By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Anne Valente
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
Not long before Clayton High School's football team was to advance to the Missouri state championship playoffs in November 2003, a scandal broke out: The athletic director from a rival school called his counterpart at Clayton to challenge the eligibility of Jairus Byrd, a junior who'd played two years of high school ball in Wisconsin and was now living with his parents in an Earth City hotel while paying tuition to attend Clayton.
That's a violation of Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) bylaws. Specifically bylaw "238.0, Residence and Transfer Requirements," which makes no exceptions for tuition-paying students.
Almost as quickly as you can say "ineligible," the Greyhounds' 9-0 record became 0-9 in accordance with MSHSAA bylaw 830.0, which states: "Games in which an ineligible player plays shall be forfeited." Clayton would have to wait till the next year to vie for the state crown.
Byrd, who these days plays defensive back for the Pac-10 Conference's University of Oregon Ducks, is the son of ex-San Diego Chargers all-pro defensive back Gill Byrd, who'd come to St. Louis to take a job as an assistant coach for the St. Louis Rams. The Greyhounds' six-foot, 205-pound star quarterback completed 24 of 48 passes for 444 yards, rushed for 776 yards on 132 carries and scored 15 touchdowns in the fall of 2003. (Byrd also played defense, making 37 tackles and 5 interceptions.)
Ultimately MSHSAA determined that Byrd's violation was the result of an oversight by Clayton administrators. He was cleared to play for the Greyhounds in 2004 and proceeded to lead the team to a 13-1 record and the Class 4 state title.
During the same school year in which Clayton's 9-0 was reversed, another local high school squad won a Class 4 state basketball title while fielding a roster that included not one but seven players who ran afoul of MSHSAA's bylaws. Three of the seven lived within the school's mandated attendance area while their parents lived elsewhere. The other four, like Jairus Byrd, lived outside the school's boundaries; two of the four supplied false addresses in official records.
The school: The St. Louis Public High League's Vashon Wolverines.
But unlike the Greyhounds, the Wolverines weren't ordered by MSHSAA to forfeit a single game.
What's more, far from being isolated infringements, the Vashon violations of 2003-'04 appear to characterize Wolverines basketball's compliance with MSHSAA regulations for the past eight years.
Though Irons' players were often rumored to have flouted local and state residency requirements, the matter wasn't internally investigated by officials within the St. Louis Public Schools. Nor did MSHSAA weigh in much. Only twice since 2001 has the agency ordered sanctions against Vashon basketball players; neither case appears to have resulted in any game forfeitures.
Yet a three-month Riverfront Times investigation has revealed that Vashon apparently fielded teams with at least three ineligible players and sometimes as many as ten each and every season dating back to the 1998-'99 school year.
Vashon won state championships in five of those years: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2006.
In order to determine player eligibility, Riverfront Times analyzed Wolverines rosters, MSHSAA files, public records and data obtained from the St. Louis Public Schools; interviewed state and school officials; and visited homes at the addresses that players reported to the school district as their "residences."
The paper’s findings are encapsulated in a chart that is available as a downloadable pdf file.
The eligibility infractions come to light in the wake of several tumultuous months for Floyd Irons.
A 2004 Missouri Sports Hall of Fame inductee, Irons is himself a Vashon alum who racked up 802 wins and 10 of Vashon's 11 state titles in a 31-year coaching career that saw one Vashon player, Anthony Bonner, reach the NBA. The gymnasium at Vashon bears Irons' name testament to a community icon who has been not only a coach but a father figure to many of his players, visiting them at home and helping out financially when the need arose.
On July 11 the St. Louis Board of Education removed Irons from his posts as Vashon coach and district athletic director, without citing a cause.
When the Wolverines open their basketball season November 30, they'll take the court without Floyd Irons for the first time since 1974. Last month Anthony Bonner, who played for the NBA's Sacramento Kings, New York Knicks and Orlando Magic after attending Vashon and Saint Louis University, was named Irons' successor at Vashon.
