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.

Dec 4, 2002 at 4:00 am
Although most basketball coaches spend early-season practices putting their players through an endless throng of technical drills designed to work out the kinks of a kegger-and-cineplex off-season, Hazelwood Central coach Chris Pilz is a firm believer in the power of live action.

On team-picture day, the folksy Pilz -- a native of Rolla, Missouri -- is putting his squad through a four-on-four scrimmage. The offense his team runs is a carbon copy of the feed-tree-and-kick method that Hakeem Olajuwon and his jump-shooting minions -- Sam Cassell, Mario Elie and Robert Horry among them -- mastered during the Houston Rockets' back-to-back NBA titles in the Jordanless mid-'90s.

"Give it to him!" Pilz yells at five-foot-nine junior guard Kyle Hamilton, the lone white on the Hawks' varsity roster.

"Him," of course, is six-foot-eight, 260-pound Kalen "the Beast" Grimes, who is the nation's number-two-ranked junior at the center position, although he's projected as a power forward in college.

Hamilton follows orders and dumps the rock into Grimes, whose protruding chest and boulder-size shoulders conjure a young Kellen Winslow. Facially, he resembles Olajuwon, and when he damn near knocks highly touted six-foot-five freshman Alex Tyus on his keister in the course of a spin move to set up his patented jump hook, the Beast is all Elton Brand.

Two possessions later, Grimes -- a Windex man deluxe -- snatches a board, quickly outlets and freight-trains the length of the wood. On reaching the top of key on the opposite end, the Beast calls for the ball, only to fumble a tricky bounce pass at shin level.

Most onlookers would blame the turnover on the passer -- but not the state's top prospect.

"My bad!" Grimes yells. Like most bona fide superstars, Grimes would rather be thrown a difficult pass in traffic or transition than see his teammates play it safe. More often than not, Grimes is going to seize the motherfucking rock, drop his left shoulder into a punier opponent's chestplate and will the ball through the twine -- which is exactly what he does on the next three possessions.

There isn't a college in the country that wouldn't mind having Kalen Grimes as its starting power forward in two years. At this point, the hardest chargers appear to be Kentucky, Kansas, Illinois and, of course, Missouri and St. Louis University.

"'A zillion letters' is an understatement." says Grimes' mother, Glenda Grimes, of the incoming scholastic solicitations. "We went through an exercise to see who sends the most unique, creative mail, and those are the ones we open."

But for the college coach, focusing on creative calligraphy and the folks won't cut it in the convoluted rain dance of St. Louis hoop recruiting. Wooing prep hoop talent is a lot like courting a potential sweetie-pie. If you remember the orchid and box of chocolates on date one, you might flip skins by night's end. Show up all by your lonesome with only the merits of your program and a beat-up Ford Taurus, and you'll end up sharing a bed with the January issue of Hustler and a squeeze bottle of hand lotion.

"Guys who talked to Sister Theresa, those are the guys who are more memorable," says Cardinal Ritter College Prep athletic director Kevin O'Brien, reflecting on how Mike Krzyzewski's Duke University recruiting juggernaut -- at the time headed by current Mizzou head coach Quin Snyder, then a Duke assistant -- wooed Ritter star Chris Carrawell in a strategy of comprehensive schmoozing that involved chatting up everyone within earshot on Thekla Avenue.

The Grimes clan has been through the recruiting dog-and-pony show before, although not to this outrageous degree. Glenda's six-foot-four husband, Michael, starred at Sumner in the mid-'70s as a sharpshooting wingman and went on to play college ball at Central Methodist College in Fayette, Missouri. Kalen's brother, Michael Jr., is a junior forward at Creighton University.

"One of Michael's deciding factors was a Creighton assistant who'd seen him at an AAU tournament when he wasn't having a good game," says Glenda. "The coach came over and said something like 'It's gonna be OK.' Something small like that will make a kid think about a decision to go someplace."

