Nothin' But Net

An obsession with basketball takes CBC seniors Ryan Johnson and D.J. Hogue through a successful -- but heartbreaking -- season

With four seconds left on the clock, CBC point guard Ryan Johnson took an inbounds pass and headed, with a purposeful aggression, into an attacking full-court sprint. Unable to shed Vashon defender Joel Shelton -- ironically enough, the cousin of his girlfriend -- Johnson darted toward center court, veering sharply right; his defender stayed on his shoulder and then leaned into him, hard, just as time was expiring.

Pressured, off balance and facing the basket awkwardly, Johnson jumped, and his buzzer-beating shot -- a three-pointer that, if successful, would have put the CBC Cadets into the state's Final Four -- clanged off the rim, ensuring a 51-50 win for the Vashon Wolverines. The game was a hotly contested match that teetered on the brink of pandemonium -- not so much on the court, where teenage kids were living a moment that they'll replay in their minds a million times, but in the packed stands, where the Vashon faithful erupted into bedlam and CBC's fans fell into a stunned silence.

Crumpling to the floor, Johnson lay prone as "V-Side" fans took to the court. His teammates, now in various states of distress after prematurely celebrating an improbable comeback in the quarterfinal matchup, surrounded him. Sophomore center Tamarr Maclin was the most visibly upset of the Cadets, but he wasn't alone in crying. CBC head coach Bob McCormack, livid that a foul wasn't called on Shelton, quickly turned ashen, the brutal, sudden finality settling on him.

As Johnson, who had rallied his team throughout the second half, walked toward the locker room, the energy in the University of Missouri-St. Louis' Mark Twain Center was still at a fever pitch. A handful of Vashon fans taunted him in the corner of the gym where his mother and family stood. Jawing back, Johnson was quickly pulled away, the moment, fortunately, passing in a flash.

Nearly 15 minutes later, the contrast outside the UM-St. Louis locker rooms couldn't have been more severe. A couple of CBC staffers stood outside, watching as red-eyed players and team managers made their way out of the building, either crying or staring vacantly. In the same hallway, a small army of Vashon family members, media sympathizers and assorted sycophants glad-handed one another, loudly reminding anyone within earshot that it was "their" team, not CBC, that was headed to Columbia. Winning in boys' basketball is a tradition at Vashon. Winning and letting people know about it seems a tradition, too.

Inside the CBC locker room, only six people were left: coaches McCormack and Kevin Grawer, managers Rich and Jeff Kemper, and senior starters Ryan Johnson and D.J. Hogue. At the beginning of the season, the two players were heralded as potentially the best backcourt in the state, and they clearly formed the nucleus of a young team that included eight sophomores over the course of the year. Now, disconsolate, the pair sat numb and drained -- physically, mentally, emotionally.

McCormack, leaving the room, told them, "You guys were the warriors tonight. You set the path; you are going to carry it on for these guys. You've got nothing to be ashamed of -- we were the better team tonight. It's nothing but a loss." But the breaks in his voice suggested something far different. After the team's stirring playoff wins over University City, Webster and Lindbergh, this was definitely more than just another loss.

Throughout the season, especially in the days leading up to the game, Johnson and Hogue talked about their "mission" to win the state title, which the school did just two years ago, with Johnson, only a sophomore, manning the point.

Nearby, Grawer said quietly, "It was gutsy performance. They played with so much heart in the second half. When you're playing with your heart, it's hard. I'm so happy with the team. They surpassed expectations. Vashon hit their shots, so you give them credit."

Johnson, slowly coming around, noted that in the final seconds, "I was trying to get to the basket as quickly as I could. I thought they'd call a foul, but with time running out, it was too close to call."

As for the atmosphere in the gym during the game, which was treated more as a holy war than a high-school basketball game by many, Johnson said, "I knew it was going to be like that from the first day."

Hogue, still clearly rattled, indicated that the last moments were a nightmarish blur, CBC grabbing the lead after a protracted comeback only to see Vashon snatch it away with five points in the last 30 seconds, with explosive sophomore Jesse Akins serving as the game-ending catalyst. "We were so hyped, so happy," Hogue said. "Coach told us we were better. I know we were better, but there's nothing you can say or do. It's over."

