The answer to Larry Bird's prayers for a white basketball savior might reside just off Highway 67 in Poplar Bluff

"Every day you play, you risk getting injured," says Gene Hansbrough, who has purchased a sizable insurance policy on his middle son. "If you can secure three generations of family at age twenty, you have to consider that."

The St. Louis Eagles were founded in 1988 to garner attention for St. Louis-area basketball players. The ploy has worked, evidently: 94 percent of all Eagles go on to earn college scholarships, and the club counts current NBA players Larry Hughes and Jahidi White among a long list of alumni that includes current Eagles head coach Claggett, a member of the 1991 team that finished third in the AAU nationals.

The pride of Poplar Bluff: Brothers Tyler (left)  and Ben 
Jennifer Silverberg
The pride of Poplar Bluff: Brothers Tyler (left) and Ben Hansbrough
Tyler demonstrates the art of the 
breakaway dunk.
Jennifer Silverberg
Tyler demonstrates the art of the breakaway dunk.

An all-conference point guard at Saint Louis University who played professionally overseas, Claggett commands respect because his kids know he can ball. His lone Caucasian assistant, the portly, mercurial Eric Long, receives no such benefit of the doubt.

"He ever play basketball?" asks Eagle guard Arthur Sargent on the walk from the gym to the team bus after an early Peach Jam loss to a team from Memphis.

"No, but I think he got second in a hot-dog-eating contest once," replies Ben Hansbrough. His teammates crack up.

What keeps Long in the Eagles' brain trust is his eye for downstate talent. Along with longtime Eagles assistant Ron "Mr. G" Golden, Long combs the bi-state region for prospects like the Hansbrough boys and Ashton Farmer, a strapping six-foot-six power forward from Charleston High School near Cape Girardeau who is Tyler's toughest intra-conference foe during the regular season.

"It's heated," Tami Wheat says of the Farmer-Hansbrough rivalry.

But on this midsummer day, as the Eagles return to the Peach Jam venue in Augusta for a hotly anticipated contest versus the undefeated Illinois Warriors, Farmer and the Hansbroughs are joshing as if basketball were the furthest things from their minds.

"Throw it up!" hollers Ben, to which Tyler and Farmer, who is black, respond by flashing a scissor-handed faux gang sign meant to signify their Boot Heel allegiance.

Rivals acting chummy is a hallmark of any all-star team. But these Eagles aren't a one-off assortment of schoolboy studs. Playing a half-dozen or more tournaments from March through July, the AAU squad's economical, two-a-day game schedule enables them to squeeze in anywhere from 30 to 40 contests in that four-month stretch, forcing players who are go-to guys on their high school teams to adjust to roles they'll likely have to play in college.

It has taken a few games for Tyler and his teammates to click in Augusta, and the Eagles have opened Peach Jam play with three consecutive losses. The first half of game four against the Warriors gives the impression that the team is about ready to roll over and die. With her sons down 41-26 at halftime, Tami Wheat, resplendent in Capri pants, a stylish denim jacket and pink rhinestone sandals, is being chatted up by an NCAA official. Seated on the opposite sideline, University of Kentucky coach Tubby Smith -- rumored to have been first runner-up in the Tyler Hansbrough pageant -- nods at Wheat, who smiles back. She knows Smith, and likes him, but the two are forbidden by NCAA rules from talking to one another. This, after all, is July, an NCAA "quiet period" during which coaches are prohibited from consulting with recruits or their coaches or parents.

Awkward as it may be, Smith believes the rules are an improvement over the vigilante olden days.

"You used to have coaches waiting in line to talk to a kid," the coach recounts. "We're not prostituting ourselves, so it's better now. But it is unnatural."

In Smith's immediate vicinity are Carolina's Roy Williams, University of Florida coach Billy Donovan, Texas coach Rick Barnes, Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Arizona's Lute Olson, the last of whom has been dubbed "Midnight Lute" for his ability to persuade recruits to renege on oral commitments to rival universities hours before signing their official letters of intent. (Mizzou's coach Quin Snyder was barred from attending all but the first day of Peach Jam action, owing to the university's self-imposed sanctions for rules violations involving former Tiger Ricky Clemons.) Ready with a wink and a nod should a boy they're wooing shoot a glance their way, Smith's assessment is correct in that these silent types would never be mistaken for stiletto-heeled denizens of a red-light district. But in their own middle-aged come-hither way, they're still adjunct practitioners of the oldest profession.

The Warriors-Eagles second half starts with two more Illinois buckets, pushing the margin to nineteen points. Ben, who was an end-of-the-bench afterthought in his team's first three games, is in at point guard and appears to have decided that if the Eagles are going to chip away at the lead, he and his big brother are going to be the ones who do the chipping. On consecutive possessions he rotates the ball to Tyler, who had tallied a modest ten points by halftime. Tyler converts both layups, touching off a 22-0 St. Louis run that puts the Eagles up by three with eight minutes to play.

An Illinois jumper finally stops the bleeding. Moments after Ben is removed in favor of sharpshooter Landon Shipley of Lafayette High, Tyler steals a Warrior pass and goes coast to coast for a dunk. On the Eagles' next possession, Farmer receives the ball in the high post and swiftly dishes to Tyler, who uses the rim to shield himself from his defender on an up-and-under stuff. The Eagles lead 54-47 and Tyler heads to the bench for a breather with six minutes left.

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