Glenda Grimes really liked former SLU coach Lorenzo Romar -- who scooted for fatter benjis at the University of Washington -- and says it's "unfortunate" that he's gone. With Romar's departure, local hoop junkies are skeptical as to whether SLU and its first-year head coach, Brad Soderberg, can seal the borders against a highly regarded Snyder-Tony Harvey Mizzou recruiting tandem, regarded by Vashon High coach Floyd Irons as "the Lone Ranger and Tonto."

To pull this daunting trick, Soderberg will have to carefully navigate a basketball broth made more pungent over the years by the enhanced power of Amateur Athletic Union teams and dispersal of schoolboy talent to St. Louis County as a result of school desegregation, stiffer academic requirements and middle-class flight that has reduced, top-to-bottom, Public High League competitiveness to a one-trick Vashon pony.

Snyder's central challenge is not of his own making. Irons and Company believe Norm Stewart soiled his program's carpet by essentially ignoring St. Louis proper in his 30-plus years as the Tigers' commander in chief. But by signing Vashon wunderkind Jimmy McKinney, the first Public High League player to sign with Mizzou since 1971, Snyder has given St. Louis' king-shit talent brokers an early, life-affirming sign that he's serious about setting up camp in the River City.

However, the game doesn't end once the prodigy's on campus. It's flatly insufficient to merely coach an inner-city St. Louis product. If the kid doesn't have a daddy back on the ranch, you're expected to be his pa for life, because that's what he's become accustomed to in the Lou.

"Rich [Grawer, former SLU head coach] said: 'There's a certain bond about your kids. When they got to SLU, they didn't leave Vashon,'" recalls Irons.

In other words, the Snyders and Soderbergs of the world had better come correct with the frequent heart-to-hearts and Sunday-afternoon barbecues with their talented youngsters, lest they suffer eternal hellfire like Stormin' Norman or get Judased like Grawer, whose intercollegiate dirt nap came quick on the heels of a prominent ex-Vashon player's abruptly quitting his Billikens.

And, as is always the case nowadays for elite prep prospects, coaches also must recruit against the Los Angeles Lakers.

"I'd like my kids to get an education," says Glenda Grimes of her son's potentially leapfrogging college for NBA riches, "but if we knew he had a great chance at it, we'd be foolish not to consider it."

Kalen, focused on the season at hand -- in which Hazelwood Central has a legitimate shot at a state title, what with Vashon moving down to 4A status for the time being (Vashon's enrollment was just below the 5A threshold) -- is more dismissive than his mother.

"I hear it from a lot of people," he admits. "I don't think nothin' of it."

His attitude toward the hailstorm of scholastic suitors is similarly blasé.

"Right now, I'm concentrating on basketball," he says, already having mastered the time-honored art of boring locker-room clichés as he ices a bum ankle.

Grimes says SLU's mail has yet to make the "creative and unique" stack, but that hasn't discouraged Grimes -- who expects to narrow his list of schools to a half-dozen or so at season's end -- from considering a career as a Billiken.

"It's my hometown school," he says.

For the record, the University of Missouri also falls into that category.

But there's a lot more eleventh-grade booty at stake than Grimes, who played an age bracket up for the St. Louis Eagles' under-seventeen team this past summer -- the first since former SLU star and Washington Wizards pro Larry Hughes' squad to win the Super Showcase, the de facto AAU national-championship tournament, held during the NCAA's Wild West recruiting period every July in Florida. The Beast merely sits at the head of a sensational junior class that includes Vashon point guard Dwayne Polk; Cardinal Ritter pogo stick Terry Evans; East St. Louis' Tommie Liddell; Xavier Price of O'Fallon, Illinois; and one of Grimes' teammates, guard Aaron Jackson.

"They're as good as Larry Hughes' class," says Vince Estrada, business manager for the Eagles, the oldest AAU club in the area. "Kalen Grimes is big-time."

The stars were supposed to align perfectly for Stewart and the Mizzou men's basketball team in 1982.