For some of CBC's players, that may be true. But for Johnson and Hogue, CBC's roller-coaster 20-9 season is neither the beginning nor the end but part of a long, intricate, ever-changing process as they move toward the elusive "next level": an athletic scholarship at an NCAA Division I university.

Hogue's father, Lee Hogue, remembers the first game of the season well, the CBC Cadets taking on the underdog McCluer North Stars.

The game was his son's first for CBC after his transfer from Jefferson City High, where he was a point guard on a team that went to the state semis last year, finishing third. During the summer, Hogue had played for the Springfield Rockets, a Southern Missouri Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) summer team that would make some noise regionally, and he also began to work with his new squad at CBC; the group went undefeated in a St. Louis University camp, playing teams from other area high schools.

Through the summer, slender D.J. began to integrate himself into the CBC system in a new role -- that of a slashing, small forward. He was expected to handle different defensive responsibilities, with rebounding a bigger part of the role. The transition was made even harder because shooting guard Mike Van Hee was inactive the first seven games, leaving Hogue as the designated three-point threat.

Against McCluer North, he debuted with 25 points, on five-of-10 shooting, three-of-six from long range. The team would win the game, 78-58, though they'd trail 23-22 at the end of the free-form first quarter. Huddled together, McCormack started quietly before quickly breaking into full voice: "We just gave up 23 to this team. We're on a pace ... we're on a pace TO BREAK THE CLOCK! Let's have a little pride in what we're doing! Let's guard somebody! What have you been doing for the past four months? Can someone tell me?"

The team responded the rest of the afternoon, clearly motivated by McCormack's spirited words, which rang through a gym that was near-empty because of an early 3:30 start time. It would be the first of many wake-up calls.

Lee Hogue was surprised by the coach's strong words and worried about his son's reaction: "It's his senior year, a brand-new school, a brand-new program. That's a big adjustment for a kid, no friends, even," he says. "I remember that first game. This is after he played at (SLU coach Charlie) Spoonhour's camp, in the Vashon league. This the first game and the first time out, and I'm thinking, 'I haven't seen this all summer. I can't remember seeing this before.'"

But D.J. seemed accepting of McCor-mack's criticism. "Coach is always upfront," he says. "He knows exactly what he wants, and I've learned what he expects."

Hogue admits, that coming into the season, he wasn't aware of just how deep CBC's guard rotation could be. Over the year, he shared time with Johnson; junior gunner Van Hee; sophomore Ryan Sapp, the backup point guard and a reliable three-shooter; and Jeremy Jones, a lightning-quick defensive whiz who was initially ineligible but eventually played in 17 games (Jones then quit the team during the waning moments of the first Vashon game, an emotional, 20-point loss in the regular-season finale).

For the most part, though, Hogue was a mainstay in the starting lineup. He missed a few games with the flu, didn't start in a couple of others. In what was for him a slowly building season, Hogue had a few breakout games, but his shot left him in others, such as a one-for-10 performance against DeSmet on New Year's Eve. Still, he persevered, like all shooters with an attitude, continuing to put the ball up through slumps. Best of all, he eventually became a fairly accomplished rebounder.

"D.J.'s a talented young kid," McCormack says. "I think, more than anything, he puts pressure on himself. He really responded by the end of the year. He played some really good games early against Belleville East, Borgia -- good teams. He really started to rebound for us, working hard at both ends of the floor. I wish I would have had him for more than one year.

"We were extremely excited when we found out he was going to be coming here. He was excited; the staff was excited. Things have really worked out. D.J.'s not a real vocal kid; neither is Ryan. But they have shown some leadership."

Scoring, not just providing leadership, was Hogue's main goal -- not only to impress the college scouts, who may be in the stands at any given game, but to get his team over the hump. Hogue said, with a week left in the season, "I like to score. I've done that so-so. Right now, I have to score for us to win."

Whatever pressure he puts on himself to score, Hogue says that he hasn't felt burdened by being a senior without a clear-cut scholarship. Some players, their hearts dead-set on a certain college and tuition being offered, hitch on during the fall signing period. Others, waiting to see what options develop, don't ink until the spring signing period, after narrowing their choices and taking their recruiting trips.