Irons' demotion spurred pickets outside school-board meetings and at the home of board president Veronica O'Brien. Irons was also one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit that unsuccessfully sought to remove school board member Bill Purdy from office. In late September Irons and Demetrious Johnson, a longtime Irons confidant and a former NFL defensive lineman, filed suit in St. Louis City Circuit Court, alleging that O'Brien defamed their character and falsely claimed they harassed her.
Irons himself narrowly dodged becoming a defendant in a lawsuit this past summer. According to an August 9 report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Missouri Department of Social Services had determined that Irons assaulted a Vashon student named Timothy Bacon in February 2000 and urged the state to file criminal charges. But in 2002 a St. Louis County Circuit Court judge "found insufficient probable cause of abuse or neglect," according to the Post story,and Irons was not charged. In the wake of the news reports, St. Louis attorney Anthony Bruning drafted a civil complaint against Irons on behalf of Bacon. But on August 18, days before Bruning was to file the suit in St. Louis City Circuit Court, Bacon was shot to death on a north St. Louis street.
Irons, who also served as Vashon's interim principal in 2003-'04 and acting principal in 2002-'03, expressed outrage when reached for comment last week. "I don't think you would go to Parkway and do those white kids like you would do our kids," Irons responded. "Why would I give you a reaction to something I have no knowledge of? And the fact of the matter is you're not going around getting information on every kid and every school. You're picking on one school. So why would I give you a response for that?"
Irons then hung up the phone.
In addition to Irons, former Vashon principals Calvin Starks and the late Dorothy Ludgood, as well as ex-athletic directors Russell Arms and Jim Ford, vouched for the school's eligibility rosters in recent years. Starks and Arms did not return calls requesting comment for this story. Ford could not be reached.
The St. Louis Public Schools classify Vashon High as a "neighborhood school." Unlike "magnet schools," which are open to students throughout the school district and St. Louis County, neighborhood schools draw students from a strictly defined area. Vashon's neighborhood boundaries extend from Grand Avenue south to Lafayette Avenue, and from the riverfront west roughly to Grand Boulevard (see map on page 18).
In order to register at a St. Louis public school, the district requires that a student supply proof typically a utility bill, lease agreement or mortgage statement that his or her family's residence lies within the school's mandated attendance area.
In the case of neighborhood schools, explains Louis Kruger, executive director of business operations for the SLPS, "Basically, wherever a student sleeps is where they should be attending school." If a student moves out of one school's boundaries, the district requires that he or she enroll in the new neighborhood's school or apply for admission to a magnet school.
Kruger says the district makes exceptions in special circumstances, but he can't quantify how often. "A few years ago we had a girl who went to Roosevelt [High School] who said she was raped," Kruger notes by way of example. "The alleged rapist had family members at Roosevelt, and the girl was getting harassed because she had gone to authorities with her allegations. So we moved her from Roosevelt to another school."
Administrators may also reassign disruptive students, and so-called hardship exceptions can be made for students in precarious financial situations; most commonly, according to Kruger, the latter are elementary-age children whose babysitter or daycare facility is located near a neighborhood school they wouldn't otherwise attend. Kruger adds that an assistant superintendent at district headquarters is required to approve and document each and every transfer.
Residency is also a cornerstone of athletic eligibility.
According to MSHSAA bylaw 238.2, a student is eligible to participate in varsity sports "in the district in which the student's parents reside" and "at the school designated for them to attend by the board of education."
The regulation specifically defines "parents" as the student's natural, foster or adoptive parents, or a family with whom the student has been living continuously for at least 365 days. Legal guardians only qualify if both natural parents are legally incompetent or dead. Bylaw 238.1, meanwhile, defines "residence" as a "permanent home" where the family "regularly eats and sleeps."
It is up to a school's athletic director and/or principal to verify that each athlete is in compliance with MSHSAA requirements, says Rick Kindhart, one of MSHSAA's assistant executive directors. "We are relying on the integrity of administrators to submit the proper paperwork," says Kindhart.