Stewart had a dominant center in Steve Stipanovich, a dead-eye shooter in Jon Sundvold and a wicked slick slasher in leading scorer Ricky Frazier. As if a trio of All-American caliber players wasn't enough to warm Stewart's Southern-fried heart, the Midwest Regionals that year were to be hosted by the great city of St. Louis, seemingly assuring Mizzou of a couple of backyard blowouts and a trip to the Final Four.

Stormin' Norman had such a good feeling about '82 and its potential positive repercussions that he'd even tapped Grawer, Stipanovich's legendary coach at DeSmet Jesuit High School, to be one of his assistants.

"I think Norm wanted me to cement relationships with St. Louis coaches," says Grawer, now the athletic director of the Clayton School District and one of the most universally beloved figures in the annals of St. Louis-area basketball.

But thanks to a one-point loss in the Sweet Sixteen to a University of Houston team led by Olajuwon -- then a little-known freshman -- Grawer never got the chance to watch the inner-city cement dry, at least not at Mizzou. The day after the loss, Grawer resigned to take the head-coaching job at SLU.

"He [Stewart] tried to talk me out of it, said I'd get a better job," says Grawer, a native St. Louisan. "I said, 'I don't want a better job -- I want to go home.' When I got the SLU job, the emphasis was on St. Louis, particularly the [Public High League]. We recruited the African-American community."

Grawer homed in on PHL talent right off the bat, landing Beaumont's Luther Burden and Central's Pee Wee Lenard in his first year as SLU's head coach. Three years later, Grawer hit the PHL recruiting jackpot by signing McKinley High's dynamic duo of Monroe Douglas and Roland Gray, thus proving his mettle to the city's notoriously parochial basketball gatekeepers.

"When he got Monroe Douglas, I said, 'Rich, you have the whole black community,'" says radio host/hoop gadfly Richard "Onion" Horton.

The following season, Irons paved the way for Grawer to land the Vashon trio of Anthony Jones, Ramon Trice and Anthony Bonner, who would go on to become SLU's all-time leading scorer. Led by Bonner, Douglas and Gray, SLU would enjoy consecutive trips to the National Invitation Tournament Finals in '89 and '90, where they lost in heartbreaking fashion both years.

A mere two years later, without Bonner and company, Grawer went 5-23, and his days at SLU were numbered.

"My downfall was that I was not able to supplement the outstanding players from St. Louis with outstanding players from out of state," says Grawer.

Still, Grawer's dismissal seemed hasty and unusual in light of his overall record at an institution whose basketball program had been downright moribund in the decade before his arrival -- unusual until you consider the fact that seven-foot ex-Vashon center Melvin Robinson quit the team during Grawer's dreadful final year.

"I thought Rich treated it more like a business, which he had a right to do," says Vashon's Irons. "But lots of times kids are looking for father figures, and Melvin didn't have a father."

To make matters worse, Robinson's transfer came swift on the heels of the transfer of former PHL prodigy Craig Upchurch (of Beaumont High), who went on to star at the University of Houston after being ruled academically ineligible to play at SLU.

"I got criticized for losing those kids," says Grawer.

A harsher assessment is that he lost his job for it and that it was the very black community whom Grawer once had in his hip pocket that stealthily snatched his whistle and gym keys.

Grawer made all the right moves, until he lost Robinson -- and then he was toast.

Although Grawer deserves a ton of credit for his sterling record of landing inner-city recruits, an equally significant factor was old boss Stewart's virtual refusal to even try recruiting in St. Louis proper, something that Grawer attributes to a philosophy that emphasized state over city.

"I feel like Norm took the PHL for granted," says Irons, whose social-studies-teacher background, high-pitched voice and Lego hair make him a ringer for Mr. Payne from the cult classic Dazed and Confused ("Fifty of you are goin' into the jungle; 25 of you ain't comin' back!"). "For whatever reason, he chose to alienate city schools. Norm had become an icon where he felt he could get what he wanted without doing work around here."