It's clear that both Hogue and his father would've loved for St. Louis University to show more of an interest. SLU coaches were in the stands for some of CBC's early games, and Hogue was even the object of interest from a resurgent Northwestern of the Big 10, but in recruiting the only certainty is change. One year a kid's on any number of wish lists, but a single poor outing can cause that list to shrink. It just seemed that whenever SLU was in the building, Hogue had one of his off nights.

"It would've been nice," says Lee Hogue of his son's playing in his hometown. "SLU in his junior year had a lot of interest, but that disappeared. Southwest Missouri State had interest. Over the course of the recruiting process, things can go one way or another."

At this point, D.J. Hogue's two clearest options for playing at the Division I level are a pair of smaller programs: Jackson State and North Carolina A&T. The soft-spoken, amiable Hogue says, "Those are my two best choices. I plan on making a decision in April. I'll look at my situation and see where I stand.

"A lot is where I can go in and play," he adds, echoing the thoughts of many prep standouts. "I wouldn't want to go in and wait until my junior year. I want to go straight in and compete. And make my parents happy -- it's not all their choice, but I like them to have an interest in it." (Hogue's family -- not just father Lee but also mother Donna and sisters Lauren, 11, and Erica, 4 -- made it to virtually every game.)

Lee Hogue says, "I think D.J. will be taken care of. Several different schools are interested, but he hasn't even made his visits and, obviously, hasn't signed yet. I haven't seen that pressure, so to speak. Coming into this year, he had to fit in where he could fit in. Maybe there was more pressure that way."

Unlike McCormack, Lee Hogue believes that D.J. doesn't put pressure on himself but simply expects to excel. "It's different," he says, "how he's playing now than at the beginning or middle of the year. D.J. wants to do well. He expects himself to do well; he's always competed at the top level. He's made the nationals in AAU. He's only lost six, seven games during his freshman-to-junior years."

Playing at the "top level" is almost a mantra among the better prep players. And that means a scholarship to a Division I school. All season -- for a couple of seasons, really -- that's been Hogue's goal.

"I've always wanted to play Division I," Hogue admits. "I always wanted to be one of the best. But if a Division II school suits me right -- if they could help go to Division I in two years, if they could prepare me for that -- I'd do it."

One of the funniest debates heard in a gym this winter came when CBC was playing its archrival, St. Louis University High. It was the second of three times they'd face each other, with CBC getting its only win in this one, 59-47, capturing the Fontbonne Tournament title.

A few rows back from the bench, two SLUH fans wondered aloud about Ryan Johnson's tattoos. He's certainly not the only member of the team who has them: Hogue features one on each arm, and reserves Rick Wallace and Jeremy Jones -- the only two players who wouldn't finish the year with the team -- also have some good-sized inkings. But Johnson's tattoos are larger, more detailed and simply greater in quantity than most folks', let alone high-school kids'.

On his right arm, reaching nearly from elbow to shoulder, is a tattoo that features what seems like a slice of hell, eyes peering from the subterranean world. On top of it, an Atlas-like figure holds the Earth, with the inscription "PUT THE WORLD ON MY SHOULDERS" above it. To the SLUH fans it looked, alternately, like a mushroom cloud, a flaming skull or, believe it or not, a carrot.

"It's not a carrot," says Johnson, only mildly irritated, with a half-smile. "I know what's on me. I know the meanings behind getting them."

Both he and his mom, Linda Askew, remember going to the tattoo parlor for the first time; he'd turned 15 the day before. "It snowballed from there," says Askew. "He started sneaking them in on me; a couple of times he told me. One time, he came in the room and said he got one of me. I don't know. He hasn't got any more room unless he grows."

Johnson offers a simple explanation for his tattoos: "Larry, Justin and I spend a lot of time together and got into it. It's fun. It's something I enjoy. Why not?."

"Larry" is Larry Hughes, captain of the CBC team that took the state's large-school 4A title two years ago. After a single spectacular year with SLU, Hughes left college hoops behind to play with the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA. "Justin" is Justin Tatum, Johnson's cousin, a sophomore power forward at SLU. Together, the three -- along with shooting guard Mark Stricker, who just completed his freshman year at UM-Kansas City -- spearheaded one of the best local high-school basketball teams of this decade, the 1997 state-title team.

