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.

A mere two years later, without Bonner and company, Grawer went 5-23, and his days at SLU were numbered.

"My downfall was that I was not able to supplement the outstanding players from St. Louis with outstanding players from out of state," says Grawer.

Still, Grawer's dismissal seemed hasty and unusual in light of his overall record at an institution whose basketball program had been downright moribund in the decade before his arrival -- unusual until you consider the fact that seven-foot ex-Vashon center Melvin Robinson quit the team during Grawer's dreadful final year.

SLU coach Brad Soderberg has come under fire for passing on DeSmet's Blake Ahearn.
Jennifer Silverberg
SLU coach Brad Soderberg has come under fire for passing on DeSmet's Blake Ahearn.
Former DeSmet and SLU coach Rich Grawer put the PHL first, and then he was toast.
Jennifer Silverberg
Former DeSmet and SLU coach Rich Grawer put the PHL first, and then he was toast.

"I thought Rich treated it more like a business, which he had a right to do," says Vashon's Irons. "But lots of times kids are looking for father figures, and Melvin didn't have a father."

To make matters worse, Robinson's transfer came swift on the heels of the transfer of former PHL prodigy Craig Upchurch (of Beaumont High), who went on to star at the University of Houston after being ruled academically ineligible to play at SLU.

"I got criticized for losing those kids," says Grawer.

A harsher assessment is that he lost his job for it and that it was the very black community whom Grawer once had in his hip pocket that stealthily snatched his whistle and gym keys.

Grawer made all the right moves, until he lost Robinson -- and then he was toast.

Although Grawer deserves a ton of credit for his sterling record of landing inner-city recruits, an equally significant factor was old boss Stewart's virtual refusal to even try recruiting in St. Louis proper, something that Grawer attributes to a philosophy that emphasized state over city.

"I feel like Norm took the PHL for granted," says Irons, whose social-studies-teacher background, high-pitched voice and Lego hair make him a ringer for Mr. Payne from the cult classic Dazed and Confused ("Fifty of you are goin' into the jungle; 25 of you ain't comin' back!"). "For whatever reason, he chose to alienate city schools. Norm had become an icon where he felt he could get what he wanted without doing work around here."

Or maybe it was just that Irons and his henchmen steered their kids away from Mizzou. The last PHL player Stewart landed was Vashon's Lamont Turner, in 1971 -- two years before Irons took over as the Wolverines' boy-wonder head coach at the age of 25.

"Norm came in at the ninth hour to talk about Anthony Bonner," explains Irons. "I told Bonner to go to SLU."

"People hated Norm Stewart," says Horton, pulling no punches. "Everybody in St. Louis was telling 'em [top PHL kids] to go to SLU.

"He [Stewart] just didn't want kids from St. Louis. Maybe he thought he'd get a lot of flak for not playing them. He was more comfortable with black kids outside of St. Louis."

Indeed, Stewart recruited inner-city black kids -- Anthony Peeler and Doug Smith come to mind -- he just didn't recruit black kids from inner-city St. Louis. His track record in Detroit, home of all-time leading Mizzou scorer Derrick Chievous, is especially impressive. Snyder quickly built upon this Motor City tradition by signing current junior linchpins Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson the year after Stormin' Norman bailed.

Even still, some find Stewart's laissez-faire attitude toward the PHL reprehensible -- namely Stipanovich, the former number-two overall pick (behind Ralph Sampson) in the 1983 NBA draft, who now lives in Creve Coeur.

"I think Norm could have done a much better job coming into St. Louis and getting guys," says Stipanovich, whose five-year pro career with the Indiana Pacers was cut short by a degenerative knee condition, "and I think, unjustly so, the black leaders steered their kids away from the Missouri basketball program and the school as well. When Coach Snyder came in there, he was smart. He knew he needed to restore and develop a relationship with the coaches in the city. Norm Stewart should have done more of that. There were some great players he should have never let get away."

One of those players Stewart let get away was Central High School's Richard Hamilton, a six-foot-five do-everything dynamo who could influence the outcome of a game without taking a single shot. But Stewart's attempts to recruit Hamilton, now head coach at Beaumont, were half-assed at best. Hamilton ended up playing for Bob Wettlich, a Bobby Knight disciple, at Ole Miss -- "a nice quiet place," reminisces the burly Hamilton in his affable Cookie Monster voice -- before finishing up his college education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

But Hamilton doesn't pin Missouri's long PHL drought squarely on Stewart.

"As a black kid going to Boone County (i.e., Columbia), it's a culture shock," explains Hamilton. "A lot of coaching staffs aren't represented by African-Americans, so they don't have a father figure."

Cardinal Ritter coach Marvin Neals, who coached at Soldan from 1972-90, points to academics.

"Norm went after the top player in the state. He didn't get the top player in the city," says Neals. "They weren't academically qualified to go to Mizzou."

Or maybe Stewart believed, as Irons insinuates, that his icon status would automatically attract talent without his having to expend much effort on the recruiting trail.

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