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.

"Basketball in this city has gotten so bad. I can't stomach anybody but Vashon," says Horton, over a bowl of -- what else? -- onion soup at Duff's in the Central West End.

The alleged culprit? The controversial Voluntary Interdistrict Transfer Program, better known as deseg, which went into effect in 1983 with the intention of improving educational options for black children by allowing them to be voluntarily bused to county schools.

Jennifer Silverberg
Glenda Grimes lets her son kid around -- by lifting weights in his spare time.
Jennifer Silverberg
Glenda Grimes lets her son kid around -- by lifting weights in his spare time.

DeSmet's Steiner believes that deseg, although well-intended, has had a net effect of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

"It gave those kids a great opportunity for a much better education," reasons Steiner, "but if they'd taken the money they put into deseg and invested it in schools, we'd have had the best of both worlds."

Through a settlement reached in 1999 with the suburban school districts, the program is to be slowly scaled back, but it still siphons upwards of 10,000 African-American students to the 'burbs each year.

"Desegregation is probably the worst thing to happen to basketball around here. The Public High League used to be phenomenal; now it's nothing," says Mike Martin, who coaches the AAU Gators, the Eagles' top local rival, which draws its talent almost exclusively from the suburbs. "In '69, Sumner had seven Division One players on one team. People say these Vashon teams are some of the greatest, but they're nothing compared to that Sumner team."

Martin's theory is that supertalented black kids bused in from the city eat up varsity spots at county schools, preventing or discouraging lesser players from getting the requisite game experience to blossom. This sets off a chain reaction in which the deseg athlete's skills atrophy when he's allowed to coast against lesser talent.

Although Ritter's Neals -- the coach at Soldan when deseg began -- acknowledges the program's impact, he points to another restriction, the 2.0 minimum GPA for eligibility, as having more impact in the Reagan-era administrative double whammy. The intent here was clear: If the kid isn't cutting the mustard in the classroom, it must be that he's too distracted by extracurricular activities such as running the rock. Take away that privilege, and nothing stands in the way of hitting the books.

The reality, Neals reasons, is quite the opposite. For many a PHL student-athlete, the basketball court is an oasis of stability in an often tumultuous home life. Take that stability away, and the kid chucks the whole kit and caboodle, often dropping out and turning to crime instead of entering the workforce to get paper.

"Deseg hurt me for two years, and then we managed to piece it together," says Neals. "I was vehemently against the 2.0 minimum GPA. If you're serious about it, why not say everyone can't graduate without it? You could see the rise of gangs. Kids dropped out. They missed that camaraderie. When you take sports away, where do kids drift? I always felt athletics was a haven for people to come together."

When asked about the impact of the 2.0 minimum, Irons echoes Steiner's comments on deseg.

"The theory behind it [the 2.0 minimum] was good. Is that asking too much? I don't think so," says Irons, who is also an assistant principal at Vashon. "But we're already fighting deseg -- and now we're fighting that."

Somewhat surprisingly, it is Irons -- whose Vashon squad rose to national prominence only after deseg kicked in -- who is perhaps the program's harshest critic.

"Deseg raped the St. Louis public schools," he says curtly. "I felt like the suburban schools were given carte blanche to recruit. Pattonville, Eureka, Webster Groves -- all of them really flourished. You helped one segment but destroyed another."

Reminded that seven of his school's eight state championships -- including the last three in a row -- came after deseg's inception, Irons doesn't waver.

"Indirectly, we were affected by it. We were only as strong as the city schools," he says. "It was the old plantation mentality of those given an opportunity to get out looking down on those who stayed. Kids thought they were better than those who remained ... I thought many of the PHL coaches gave up. I was one of the ones who wouldn't give up. I thought Neals did a good job at Soldan."

The counterweight to all this piss and vinegar is suburban flight, a local tradition of sorts that is not limited to the paleface set. Neither Grimes nor any of his black teammates attend Hazelwood as a result of the deseg; Glenda Grimes has lived in the county for 30 years. And over the past three decades, there's been a steady influx of African-Americans and members of other ethnic groups into the county, moving out of the city for all the same reasons: less crime, better money, better homes and better schools.

When a team loses six seniors, the next year should be one of rebuilding. Not so at Vashon, where Irons' current squad -- which will rely on point guard Polk and a gaggle of long, lean underclassmen for octane -- looks to have more than enough talent to compensate for its inexperience.

One of these underclassmen is six-foot-nine sophomore Curtis Muse, who, if hell freezes over and the Wolverines have trouble scoring, could very well keep Vashon in most games simply by swatting a score of opposition-launched Spaldings to Tuscaloosa with his Yao Ming wingspan (a.k.a. "Mingspan").

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