According to school district data obtained by Riverfront Times, students who lived outside Vashon's boundaries regularly transferred to the school and joined the basketball team. But the data contain no evidence of the required administrative permission to enroll having been filed. Similarly, some roster members enrolled at Vashon while living within the school's boundaries, then moved away but continued to attend the school (and play basketball) again apparently without the required permission being filed.
An example of the former is Kenneth Harris Jr., a member of the class of 2008. During the 2005-'06 season, Harris suited up for 27 of the Wolverines' 29 games a year after scoring 212 points and nabbing 80 rebounds as a freshman starter for the Tigers of Soldan High, a magnet school.
According to state bylaws, transfer students are athletically ineligible for 365 days following enrollment unless the cause for the switch meets one of nine exceptions, the most common being a full-family move into a school's attendance boundaries. Other exceptions, meticulously defined in bylaw 238.3, encompass transfers from corresponding neighborhood middle schools, nonmember schools, unaccredited public schools, boarding schools and foreign exchange programs. Any transfer motivated by athletics is considered a violation.
Stacy Schroeder, a MSHSAA assistant executive director, says a student may transfer from a magnet into a neighborhood school and retain eligibility, provided the player and his parents live in the new school's attendance district. But according to district data, Harris lived with his parents, Kenneth and Darlene Harris, on Shenandoah Avenue in the Shaw neighborhood: Roosevelt High School's attendance area.
The only way Harris could have been eligible to play for Vashon last year would have been for the school to obtain a "hardship" exception from MSHSAA, according to Schroeder, who oversees such requests.
MSHSAA bylaw 238.3 states hardship exceptions are granted "when sufficient evidence is provided to show that it was necessary for the student to transfer because of unforeseen, unavoidable, or unusual circumstances; including, but not limited to, broken home conditions, death of parents or guardian, and abandonment and provided the transfer was not for athletic reasons and there was no undue influence [recruiting]."
Citing privacy laws, MSHSAA denied Riverfront Times' request for documentation of any hardship exceptions granted to Vashon basketball players. But Schroeder confirms that the school did not file any requests for such exceptions during the last school year.
Schroeder declined to discuss specific cases of eligibility but agreed to assess hypothetical scenarios. Presented with a scenario identical to Harris' and asked whether such a player would be ineligible, Schroeder responded, "Yes."
Reached by phone for comment, Kenneth Harris Sr. says his son (who has since transferred to Gateway IT High School) did not live on Shenandoah. Harris hung up after declining to answer further questions.
Last year Riverfront Times interviewed then-Soldan basketball coach Travis Lawrence about Harris' defection to Vashon.
"A lot of people called me and said, 'You should press this matter, bring this up,'" Lawrence recounted. "[Darlene and Kenneth Harris] had looked me in the eye in the summer and told me that the kid was staying at Soldan [for his sophomore year]."
Lawrence felt he was unable to compete with the prestige and the perks offered by a basketball dynasty like Vashon, where along with winning records came navy-blue letter jackets and portable music players for every Wolverine, as well as sparkling uniforms and state-of-the-art sneakers supplied to the team through a contract with Nike.
"He's a young black kid: the most materialistic kids on Earth," Lawrence explained. "What better thing than a pair of Nike shoes to dangle in front of his face? Some kids, there's no better thing than a Vashon jacket and Nike kicks.
"You really need a strong kid in character and heart [to turn your back on that]," Lawrence added. "We're here to teach them about integrity and honesty and faith and [to] stick to their guns. But you know, when some come from deprived backgrounds, these kinds of things can happen. I don't want to use language as strong as 'exploiting the kids,' but Kenny leaves a position where he's a starter and captain on my team. He leaves that to go sit on the bench [with the reserves] at Vashon. You see what I'm saying: This thing got implications that reach beyond just basketball."
Still, Lawrence opted not to report the apparent violation to the state. "I didn't want to make no waves," he explained. "I just wanted to coach basketball."
A review of district enrollment data indicates that Kenneth Harris Jr. was by no means Vashon's only violator of MSHSAA bylaw 238.0.