Or maybe it was just that Irons and his henchmen steered their kids away from Mizzou. The last PHL player Stewart landed was Vashon's Lamont Turner, in 1971 -- two years before Irons took over as the Wolverines' boy-wonder head coach at the age of 25.

"Norm came in at the ninth hour to talk about Anthony Bonner," explains Irons. "I told Bonner to go to SLU."

"People hated Norm Stewart," says Horton, pulling no punches. "Everybody in St. Louis was telling 'em [top PHL kids] to go to SLU.

"He [Stewart] just didn't want kids from St. Louis. Maybe he thought he'd get a lot of flak for not playing them. He was more comfortable with black kids outside of St. Louis."

Indeed, Stewart recruited inner-city black kids -- Anthony Peeler and Doug Smith come to mind -- he just didn't recruit black kids from inner-city St. Louis. His track record in Detroit, home of all-time leading Mizzou scorer Derrick Chievous, is especially impressive. Snyder quickly built upon this Motor City tradition by signing current junior linchpins Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson the year after Stormin' Norman bailed.

Even still, some find Stewart's laissez-faire attitude toward the PHL reprehensible -- namely Stipanovich, the former number-two overall pick (behind Ralph Sampson) in the 1983 NBA draft, who now lives in Creve Coeur.

"I think Norm could have done a much better job coming into St. Louis and getting guys," says Stipanovich, whose five-year pro career with the Indiana Pacers was cut short by a degenerative knee condition, "and I think, unjustly so, the black leaders steered their kids away from the Missouri basketball program and the school as well. When Coach Snyder came in there, he was smart. He knew he needed to restore and develop a relationship with the coaches in the city. Norm Stewart should have done more of that. There were some great players he should have never let get away."

One of those players Stewart let get away was Central High School's Richard Hamilton, a six-foot-five do-everything dynamo who could influence the outcome of a game without taking a single shot. But Stewart's attempts to recruit Hamilton, now head coach at Beaumont, were half-assed at best. Hamilton ended up playing for Bob Wettlich, a Bobby Knight disciple, at Ole Miss -- "a nice quiet place," reminisces the burly Hamilton in his affable Cookie Monster voice -- before finishing up his college education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

But Hamilton doesn't pin Missouri's long PHL drought squarely on Stewart.

"As a black kid going to Boone County (i.e., Columbia), it's a culture shock," explains Hamilton. "A lot of coaching staffs aren't represented by African-Americans, so they don't have a father figure."

Cardinal Ritter coach Marvin Neals, who coached at Soldan from 1972-90, points to academics.

"Norm went after the top player in the state. He didn't get the top player in the city," says Neals. "They weren't academically qualified to go to Mizzou."

Or maybe Stewart believed, as Irons insinuates, that his icon status would automatically attract talent without his having to expend much effort on the recruiting trail.

"I don't know if Norm enjoyed recruiting," says Rich Gray, president of the St. Louis Eagles. "Snyder and Harvey enjoy it and do a terrific job of analyzing talent."

Most everyone is convinced that the Snyder regime is a nice fit for inner-city ballers, an opinion no doubt heavily influenced by the signing of Vashon's McKinney. It also helps that Snyder's relationship with Irons predates his tenure at Missouri; the two first met at Kansas' camp when Snyder played at Duke in the mid-'80s.

"McKinney's signing didn't surprise people. Snyder was an up-tempo coach," says ex-Vashon player Randy Reed, now head coach at McCluer North in Florissant, where he's nurturing six-foot-five, 300-pound freshman prodigy Keith "Baby Shaq" Williams.

"When I turn on the TV and see Quin Snyder's team, that's all I need," says Horton, referring to the Tigers' fast-breaking attack. "Snyder's young -- and isn't tied to Old Dixie."

In Horton's estimation, Stewart embodied Old Dixie. Horton calls the state of Missouri "one of the most backwards places in the country," pointing to the "Missouri Waltz" -- which Horton claims originally contained the phrase "all the little pickaninnies" -- as his favorite example of the state's institutional racism.