Hughes, in particular, made an impact.
"He sets a new standard, obviously," says Grawer. "Most high-school players think they're pretty good, but Larry Hughes was just a level above any player I've had the chance to coach. He raises the standards. He raises expectations, too. You get spoiled."

As for Hughes' influence on Johnson, the starting point guard on that '97 squad, Grawer says: "It's huge, huge -- in so many ways. That's his idol, from the way he moves to the way he wears his hair. He's done everything the same."

McCormack adds, "Larry and Ryan playing together was as big an inspiration as you could imagine. Ryan was like a sponge when Larry was around, to the point where, this year, he's one of the best guards in the area."

Johnson, however, downplays the Hughes connection: "Larry's more like my cousin, so he's no superstar to me."

Tatum, who's "been playing ball with (Johnson) since he was 5 or 6 years old, playing football and basketball in my uncle's basement," comes down in between on the issue. On one hand he says that team's dominant 28-4 season gave Johnson a hunger to lead a team of his own: "It's very important to him. Very much so. The two of us led that season. Now, there's just one from that team, him. He's always wanted to be the man going back to the state championship. He knew how Larry and I led that team. He was basically waiting his turn." On the other hand, Tatum says, the Hughes relationship is still simply on a friendly level, no "idol" involved: "(Johnson) hangs with me and Larry on and off the court. Same attitude, same walk, everything. He's just one of us."

"People who know us know what (Hughes) means to us," says Johnson. "He's one of my best and closest friends."

Certainly playing with that Hughes-Tatum-Stricker lineup gave Johnson some extra ammo in the basketball-recruiting wars. A good number of coaches knew the name, knew that he could run the show with talented players around him, knew that he'd put up good numbers the year after the senior trio left.

A variety of mid- to high-caliber programs, McCormack says, were inquiring about Johnson in basketball, including Bradley, St. John's, Georgia, Illinois State and SLU. Instead, during the spring signing period, Johnson put pen to paper and signed a football scholarship with the University of Memphis, after starring with the 4-5 CBC team as a wide receiver, defensive back and QB.

He admits that the college-recruiting process was sometimes tiring. "Yeah, it created a few problems," he says. "All that 'Where you goin?' You don't know what to tell 'em."

Eventually, he wound up telling them, "Memphis." And despite his football scholarship, Johnson has every intention of going out for the basketball team. He says head basketball coach Tic Price told him the squad is in need of point guards. (For the record, Memphis assistant coach Johnny Jones says that he hasn't "seen film" of Johnson yet and doesn't know the player in any detail. In a statement relayed through the school's sports-information department, Jones says, "We're looking forward to giving Ryan the opportunity of walking on with our basketball team. We're definitely looking at him after his football commitments.")

"I went down there on a recruiting visit," he says. "It seemed more like home than anywhere else. Basically it's not all that big, not all that small. Only four hours going down the highway."

"I'll get to go to some of the games," his mother says. "I'm happy he chose them."

Askew, who's seldom missed one of her son's games -- from grade school through AAU and CBC -- says with some understatement that the experience of the last year was "interesting": "He got a lot of letters, from both sports, mainly at the beginning of the school year. Mostly it was football. When I talked to the Memphis coach, that's what he was saying -- people thought he was going to go football."

Johnson clearly brings some of that sport's mentality to the court. His position calls for both patience and aggression, and for the most part he delivered the two qualities in equal measure, with his flashy style of play providing an easy target for fans. He also came up big in big games.

At Kiel Center, Johnson scored 26 points against DeMatha Catholic, then rated the No. 1 high-school team in the country, an effort that came in front of a bevy of coaches and thousands of fans.

At Webster Groves, in midseason, Johnson hit two free throws with three seconds remaining, icing a game that had raged back and forth for 32 minutes.

At UM-St. Louis, the entire game seemed to run through Johnson and Vashon's Shelton, with Johnson scoring 18, including several huge, often acrobatic buckets down the stretch.

And at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, earlier in the state playoffs, Johnson responded to Lindbergh's coach's mentioning that he was overrated in that day's Southwest City Journal by ringing up 22 points, 10 assists and five rebounds -- all despite a fever.