Six other basketball players Lorenzo Gordon Jr. (class of '01), Anthony Wilson ('01), Nicholas Kern ('02), Donny Jackson ('03), Raymond Harrell ('07) and Havard McLemore ('07) enrolled at Vashon despite providing an address outside the school's boundaries.
All would have to have been granted hardship exceptions from MSHSAA. Yet according to the state agency, since 2000 only two athletes at Vashon obtained such transfers: one in 2002-'03, the second in 2003-'04. (MSHSAA says it has discarded its records from years prior to 2000.)
Citing privacy laws, MSHSAA assistant executive director Stacy Schroeder declines to identify the two students, who could be male or female and might have played any sport.
According to Johnny Little, executive director of public information for the St. Louis Public Schools, Vashon "destroyed" all eligibility paperwork more than one year old.
MSHSAA bylaws state that a student athlete may play for a school after 365 days of continuous attendance at the school. Implicit in the rule is the concept of "red-shirting," i.e., practicing and intrasquad scrimmaging but not playing in any games or appearing on the roster. The MSHSAA's Stacy Schroeder calls this "creating residency."
During the past decade, many Wolverines Benjamin Adams (class of 2007), Brian Roach ('06), Quentin Stidmon ('02), Antonio Scaife ('03), Priest Gordon (did not graduate), McArthur Taylor ('02) and Brendon Jackson ('01) have done just that, typically transferring to Vashon for ninth grade but not suiting up to play until their sophomore season.
Schroeder says it's "odd" to see so many players taking this route to a single team, but it's not a violation of state rules.
Other players seem to have avoided the red-shirt process by supplying district officials with false addresses that make it appear as though they reside within Vashon's boundaries.
One such student is Alburey Doss Jr., who began his senior year this past September. Doss' late father, Alburey "Doss the Boss" Doss, played for Floyd Irons at Vashon in the mid-1980s and went on to Tennessee State University, according to a 1993 Post-Dispatch article. The younger Doss had never attended a St. Louis public school when he enrolled at Vashon in 2004 and joined the basketball team. After appearing briefly during '04-'05, as a junior last year Doss scored 146 points and pulled down 60 rebounds in 26 games.
According to district documents, Doss lived in a house on the 3200 block of Palm Place, right next door to longtime St. Louis alderman Freeman Bosley Sr.
But a recent knock on that door and a request to speak with "Alburey" elicited a "Who?" from homeowner Mattie Johnson. Johnson, who says she's a friend of Doss' grandmother, says she has lived in the house on Palm Place for 39 years. Doss, she says, stays with her "sometimes, but not usually."
Most of the time, Johnson explains, Doss lives with his mother and grandparents. They reside on Jordan Street in the small municipality of Northwoods, just south of Interstate 70 the same address listed on Doss' Missouri driver's license record.
"Just because I live place-to-place from time to time, that still doesn't mean I live only in the county: It just so happens I stay as much in the county as I do in the city," Doss tells Riverfront Times when reached by phone. He declined to comment further.
Like Doss, junior Derron Hobbs is expected to start for Vashon this season. SLPS data indicate that Hobbs attended "private/parochial" schools before enrolling as a freshman at Vashon in 2004. Hobbs appeared in 15 games that year and 24 games the next.
Last month his aunt, Khalita Hobbs, came to the door of the Destrehan Street home he listed with the district and asked if he was expecting a visit from Riverfront Times."If you have a card, I could give him your number and he could arrange a time to meet you here," Khalita Hobbs said.
A visit ten minutes later to the North Kingshighway address Derron Hobbs supplied to the Missouri Department of Revenue when he got his driver's license turns up his younger sister and older brother. The latter, Demond Hobbs, confirms that the family lives in the North Kingshighway residence, located just north of I-70 within the city limits but far from Vashon's northern boundary.
"I would call [Derron] for you," Hobbs offers, "but he left his cell phone sitting here at home today."
Derron Hobbs did not respond to RFT's request for an interview.