"Missouri is too far south to be North, too far north to be South -- but we took a Southern position," Horton explains. "Teams used to run out on the football field with Confederate flags. This is the South."

Snyder hails from the tony Seattle suburb of Mercer Island, Washington, which is fine by Horton -- anywhere but Missouri and its Confederate affinity, as far as he's concerned.

Stipanovich agrees that there's something to the generational-geographical theory, which he also believes is a reflection on the incessant coddling of the modern player.

"I think Norm would be considered an old-school coach, where Quin is a younger coach and is suited for the type of athletes that come out of high school these days," says Stipanovich. "With Coach Stewart, it's a 'my way or the highway' type of thing, more of a disciplinary style of coaching. It was good for me, and in my day, it's all I understood. Athletes nowadays don't respond to that very well. I think they've been pampered much more throughout the grade-school and high-school process than when I was playing."

DeSmet's Bob Steiner is not sure whether recruiting McKinney wasn't just an extension of Stewart's "get the best player" philosophy, but he gives Snyder points for solidifying links with Irons.

"They're looking for the best players in the country, and Jimmy fit," says Steiner. "Snyder came down and developed a relationship with Coach Irons, who has a lot to do with where his kids go to school."

Snyder agrees that it's about getting the best players but acknowledges the importance of an in-state connection. "You always recruit the best players, but you'd rather have them in your state because there's loyalty," he says. "It's exciting for people who follow your team to see local players."

Mizzou's Harvey agrees that it's about getting the best players -- in the nation.

"You treat people the same. Areas get hot; areas get cold," Harvey explains. "The state itself is pretty good, but when you start talking national championships, it gets to be a real fine line."

At the end of Mizzou's practice, motormouth power forward Travon Bryant and Snyder are engaged in a giggly game of smack-talk one-upsmanship, cracking one-liners from opposite corners of the Columbia campus' cavernous Hearnes Center court.

Most of the other players are letting off steam on the sidelines after a particularly intense early-season session conducted by the whip-smart Snyder, a youthful law-school grad who looks as though he could compete for a job in the Tigers' backcourt, which was ravaged during the off-season after Kareem Rush went hardship, Clarence Gilbert graduated and Wesley Stokes transferred to San Diego State.

True freshman McKinney is expected to garner serious playing time immediately, which may explain why he and senior swingman Paulding are still raining 25-foot three-balls at the rim while their teammates ham it up.

A genuinely sweet and earnest kid if there ever was one, Jimmy Mac doesn't talk smack. On this day, his shooting is streaky, but McKinney remains stoic, resisting the temptation to show off his sterling springs with a crunk-ass windmill before hitting the bricks.

Sprawled on the bleachers after practice in a blue stocking cap and standard-issue sweatshirt, McKinney says that although Irons made him aware of the historical gravity of his decision to attend Mizzou, that's not what influenced his decision.

"The players are similar to the players at Vashon," he says of Mizzou. "Mom and Dad's opinion came first, then Coach Irons'. My opinion was last."

Had McKinney, an unabashed Michael Jordan worshiper (join the club, kid), put his own opinion first, he might be wearing Tar Heel blue right now. When asked about playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference, McKinney's eyes light up, but he's quick to state his rationale for ending up in Columbia.

"Mom couldn't drive to the games [in Chapel Hill]," says McKinney.

It also didn't hurt that Snyder and Harvey had a PHL watchdawg -- namely Demetrious Johnson -- former Mizzou hooper and longtime Stewart critic -- firmly in their corner.

"I saw him [Johnson] a lot at practice," says McKinney. "He kept saying, 'Go to Mizzou!'"

Someone else who may be getting "Go to Mizzou" whispered in his ear is McKinney's former backcourt mate at Vashon, hotly recruited five-foot-nine junior point guard Dwayne Polk, with whom Mizzou's prize frosh talks frequently.

