Basketball by the Book: A Riverfront Times Investigation

The Vashon High School Wolverines have won five state titles in the past eight years. But did they play by the rules?

MSHSAA staffers say they don't keep track of how many sanctions the agency levies each year and could point to only one that involved Vashon.

That case arose in September 2002, before the basketball season started. According to news reports, coach Richard Hamilton of Public High League rival Beaumont complained to the MSHSAA that junior William Franklin had improperly transferred to Vashon after playing football and basketball at Beaumont the previous two years. Following an investigation into recruiting "or undue influence," the MSHSAA board concluded that Franklin had transferred to Vashon "for athletic reasons" and declared him ineligible for 2002-'03. (The board noted that it had found no evidence of recruiting on the part of Vashon coach Floyd Irons.)

A Riverfront Times review of MSHSAA board meeting minutes from 2001 through 2006 turns up one additional Vashon case. In 2001 the association declared Jesse Garth ineligible for having transferred from Parkway West High School to Vashon and suiting up as a sophomore for the Wolverines' team while academically ineligible.

Vashon High School's new, $40 million campus opened 
at the start of the 2002-'03 academic year. The gym 
floor bears the name "Irons' Court," in honor of its 
longtime coach.
Jennifer Silverberg
Vashon High School's new, $40 million campus opened at the start of the 2002-'03 academic year. The gym floor bears the name "Irons' Court," in honor of its longtime coach.
Floyd Irons, whose 31-year reign as Vashon's head 
basketball coach ended abruptly this past summer, says he 
knows nothing about whether his former players' living 
arrangements violated state bylaws for athletic eligibility.
Jennifer Silverberg
Floyd Irons, whose 31-year reign as Vashon's head basketball coach ended abruptly this past summer, says he knows nothing about whether his former players' living arrangements violated state bylaws for athletic eligibility.

"[Parkway West coach Bill Sodemann] tried to contact [athletic director Jim Ford] at Vashon and didn't get any correspondence back," recounts Parkway athletic director and MSHSAA board member Mike Gohn. "He called me and I tried to contact Vashon and let them know there was potentially a student playing for them that was ineligible.

"We had no transfer papers on him," Gohn goes on. "And any time a kid changes schools, it's the new school's responsibility to send a transfer paper to the sending school, for eligibility purposes. After no correspondence or phone calls back from Vashon High School, I had to bring it to the attention of the MSHSAA staff."

MSHSAA ruled that Vashon must forfeit any games in which Garth had appeared in 2000-'01 and sit out an equal number of games in 2001-'02. Published box scores from 2000-'01 indicate that Garth hadn't played that year; MSHSAA has discarded its file regarding Garth.

Sodemann, the Parkway coach, says he was never notified about the sanctions. He declined to discuss the case.


After the St. Louis area instituted its desegregation plan in 1982, many of the city's athletic programs suffered. The most vivid transformation involved the Public High League's football juggernaut, which went from the penthouse to the outhouse as the city's finest gridiron athletes flocked to county schools, whose football programs experienced the same transformation in reverse, going from perennial doormats to regulars at the state championship tournament. (For more on the football-related phenomenon, see Matthew Everett's October 22, 2003, article, "Offside!" available online at www.riverfronttimes.com.)

When viewed against that backdrop, Vashon's basketball program stands out. In an academically underperforming district racked with controversy and dissent, at a school that consistently struggles to maintain academic standards, Vashon basketball — and coach Floyd Irons — has provided a source of pride for the St. Louis community. Though Vashon is not, in official educationspeak, a "magnet school," it is a magnet for local basketball players, who often close the book on academic careers at county schools in order to return to the city and bask in the glory of Irons' nationally recognized basketball dynasty.

Over the years rival coaches have privately questioned some of these transfers and pointed to alleged incidences of recruiting.

One name that has recently arisen is that of Leon Powell ('07). Powell, who lives within Vashon's boundaries, attended the Lindbergh School District via the desegregation program before registering as a freshman at Vashon and joining the Wolverines in 2003.

Two other controversial transfers were brothers Johnny ('05) and Bobby ('06) Hill. They lived and attended public schools in Alton, Illinois, before relocating to a rental apartment right around the corner from Vashon on Samuel Shepard Drive in 2002 and making the team. They later moved to another apartment on Bell Avenue. Their father, Johnny Hill Sr., lives in Alton, according to public records and a friend of Hill who answered a phone call there from Riverfront Times last month. (During a subsequent call, a woman who answered the phone offered contradictory statements about whether Johnny Hill Sr. and his sons lived there.)

Bobby Hill did not return an e-mail request for comment. Johnny Hill Jr. now attends Southeast Missouri State University. The telephone number listed for him in the school's directory is the same as his father's number in Alton. He could not be reached.

Perhaps the most notorious Vashon transfer was Malik White.

The six-foot-eight-inch center enrolled at Vashon and joined the Wolverines as a sophomore in the fall of 2001, after attending school as a freshman in the Ritenour district in north St. Louis County. On August 21, 2002, five months after helping his new team win the state championship, White was shot and killed outside his parents' home — in Jennings.

"He gets off a plane with Floyd one day — they were back from the AAU summer league tournament in Las Vegas — and he says, 'Mom, I'm going around the corner,'" his mother, Ramona Fortner, recalls. "It was broad daylight, seven o'clock in the evening, and he was murdered twenty minutes later."

White's daughter, Malika, was born two months after the shooting. Her father would have turned 21 October 7.

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