Two other students on last year's roster, current senior Donald Davis Jr. and sophomore Justin Keener, were nowhere to be found at the University and Phipps Street addresses, respectively, that they supplied to the school district. Neighbors at both addresses tell Riverfront Times they don't know the players.
At the San Rafael Apartments in Charlack, neighbors familiar with Donald Davis point to the unit they say he shares with his mother. Neither could be reached for comment.
As for Justin Keener, McCluer South-Berkeley High School football coach Howard Brown says the student, known as "Flash," played football for Berkeley the first semester of his freshman year before transferring to Vashon for second semester.
Keener and his family could not be located for comment.
Address discrepancies are far from a new wrinkle at Vashon.
In 2004-'05, senior Joseph Pembleton appeared in twenty games and listed an address within Vashon's attendance area on St. Louis Avenue, just as he had ever since enrolling and joining the basketball team as a sophomore. (Pembleton spent his freshman year at Career Academy, a neighborhood school.)
At that address, located above Fleetwood & Sons Lounge in the St. Louis Place neighborhood, Eddie Nash answers Riverfront Times' knock and says he owns the apartment he has called home for the past eight years.
Has anyone else been living there?
"Just my fiancée," says Nash.
"It's honestly amazing," the MSHSAA's Stacy Schroeder comments when told of the address discrepancies. "It sounds like there's no way [Vashon or the SLPS] were confirming things or checking anything."
It's not likely anyone checked James Washington's listed address. Washington enrolled at Vashon as a freshman in the fall of 2002 after attending public schools in St. Louis County from fifth through eighth grade as part of the school system's voluntary desegregation program. (Established in 1982, that agreement ended a long-standing lawsuit by allowing African-American students in the city to transfer to predominantly white schools in the county, while white students from the county could transfer into the city's magnet schools.) Washington's great-uncle, Malcolm Bailey Sr., says Washington spent his high-school years under his roof in the 1500 block of North 17th Street an address that's inside Vashon's neighborhood borders. But Washington's parents resided on Lincoln Avenue, a block and a half outside the school's western boundary. According to MSHSAA bylaws, Washington, who saw action every year from '02 through '05, was ineligible from the get-go.
Cornelius "Cornbread" Walker (who joined the Vashon squad as a freshman in 2004) and Michael Ellis (who debuted last year as a junior) appear to have committed similar fouls. Both players live with Walker's aunt, Mildred Walker, in the 3700 block of St. Ferdinand Place, not far from Vashon. Mildred Walker tells Riverfront Times that Cornbread's mother, who has heart problems, lives on the south side, where Cornbread attended Long Middle CEC School. Walker says she doesn't know where Ellis' parents reside.
She says the family took Ellis in. "Cornbread liked him," she explains. "He got a few problems; he not always 'there' mentally. But that boy can play ball."
Similarly, Benjamin Adams (who joined the basketball team in 2004 as a sophomore after "creating residency") moved last year to a house on the 2700 block of Allen Avenue, outside Vashon's boundaries. Visited at the home last month, Adams said he lives there with his cousin and that his mother resides elsewhere in the city. He was not sure of her address.
Then there's DeAlan Hicks, who joined the Wolverines in the fall of 2002. He had attended Roosevelt High School in ninth grade and a county school (via the desegregation program) in tenth. Hicks' cousin, Christine Byas, of the 3900 block of North 23rd Street, says he moved in with her "for his bus transportation and all" during his junior and senior years at Vashon. Byas says Hicks' parents, although separated, lived elsewhere in the city of St. Louis but she didn't know precisely where.
Hicks' classmates Dwayne Polk ('04) and Curtis Muse Jr. ('04) present similar cases. Polk enrolled at Vashon as a freshman in 2000 and joined the Wolverines, supplying the school district with an address on the 3700 block of 25th Street, within Vashon boundaries. As a junior in 2002, Polk supplied a new address on the 5200 block of Maffitt Avenue but did not change schools as required under district policy and, by extension, state bylaws. City property records show that Polk's mother purchased the Maffitt Avenue home in September 2000.