Snyder considers Johnson -- who set up a meeting between the coach and twenty or so of the city's high-school hoop powerbrokers at the dawn of Snyder's tenure -- to have been absolutely critical in easing longstanding tensions between the university and the city of St. Louis.

"There had been some athletes that had gone to Missouri and had not felt like it was a great experience, for whatever reason," recalls Snyder. "There wasn't a comfort level. This is the state school, two hours away, so to have that animosity exist is a serious problem."

Even after this meeting, landing McKinney was hardly an in-and-out deal. This is, after all, the Show-Me State, where actions speak louder than words. To this end, Snyder credits his top assistant, Harvey, with cultivating relationships for the long term rather than the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am.

"You just got a sense that there wasn't a connection there," says Snyder. "Getting a player is really a short-term view. Jimmy did come, but it took years of recruiting, just spending time with Coach Irons. There's a level of trust that first was established. Jimmy is, to me, a trailblazer."

Whereas Mizzou can sit back and pluck talent from a national watchtower, deftly playing the inner-city hand has always been life-and-death for SLU, as Grawer's one-strike- you're-out tenure proved.

"When Snyder loses someone, he can just replace him," explains Grawer. "SLU doesn't get blue-chippers, and when they get a chance at a Larry Hughes, they have to take him."

McKinney says SLU was his second choice. But, at the end of the day, Conference USA just wasn't the Big Twelve. However, conference strength isn't the only issue. For every kid like Hughes who stays home for college, there's at least one other who just wants to get the fuck out of Dodge, as evidenced by the mid-'90s Ritter trio -- Jahidi White, Carrawell and Loren Woods -- who split for Georgetown, Duke and Wake Forest, respectively. Factor in a uniquely challenging Jesuit curriculum and a comparatively pedestrian-looking campus, and SLU's coaches face a somewhat daunting task.

"St. Louis University is not the easiest school to recruit for," says Stipanovich. "I've been to Duke, North Carolina -- when you step on one of those campuses, it's overwhelming as a young kid coming out of high school."

Grawer is more blunt about SLU's challenges, pointing to the loss of Upchurch as the school's penultimate casualty.

"SLU's campus is 1,000 percent better than when I was there," he says. "It's still a hard place to recruit to. At SLU, you had to take twelve to fourteen hours of philosophy and theology. No PE programs at SLU, so those hours didn't transfer for a junior-college kid.... We lost Craig Upchurch [because of academics]. He was more talented than Bonner. They made him go to summer school; then SLU said he couldn't go. Him and his mom in my office -- we were literally crying."

Coming off a trip to the NCAAs, the Bills would have had a better than even shot at playing on their home court in the Sweet Sixteen had Hughes stuck around for his sophomore season. McKinney readily admits that the momentum generated by a second Hughes campaign might have compelled him to attend his hometown school.

Steiner sees a domino effect.

"Absolutely it would have made a difference," says Steiner of the impact a Hughes sophomore season might have had. "If a kid signs, he wants a chance to go to the tournament. Once you get one or two of those top 50 players, you're gonna get one or two more."

Hughes' coach at SLU, Charlie Spoonhour, never questioned his decision to turn pro.

"In Larry's case, it was a no-brainer," says Spoonhour, now head coach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. "Once you become a lottery pick and the money's there, taking a chance on injury is just foolish."

So why did the likes of Olajuwon stick around for more than one year back in the day, Spoon?

"The climate was different then," he says. "Now, if you're a senior, there're question marks about you."

In fact, it's gotten to the point where some coaches are whispering that it's almost better to eschew blue-chip talent in favor of second-tier players who are more likely to stick around for three or four years.

"I think the Missouri Valley Conference is great," says Spoonhour. "It's a league with a lot of seniors. You have a lot of really good teams because you have guys who stay for four years."

Billiken assistant coach Anthony Beane, who steadfastly maintains that he'll always go after the best player available, acknowledges that the approach has a downside these days.

