Shooting Stars

Tommie Liddell plays tortoise to Darius Milesí hare in the annals of East Side High basketball lore

"Tommie is a six-five whatever-he-wants-to-be," says Soderberg. "He's as good a guard as I've seen in twenty years of coaching. This young man has the ability to play beyond SLU."

Lofty prognostications are generally accepted as the routine currency of collegiate courtship. Nonetheless, they rankle North Carolina-based prep scout Dave Telep of

"That statement is way out there," Telep says. "It does a disservice. The statistics are in no one's favor in the grand scheme of things. We use the words 'NBA' with so many kids; it creates false expectations. Why does the NBA have to get asked of any guy? The question with Tommie should be, 'Can he be an all-conference guy?' Anything beyond that is putting the cart before the horse."

Tommie Liddell Sr. takes care of the dry-cleaning for 
the Billiken-to-be -- and defies the stereotype of the 
absentee father.
Jennifer Silverberg
Tommie Liddell Sr. takes care of the dry-cleaning for the Billiken-to-be -- and defies the stereotype of the absentee father.
East Side by side: Mark "Twin" Howlett (left) and 
Liddell relax between practice drills at East Side High.
Jennifer Silverberg
East Side by side: Mark "Twin" Howlett (left) and Liddell relax between practice drills at East Side High.

If Soderberg is prone to bouts of hyperbole, he's done a bang-up job of insulating his staff against the long-held criticism that the Billikens do a lackluster job of recruiting locally. Besides Liddell, next year's freshman class will include Vashon High point guard Dwayne Polk and Borgia swingman Luke Meyer, two talented players whose games are more specialized and whose natural assets are more limited than those of the rangy, versatile Liddell.

"Saint Louis U. is convinced that one way to build a program is to keep some of the best players from leaving," says Floyd Irons, principal and coach at perennial St. Louis prep powerhouse Vashon. "Kids like to go places where they know people, where they fit in. You have to give Brad a lot of credit for what he's doing over there."

Another person who gives Soderberg credit is East Side baseball coach Maurice Scott, a steadfast community presence who has served as mentor to Miles, Liddell and other schoolboy studs.

"I think it was Soderberg's straightforwardness," Scott says of SLU's key to beating out the likes of Kansas, Marquette, Illinois and DePaul in the sweepstakes for Liddell's services. "Tommie's mom fell in love with him during their home visit."

Liddell's mom, Diane Rhodes, has fond memories of the visit. Tommie, having lost track of time while playing pickup ball at a nearby community center, showed up late, giving the Wisconsin-bred Soderberg time to bond with Rhodes over a televised Green Bay Packers game in the living room of the Liddell family's tiny apartment.

"He was like family," Rhodes says of the impression the SLU coach made.

Near the intersection of State and Tenth streets, on the outskirts of the rotting retail core of East St. Louis, sits an old farmer's market. In place of vendors hawking fresh plums, peas and peppers reside a hollowed-out Oldsmobile and a chalkboard bearing two telling words: "Third World." Around the corner on Sixth Street are the Samuel Gompers Apartments, a barracks-style compound of buildings erected in 1943 as East St. Louis' first public housing development.

In the kitchen of one of Building 27's spartan units, Tommie Liddell, fresh from practice, scoops taco meat into hard tortilla shells as his mother mops the linoleum. Plate prepped, the Flyer joins his littlest brother, nine-year-old James, in front of a small TV set showing a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond. Liddell is clad in his standard leisure-time outfit: orange East Side practice jersey, pressed blue jeans and a black baseball cap pulled low over his braided black hair and inscribed with "ESTL" and the town's area code, 618. On his left shoulder is a tattoo of a basketball player carrying a rim, which Liddell co-opted from a picture in The Source magazine. Around his neck dangles a gold necklace with the symbols "T-Mac 25," a homage to his favorite player, Tracy McGrady of the Orlando Magic. McGrady wears a jersey numbered 1, though. Twenty-five is the exclusive domain of the talented Mr. Liddell.

No one in the Liddell family can figure out how Tommie grew to be so tall and lanky. Both of his parents are comparably compact, Tommie Sr. standing five-eleven and Mom about five-eight. Tommie's got his mama's lush eyes, while his demeanor, marked by a gentle speaking voice and delayed-reaction laugh, is more akin to his laid-back dad.

Tommie was born when Diane Rhodes was a junior at East Side. She and Tommie Sr. had another son, twelve-year-old Montrez, together. They never wed, though they remain on good terms. These days Tommie Sr. works the graveyard shift at Big River Zinc in nearby Sauget and shares a tidy apartment with his wife, Euronda, in Belleville, where his eldest son sometimes spends the weekend. Diane, who works at the President Casino, gets along fine with Euronda, to the point where both of Tommie's mommies attended the press conference at which the hotly recruited point guard, with an assist from close family friend Maurice Scott, declared his intent to accept the SLU scholarship.

Liddell's strong family support network enables him to buck the absentee-dad stereotype of the young, black, urban male. But if he intends to don number 25 in SLU blue next year, he'll need to hit the books. With a grade-point average hovering around 2.5, he must either dramatically improve his GPA during the balance of his senior year or ratchet up his score on the ACT standardized test, which he's already taken once, by two points. If he fails to achieve the minimum standard, Liddell will probably have to spend a year beefing up his grades and his game as best he can at a junior college or prep school -- and hope SLU stays interested.

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