Polk, now a junior at Saint Louis University and a guard on the Billikens basketball team, says he and his mother lived within Vashon's boundaries in a townhouse that was "south but downtownish," near Jefferson Avenue. He could not remember the address and did not recall living on 25th Street. His mother did not return a phone call requesting comment.
Curtis Muse's mother, Louise Muse, of the 10200 block of Hallwood Drive in Dellwood, says her son attended school in Riverview Gardens for ninth and tenth grade. But he had learning problems, and "they were about to kick him out," she says. One day while shopping for basketball shoes at a north-county Foot Locker, the Muse family spoke with staffers about Curtis' predicament. "They all said, because of his height, 'Oh, he needs to go to Vashon,'" Muse recalls.
Muse says she owned a house in the city at that time but Curtis never lived there. She and her husband continued to reside in the county while their son bounced between homes: a cousin's on Franklin Avenue in Vashon's mandated attendance area, as well as a family friend's and a distant relative's elsewhere in the city.
Muse says Floyd Irons had nothing to do with her son's transfer to Vashon. "Look," she says, "sometimes as a parent you got to do what you got to do for your kids."
Missouri was behind the curve back in 1927 when it became the 45th state to form a high school athletics association. In addition to sports, today MSHSAA oversees music, debate, cheerleading, dance teams and academic activities. Its staff and ten-member board of directors enforce myriad requirements for eligibility, including citizenship, academic performance and residency. Since 1997 the MSHSAA has also deployed a special investigative committee to evaluate formal complaints of alleged recruiting.
With more than 700 high schools to oversee, the organization has been more reactive than proactive: It does not, in other words, actively seek to root out cheaters.
"Some schools will self-report violations," explains board member Mike Gohn, who's also Parkway School District's athletic director. "Others aren't even aware they're violating a rule until it comes to their attention, like from somebody else. I know we [in the Parkway district] get in touch with people at other schools when we think there's a potential problem with a student, and we rely on other schools to do the same for us."
When the board determines that a school or player has committed a violation, MSHSAA may levy sanctions. Imposed on a case-by-case basis, these can include censure, forfeiture, fines, warnings, probation and/or a 365-day suspension from the association.
St. Mary's in Independence and Hickman High of Columbia, for example, had to forfeit district baseball championships in 1997 and 1999, respectively, after they self-reported having fielded ineligible players.
On the other hand, the Springfield Public Schools received only a reprimand this past June, after a new district athletic director self-reported that there'd been numerous improper freshman transfers since 1997. The athletes had attended an international baccalaureate program at Central High through a special admission process and lived in the Springfield district but outside Central's mandated boundaries. None should have played varsity sports without a hardship exception from MSHSAA.
"We saw it as a misinterpretation of the rule," notes Mike Gohn, explaining why a harsher penalty was not meted out. "If the 'hardships' would have been filed, they more than likely would have been accepted."
MSHSAA's Rick Kindhart says no state titles were at stake in the Springfield case.
MSHSAA's Stacy Schroeder says the board "many times" rules that an ineligible player must sit out a number of games equal to those he played in while ineligible.
For example, had Curtis Muse '04 been found ineligible during or after his junior year, he might have been forbidden to suit up for most of his senior year.
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.
"[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.
Fortner offered vivid recollections of her late son when interviewed by Riverfront Times last month. But she was unclear when asked how White managed to play for Vashon while living with his family in Jennings.
At first Fortner said Malik was living in Jennings when he died. Then she said the family had moved to an address near Grand Boulevard in the city so her son could attend Vashon. Finally she said most of the family had remained in Jennings but Malik had lived with her brother near Vashon: "I'm his mama," she said. "Malik would come to me on the weekends and things."
According to district data obtained by Riverfront Times, White had filed his address as 1907 Prairie Avenue, in the 63113 zip code. The building at that address is not a residence. It's the headquarters of the St. Louis Paper & Box Company.
The company's owner, Bill Livingston Jr., says no one has ever resided there, at least not in the past 40 years.