"A negative thing about recruiting great players is that they're gonna leave early," he says.

"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.

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").

Muse, of course, can rock the rim, but what's most striking about the Wolverines squad -- luxuriating in their brand-new state-of-the-art fieldhouse -- is that even the little guys can dunk. Irons' practices are a sea of motion. If you've been to rehab and are no longer permitted to drop acid, the optical ingestion of a Vashon practice is undoubtedly the Naismith-prescribed method to achieve that high naturally.

Irons, by his own admission, is "one of the most scrutinized" coaches in Missouri. Recruiting allegations are constantly swirling around him. The latest shitstorm involves Malik White, a six-foot-seven Vashon forward who was shot and killed outside his home in Jennings on August 22.

It's not rocket science to conclude that Jennings isn't exactly within the boundaries of the St. Louis Public Schools. Vashon appeared to have been caught with its pants down, and the Suburban North Athletic Conference, where White presumably should have been playing, promptly asked the Missouri State High School Activities Association to investigate.

Even before the final draft of the complaint was complete, Teflon Floyd was advancing his own spin, insinuating that other schools were jealous of his success and saying it wasn't his job to keep track of where his players live.

At face value, that sounds ridiculous -- until you consider the often fluid residential existence of the black youngster.

"The urban African-American moves a lot," explains McCluer North's Reed, whose squad plays in the Suburban North Conference. "It would drive you nuts if you had to keep track. One day he could be living at his aunt's, the next at Grandma's house."

MSHSAA spokeswoman Becky Oakes reports that the Malik White investigation is "in limbo" and will remain so unless the Suburban North Conference decides to press the matter further. Martin, who's of the opinion that Irons beats most of his raps because the MSHSAA is too lazy to investigate, isn't holding his breath.

"If Floyd was in Illinois, he wouldn't exist," says Martin. "They care about basketball there."

"How many states do you know where one team wins state every year? None. Nobody's that good a coach. John Wooden did it at UCLA. Know why? He got the best players. That's what Floyd has: an all-star team. Busing is what's made Vashon what it is."

Some coaches who feel slighted by Irons' tactics are moonlighting as de facto investigators. Beaumont's Hamilton was instrumental in getting six-foot-two forward William Franklin ruled ineligible to play for Vashon in light of the fact that he lived in Beaumont's area.

"Deseg raped some teams, but it didn't rape [Irons'] team," says Hamilton. "One day I will beat him -- and when I do, there's gonna be an all-night party."

But Irons is not without supporters.

"Vashon's really built a dynasty," gushes Stipanovich. "Floyd Irons has done a great job mentoring those kids."

Another topic that irks the way-we-were curmudgeon set is the proliferation of power among AAU and summer select teams, which are often one and the same.

"AAU is the biggest it's been in ten years," asserts Neals. "From what I see now, people kind of bypass the high-school coach. I just think it's offensive."

Steiner essentially concurs.

"As good as AAU is relative to providing exposure, I think it also has a negative side," says DeSmet's Steiner. "It's one of the biggest headaches for college coaches to have to go through somebody to get to a player. It's like they're brokering players.... The way the recruiting process is set up, it lends itself toward recruiting through AAU. If the NCAA had made July a dead period, it would have brought the process back to the coaches."

"Dead period" is NCAA parlance for the time when college coaches are strictly forbidden to make in-person contact with players. On the other hand, "open periods" are essentially a free-for-all of scholastic seduction, and July is the only remaining open period that falls outside the school year -- and right during the heart of the AAU national-tourney season.

The NCAA threw high-school coaches a critical bone in 2002, when it took the step of requiring all AAU tournaments outside of the July open period to be sanctioned by state high-school athletic associations in order for Division One scouts to attend (lower-level coaches can watch all they want).

Although Gray acknowledges that some AAU coaches around the country have overstepped their bounds -- taking alleged cash kickbacks in exchange for access, employing contrarian teaching methods that can muck up a baller's school-year skill set or freezing their players' high-school coaches out of the recruiting process -- he defends his Eagles' program with considerable vehemence.