"That really helped motivate Johnson," says forward Kevin Muesenfechter.
"He got his just dues," Johnson says. "That's one thing you just don't do."
That type of bravado should be a good thing when Johnson gets to Memphis. As a freshman on the football team, he'll be back at the beginning, one of dozens of talented new kids who'll initially serve as cannon fodder for the upperclassmen in late-summer drills. His mom feels that "if there's a spot for him and he has any power to do it, he'll do it. If he can earn a starting spot, he'll do his darndest. I think he knows what's coming. But he's never come off the bench in anything. I think he'll be OK."

Johnson says with his customary confidence, "Since I was little, you could say I've been the superstar on the team, in basketball, football, baseball. In high school, I don't think I got the respect that I deserved. Even with other people around, I think I deserved more -- for the way I worked, the things I've done, the road I took to get here.

"I already understand some of the things I need to do. They're the same things that got me where I am today. No one (in Memphis) is going to give anything to me. But if there's a position I want, I'll take it. I'm not used to being on someone's bench. I'll do anything it takes.

"When I was young, I took the ball to the playground and shot at night. I heard Glen Rice (of the LA Lakers) did it, and he's one of the best shooters around. I thought, 'I can do this, too. If that's what got him there, maybe it'll get me there, too.'"

With the example of Hughes in front of him, pro ball is something that's on Johnson's mind, and he truly believes it's a possibility. Askew has been talking to her son about his dreams of playing professionally in either sport. "I have to tell him it's a million-to-one chance," Askew says. "Every kid that leaves high school, there's a chance he's not going to make it. He makes good grades. He knows education is something he needs. (The pros) are something he fantasizes about. It's not one of the normals in life. He knows he has to study. He'll be OK with whatever he chooses. He's mature for his age. We've been really close. And he's a good kid."

A good kid with big dreams -- and a healthy dose of self-confidence.
"Unless you're 6-5, 6-6, or you have a certain pull, or you're a high-school all-American, you don't get the respect that you deserve," Johnson says. "I know the player I am. People in St. Louis -- maybe after that last game, now they know who I am, too."

A few days after the state final, in which DeSmet outlasted Vashon 70-64, the differences between Johnson and Hogue were as apparent in conversation as on the court. Johnson was still stung by the loss to "the V" in the quarterfinal ("I took it hard, real hard"); Hogue, though not happy about the loss, had already begun to shed his worries over the outcome.

Hogue, in general, proved a ready interview. During the end of the season, he seemed to almost enjoy the Q&A process, coming up and asking, "Do you have anything for me?" It's obvious that the coaching staff at CBC has worked to make its team media-friendly, and all the front-line players speak with a casual, conversational tone. They'll be fully prepared for the increased demands on their time in college.

Despite his ease with the media, Hogue's interests off the court reflect those of any American teenager. He lists his hobbies as "just watching TV, talking on the phone with girls, going to movies. I hang out with friends and try to stay out of trouble. Nothing other than that. On the weekends, all I do is play basketball -- pickup games in the park, at the YMCA."

As for college, he plans to major in business. "I like computers," he explains. "My parents, they're in business, and they seem to have fun with what they do. I figure it's something I'd like to do, too."

If/when he does sign with a team out of the area, it will be an adjustment, for more than just him. His family was a constant presence at games, including his younger sisters, who only missed the longer road trips. They enjoyed the atmosphere as much as anyone, especially Erica, who routinely played with Tamarr Maclin's kid sister, running up and down the steps and on the court at gyms all across the area.

"They love going," Hogue says.
Johnson's family also made the games. Growing up with brothers a decade older than him, he learned early on how to compete against older, better players. They were clearly an influence in shaping his work ethic.

Asked what he does outside the gym, Johnson doesn't mention the usual fare. His focus seems to remain on sports: "I've been lifting weights, running a lot. I've got to get a lot stronger to play in college."

The serious-minded Johnson gives good interview, too, but the most heartfelt he gets is when talking about his team. Because he attends an all-boys school, he says, "I guess you could say that guys become closer friends."

Repeating a familiar coaching-staff mantra, Johnson says, "The team's like a family. Ryan (Sapp) and Mike (Van Hee) are my brothers, just like Tamarr, Ryan (Woods) and Larry (Jones) are my brothers."

