It was born in the old Kiel Auditorium.
Anthony Bonner was there. So were Roland Gray, Charles Newberry and Monroe Douglass. These were the pillars of the St. Louis U. men’s basketball team, which finished as the runner up in the 1989 NIT.
They’re the reason I first fell in love with basketball.
I was in fourth grade at Roe Elementary School in the city. My dad and I made a habit of trekking to Kiel Auditorium to watch the Billikens that winter. We met them at Lambert when they returned from New York. I still have the notebook with the autographs from that day.
A few months later, my dad’s job took us from St. Louis to Indiana. Terre Haute to be exact.
After school started a letter came home informing everyone it was time to sign up for winter basketball at the Boys and Girls Club. I told my mom I wanted to play. She went to register me, only to be informed that the waiting list for my age group from the previous year had already filled up the league. I could join next year’s waiting list.
I never did play in a winter league, but all we did growing up was shoot hoops. We didn't have a basket in our driveway (we were one of the few). Fortunately, a sweet, older couple that lived around the corner had one and let us play rain or shine. They said they liked hearing the ball bounce in the driveway, but we had to cut out the cussing.
After graduating from Terre Haute South Vigo High, I returned to St. Louis U. as a freshman in 1997. I stood in line outside the West Pine Gym to buy Billikens season tickets. Diaper dandy Larry Hughes and Co. set the city on fire as they marched into March.
Two years later I was working for the student newspaper, the University News, when the Billikens made the improbable happen. Led by Justin Love, they became the first team to win four games in four days as they claimed the Conference USA Tournament title and its automatic NCAA Tournament berth. The “Miracle in Memphis” included a stunning upset of top seed Cincinnati after star Kenyon Martin broke his leg three minutes into the game with the Billikens. Then the Billikens beat DePaul in the championship against future pros Quentin Richardson, Bobby Simmons, Stephen Hunter and Paul McPherson.
The late, great Charlie Spoonhour and then women’s basketball coach Jill Pizzotti joined the party as we celebrated on Beale Street that night. I’ll never forget Dave Ferguson’s smiling face on the cover of USA Today's tournament guide.
I’m fortunate that my career has allowed me to spend my winters haunting gyms across the area. In my 19 years on the preps beat, I have seen the best soccer, football and track athletes this state has to offer. They are remarkable and inspiring.
But basketball remains my love.
Of all the rivalry games, shootouts and showcases that annually dot the calendar, nothing compares to quarterfinal Saturday.
I watched Brad Beal’s career end at the hands of BJ Young on quarterfinal Saturday.
I watched Tyler Hansbrough destroy good Chaminade and Webster Groves teams in back-to-back years on quarterfinal Saturday.
I watched Jayson Tatum end his father’s season in their only playoff matchup on quarterfinal Saturday.
I watched Drew Hanlen lose in overtime as a junior at Webster Groves on quarterfinal Saturday. The next year I watched him score a career-high 34 points and hand out 11 assists in a win on quarterfinal Saturday.
I watched Vianney’s best-ever basketball team finish 27-2 on quarterfinal Saturday. A year later, Vianney ended McCluer North’s two-year reign as Class 5 champion on quarterfinals Saturday.
I watched Marquette go 11 of 17 on 3-pointers to stun CBC and secure its only state semifinal appearance on quarterfinal Saturday.
I watched Jeremy Maclin and Billy Brandenburg lead Kirkwood past De Smet — and younger brother John Brandenburg — on quarterfinal Saturday.
I watched Nerinx Hall’s Katie Mathews take a shot to the face, get poked in the eye and then sprain her ankle only to hobble back for more as the Markers lost in overtime on quarterfinal Saturday.
I watched Parkway West’s Bill Sodemann coach his last game on quarterfinal Saturday.
For all the memories that have been made, none of them compare to this year.
The best part about winning on quarterfinal Saturday is you are guaranteed another week of practice, two more games and a trophy. This was the first year that wasn’t true.
As the coronavirus pandemic shut down the NBA, canceled the NCAA Tournament and state basketball tournaments across the country, there was serious doubt basketball in Missouri would continue. When Maryville University, Lindenwood University and Jefferson College would not hold quarterfinal games on their campuses, those doubts grew.
Francis Howell Central graciously agreed to host Class 5 in lieu of Lindenwood and allowed quarterfinal Saturday to go on. It was strange being among the select few allowed in the gym. Elbow bumps were the greeting of the day. Disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer were prevalent.
The bleachers were a far cry from full, but once the games began it felt normal. The gym was loud and it didn’t take long for coaches and fans to fall into their routines. Even a pandemic can’t make everyone see eye-to-eye with a referee.
Yet the joy and elation of winning on quarterfinal Saturday wasn’t the same. No one knew for sure what the next few days would hold. Everyone was aware this ride could end at any time.
On Sunday, the Missouri State High School Activities Association sent up a flare. Even as area school districts closed down until April, MSHSAA made plans and was putting procedures in place to play this weekend in Springfield.
In the face of the measures being taken by Arkansas and Illinois — both of which closed schools statewide — and the world’s leading scientists and experts sounding the alarm about the potential catastrophe that awaits, it was hard to believe basketball would go on.
On Monday morning, the last remaining high school tournament in America was canceled when MSHSAA pulled the plug on the Class 4 and 5 semifinals.
The end of basketball season always is hard for me. For 16 of the last 19 years I’ve seen it to the finish line, more often than not trying to find the right words to describe what it’s like when dreams come true.
That won’t be necessary this year. No one dreams about their season ending on quarterfinal Saturday. Be it a win or a loss.
I will miss spending the weekend in Springfield watching Vashon roll toward its fourth state title in five years. CBC and Chaminade would have played for the Class 5 title and it would have been a dandy. Caleb Love and the Cadets weren’t going home without the biggest prize, but Luke Kasubke and the Red Devils were playing some of their best basketball when it mattered most.
The Hoosier in me hurts for the seniors and hopes they can continue playing the game they love for as long as they can wherever that may be. Basketball is the best game in the world.
The Billikens taught me that a long time ago.
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