"We weren't marketing our kids in the summer, so they weren't getting exposure," says Gray. "In high school, you may have one or two great ballplayers. In summer ball, you need nine or ten to be competitive. That's why July is such an important month for college coaches. It's like one-stop shopping."

Even the 60-year-old Neals, an iconic intimidator of a coach for whom a menacing glare after a spat of tomfoolery by his troops more than passes for disciplinary action, grudgingly acknowledges that his star player, Terry Evans, had to go to an AAU camp in Indianapolis to get attention.

For his part, Irons believes that the horse is too far out of the barn to ever be roped back in.

"The AAU coaches were doing some things to supplant high-school coaches instead of enhancing what we were trying to teach and instill," groans Irons, "but we allowed it to happen. If I give you my son and expect you to raise him, then I won't have any input."

So what'd Irons do?

Simple: He formed his own AAU team, Game Face, composed exclusively of Vashon players or players-to-be.

"He has a twelve-month program, and that is what works for his kids," says Estrada.

"Some high schools are hiding behind AAU teams because they're using them as a recruiting tool," says Hamilton in a thinly veiled reference to Irons' Game Face squad.

So why doesn't Hamilton just quit whining and form his own AAU team?

"It costs money," explains Estrada, who relies on corporate sponsorship and individual donations to support his Eagles, a registered nonprofit. "They [other coaches] are able to meet their summer goals without having to do an AAU program -- and they can get their kids into leagues. That's usually sufficient."

DeSmet standout Blake Ahearn is recognized by scouting services as one of the nation's most accurate senior jump-shooters.

"In the summer, he averaged 1,200 shots per day," says his father, Dan, himself a two-time all-state selection at Clayton High who went on to play at Kansas' Washburn University. "My nieces and nephews rebounded. He's done it since fifth grade."

By all accounts, the six-foot-two Ahearn, a teammate of Grimes' on the Eagles, would have signed with SLU in a heartbeat. Instead, he's headed to feisty in-state rival Southwest Missouri State -- which beat SLU in overtime at Savvis last Tuesday -- the result of a purported bait-and-switch by current SLU head coach Soderberg that has left a bitter taste in the DeSmet hoop community's mouth.

The way Steiner tells it, Soderberg, then an assistant to Romar, promised Ahearn a scholarship after seeing the then-junior guard drain jumper after jumper at an open gym in September 2001. Once he got the head job, Soderberg one-eightied.

The Ahearns and Soderberg refuse to comment on the situation. But Martin, the Gator coach and a former Billiken season-ticket-holder, doesn't mince words.

"I don't think the guy from SLU [Soderberg] knows his ass from first base. How can that place not want one of those kids [on Ahearn's U-17 team]? Who the hell wants to watch some kid from Minnesota?" says Martin, referring to six-foot-four SLU recruit Darren Clarke, who plays alongside Duke recruit Kris Humphries at Hopkins High in Minnetonka, Minnesota. "I saw Ahearn and Clarke play straight up, and Ahearn outscored him 26-3.

"Had they signed Blake Ahearn, they'd have sold 100 season tickets. I'm not gonna go down there and watch some fucker from Minnesota who's average," says Martin. "The only way they're gonna get Grimes is to make SLU as local as possible and make it an extension of their AAU team."

Ahearn, the outside yin to Grimes' inside yang on the Eagles' champion U-17 team, obviously could have helped SLU -- on the court and in the wooing of Grimes.

"The question is, who gets the talent? SLU?" says Grawer skeptically. "It's really incumbent upon SLU to solidify its borders."

Of course, to pull that trick, they'll have to outfox Mizzou's Lone Ranger and Tonto. If they fail, the Billikens coaching staff might be wise to follow the latter part of Grawer's years-old mantra.

"If you can't coach, you'd better recruit. And if you can't recruit, you'd better schedule smartly."