Johnson's "brothers" on the team are both black and white, indicating a healthy color-blindness on the CBC squad. The team's integrated lineup, however, has caused some to question the motives of the coaching staff, with critics accusing CBC -- a private Catholic prep school -- of recruiting black players, which is strictly forbidden in high-school athletics. CBC is the only school in the Metro Catholic Conference to feature more than one or two black players, who come to the school from both the city and the county.

Sometimes the comments from the bleacher seats are subtle; other times they're not. McCormack, coach at CBC for three seasons now, has heard the whispers and shouts. "It's acutely unfair," says McCormack, who played with a number of black players when he was at the school in the late '70s/early '80s. "I don't think people understand the Lasallian tradition. Father La Salle, who founded the Christian Brothers, had a philosophy of teaching kids from inner cities. If people can't take that" -- he stops in frustration. CBC's school population is 3.76 percent African-American, but McCormack says that critics don't look beyond the sports teams. "They view everything by what we put out on a field or on a court," he says. "There's a commitment to ethnic backgrounds of all types of students. We don't have the same athletes as a SLUH -- never have, never will. That makes us unique. I really turn deaf ears to it."

If McCormack tunes it out, Maclin and the other players do hear it.
"Because we land in one school, they think they recruited us," says Maclin, whose public-school district was Ladue. "When we play at Ladue, all the people are calling me a traitor. I don't listen to the fans. I prove what I have to prove between the lines."

D.J. Hogue wound up at the school after his parents moved from Jefferson City back to Maplewood. Hogue's father had played at Maplewood High against McCormack and knew CBC from other relatives who'd gone to the school. "That it's three minutes from our house made it a natural choice," he says. "It was a sort of homecoming."

Johnson's mother considered several factors before deciding to send him to CBC rather than one of his other possibilities, Lutheran North and Vashon. "I had initially planned on him going to Lutheran North," Askew says. "My brothers had gone there, my niece and nephew. At the last moment, I checked around and finally decided in July. In fact, I didn't know much about basketball or football programs there. It was the most important time in Ryan's life. The stuff with girls had already started, and I thought, 'Hmmm, we don't need girls around.' And CBC was there! People say what they want to say, but parents choose CBC because of academics."

Johnson remembers things differently.
"My mom was telling you a story," he says. "She had to be pulling your leg. I went because of Justin. She knows how guys can get, showing off for them (girls). I'm sure if I went to a school with girls, it wouldn't have distracted me."

Says McCormack, "His parents wanted a good education for their son. He's gotten that. He's also a heckuva football and basketball player, too."

Whatever the reasons black basketball players attend the school, CBC teams continue to serve as a prime target for opposing fans. In the school's Metro Catholic Conference, DeSmet's and SLUH's crowds give them a verbal beating, with entire sections of fans in matching cargo pants, sweaters and haircuts chanting in unison. On the other side, city schools such as Vashon (and, just as important, their fans) take delight in beating them, for reasons that transcend athletics.

"No doubt, there's animosity within the conference," says McCormack. Says Johnson, simply, "We're the team that people love to hate."

Two days after the Vashon win, Wolverines coach Floyd Irons gave his take on what happened at UM-St. Louis, where the fans created what was nearly a Thunderdome-type environment. Sections of the audience seemed more interested in yelling at each other than in watching the game.

"The intensity is just quadrupled in that atmosphere," says Frank Cusamano, of KSDK (Channel 5) and KFNS (AM 590). "It's a big, big game atmosphere. There's a lot of people, and it's intimate at the same time."

The players catch as much heat as the refs. With a vocal portion of Vashon fans, there's a will not only to beat the other school but to dominate them. Their fans leap from their seats as if the stands have been hit by lightning when Vashon dunks. That's what they've come to see: a win, certainly, but also a dismantling of the other team's confidence.

"I think it's a different type of atmosphere when it's DeSmet-Vashon or CBC-Vashon," Irons says. "It's not the same atmosphere anywhere else we play. There's a lot more racial overtones. There's things that go beyond the court at CBC and DeSmet.

"Because there's several African-American kids at CBC, DeSmet treats them just as bad. It hardens them for the next level. It's reality. It takes a type of kid to get over that. They know what they're up against. The experience of playing a DeSmet -- the chants you hear from the student sections toward the CBC kids. I've heard them, calling them 'deseg kids.'

