."

Kalen, focused on the season at hand -- in which Hazelwood Central has a legitimate shot at a state title, what with Vashon moving down to 4A status for the time being (Vashon's enrollment was just below the 5A threshold) -- is more dismissive than his mother.

"I hear it from a lot of people," he admits. "I don't think nothin' of it."

His attitude toward the hailstorm of scholastic suitors is similarly blasé.

"Right now, I'm concentrating on basketball," he says, already having mastered the time-honored art of boring locker-room clichés as he ices a bum ankle.

Grimes says SLU's mail has yet to make the "creative and unique" stack, but that hasn't discouraged Grimes -- who expects to narrow his list of schools to a half-dozen or so at season's end -- from considering a career as a Billiken.

"It's my hometown school," he says.

For the record, the University of Missouri also falls into that category.

But there's a lot more eleventh-grade booty at stake than Grimes, who played an age bracket up for the St. Louis Eagles' under-seventeen team this past summer -- the first since former SLU star and Washington Wizards pro Larry Hughes' squad to win the Super Showcase, the de facto AAU national-championship tournament, held during the NCAA's Wild West recruiting period every July in Florida. The Beast merely sits at the head of a sensational junior class that includes Vashon point guard Dwayne Polk; Cardinal Ritter pogo stick Terry Evans; East St. Louis' Tommie Liddell; Xavier Price of O'Fallon, Illinois; and one of Grimes' teammates, guard Aaron Jackson.

"They're as good as Larry Hughes' class," says Vince Estrada, business manager for the Eagles, the oldest AAU club in the area. "Kalen Grimes is big-time."

The stars were supposed to align perfectly for Stewart and the Mizzou men's basketball team in 1982.

Stewart had a dominant center in Steve Stipanovich, a dead-eye shooter in Jon Sundvold and a wicked slick slasher in leading scorer Ricky Frazier. As if a trio of All-American caliber players wasn't enough to warm Stewart's Southern-fried heart, the Midwest Regionals that year were to be hosted by the great city of St. Louis, seemingly assuring Mizzou of a couple of backyard blowouts and a trip to the Final Four.

Stormin' Norman had such a good feeling about '82 and its potential positive repercussions that he'd even tapped Grawer, Stipanovich's legendary coach at DeSmet Jesuit High School, to be one of his assistants.

"I think Norm wanted me to cement relationships with St. Louis coaches," says Grawer, now the athletic director of the Clayton School District and one of the most universally beloved figures in the annals of St. Louis-area basketball.

But thanks to a one-point loss in the Sweet Sixteen to a University of Houston team led by Olajuwon -- then a little-known freshman -- Grawer never got the chance to watch the inner-city cement dry, at least not at Mizzou. The day after the loss, Grawer resigned to take the head-coaching job at SLU.

"He [Stewart] tried to talk me out of it, said I'd get a better job," says Grawer, a native St. Louisan. "I said, 'I don't want a better job -- I want to go home.' When I got the SLU job, the emphasis was on St. Louis, particularly the [Public High League]. We recruited the African-American community."

Grawer homed in on PHL talent right off the bat, landing Beaumont's Luther Burden and Central's Pee Wee Lenard in his first year as SLU's head coach. Three years later, Grawer hit the PHL recruiting jackpot by signing McKinley High's dynamic duo of Monroe Douglas and Roland Gray, thus proving his mettle to the city's notoriously parochial basketball gatekeepers.

"When he got Monroe Douglas, I said, 'Rich, you have the whole black community,'" says radio host/hoop gadfly Richard "Onion" Horton.

The following season, Irons paved the way for Grawer to land the Vashon trio of Anthony Jones, Ramon Trice and Anthony Bonner, who would go on to become SLU's all-time leading scorer. Led by Bonner, Douglas and Gray, SLU would enjoy consecutive trips to the National Invitation Tournament Finals in '89 and '90, where they lost in heartbreaking fashion both years.

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