"I don't think a kid needs to go through that. If I had a white kid on my team, that white kid would never experience what a black kid on an all-white team experiences when he plays against a DeSmet."

Bob Steiner, head coach at DeSmet, responds, "Our kids won the sportsmanship trophy on Saturday (at the state tourney). That's voted on by a panel appointed by the state. That tells you all you need to know."

Cusamano, a former teammate of McCormack's, uses the championship game between Vashon and DeSmet as an example. "Vashon is representing the city of St. Louis in those games," he says. "DeSmet or CBC is representing the county, especially with DeSmet. The white kids from the county, the state champs from the county. The black kids from the city, the state champs from the city. It couldn't be more defined."

To Irons, what happened that Saturday came about because of the chants from the CBC side, though they seemed fairly innocuous: "Fire up, CB, fire up," "D.J., D.J." and things along that line. CBC also travels with one of the smaller student sections in the MCC, even getting outyelled in their own building by traveling DeSmet and SLUH fans.

A deeper emotion simmers just beneath the surface when Vashon plays CBC, with race, obviously, a key component. More than any group of players or any particular swing in the action, it appears to be the real source of that Saturday's friction.

"Normally we do not get that type of cheering or behavior until we play those types of teams," Irons says of his fans. "A lot of our kids feel that even the black kids at CBC look down on the kids from the inner city. Even with the deseg kids or the kids that go to the county schools, they feel that they have a house -- and I hate to use the word -- but a house-Negro mentality. That's the way it's displayed. For D.J. and the others, that's the way the kids see them.

"I don't disapprove of what Bob is trying to do. I just hope he's not doing it just for the purpose (of winning). That's something you would hope they wouldn't do."

McCormack responds, "People don't realize when I went in, the team was already predominantly African-American. It's not the least bit different than it was when I went here in the late '70s. We accept any race. A lot of people can't accept it, and I don't understand it. It's unfortunate.

"I don't understand the way some people think. I grew up in a primarily African-American community on the north side of Olive, in University City, a block from Pagedale. For me, to come in and work with African-American kids is a pleasure. I didn't come in thinking of them that way, one way or another. I see them as kids -- rather as good basketball players -- and as good people."

When his team was matched against Vashon at UM-St. Louis, though, other feelings came to the fore.

Even Irons wondered what some thought when leaving the building. "I imagine some people thought, 'Was that more of a basketball game or a racial match? Was I at a basketball game or a grudge match?'"

"I think he's right on in that the games at UM-St. Louis are just loaded with racial tension," says Cusamano. "When (DeSmet's Matt) Baniak and (Vashon's James) Williams were seniors, there was more racial tension in that gym than I've ever seen in my life. My son Alex, who was 4, was at the game, and I shoved him under the scorer's table. Thankfully, nothing happened after the game.

"As long as there's no shenanigans after the game, it's fine. There's not a more passionate atmosphere anywhere in town, pro or college, than those 75 minutes at UM-St. Louis. The lessons these kids learn ... boy, it's super."

"People are going to come after you no matter," sums up Johnson. "You face that in college and the next level. If I go out and play my best game, they'll respect me regardless. After the game, still to this day, people have said, 'You played a helluva game.' People tell me, 'You carried the team on your back as far as you could.' I don't care what anyone says. I know how I was brought up. I don't worry about anyone else.

"I know a lot of Vashon guys -- I grew up across the street from Vashon. That's why I don't like them mentioning it being a city school against a county school. It's about playing basketball. It's not a racial game. Let the best team win."

Against Vashon, Ryan Johnson did everything he could to make sure that his was the best team, the effort just coming up short.

A series of deft passes and daring, acrobatic shots pulled the team from a deep halftime deficit into the lead, only for Vashon to rally back.

At times during its season, CBC relied on big points from Hogue, Maclin, Van Hee and Larry Jones. But with the game in the balance, a trip to the state finals hanging by a thread, there wasn't much doubt who would take the ball up the court in the last seconds of the season. Everyone in the building knew what was coming, which made the scene no less thrilling.

With four seconds left on the clock, CBC point guard Ryan Johnson took an inbounds pass and headed, with a purposeful aggression, into an attacking full-court sprint.

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