Bud Lathrop won more than 950 games and four state championships in nearly 50 years of coaching, mostly at Raytown South High School in Kansas City.
When Lathrop talks, he gets your attention.
In the fall of 1978, Lathrop was asked for his outlook on Missouri high school basketball. "Oh, it's DeSmet this year," he said simply.
DeSmet was the defending state champion, having gone 31-1 the previous season, winning its last 28. But the Spartans had lost a large part of their nucleus from the state title team, including all-stater Mark Dressler. Another title didn't look to be a layup.
But DeSmet had one significant chip left - Steve Stipanovich, the big man who would be the focal point for the whole season. "I knew as long as he was there they weren't gonna get beat," Lathrop said.
It wasn't quite that easy, but DeSmet finished 32-0 for its second straight state title and the Missouri large-schools record of 60 straight wins. "It's unbelievable," Lathrop said, "for a large school to do that."
It's been 30 years since Stipanovich, DeSmet coach Rich Grawer and a select group of complementary players withstood the pressure and put the climactic touches on "the streak." After Stipo graduated, DeSmet went on to win its first three games the following season before finally seeing the magic end at 63, ironically in the final of its own tournament.
"We never thought in terms of a winning streak," says Grawer, now 65. "We knew we had a good team because we had Stipanovich, but we really did have a nice mix of role players who made things happen."
DeSmet's streak isn't the longest in state history: Small schools Bradleyville and Glasgow had streaks of 68 and 64 games, respectively. But it was the level of competition, and as Stipanovich puts it, "the circus" that surrounded it, that set DeSmet's apart.
Stipanovich had grown from 6 feet 5 as a freshman to a 6-9 starter who he says "wasn't a very good player" as a sophomore, to an emerging talent as a junior. Then, in the summer between his junior and senior seasons, he filled out to a 7-foot, 235-pounder who made a huge splash at national camps against the likes of Sam Bowie and Ralph Sampson.
From that point, DeSmet and Stipanovich were the subject of intense focus. Games were regularly sellouts an hour before tipoff. Grawer issued guidelines for "the recruitment of Steve Stipanovich," which allowed college coaches to attend DeSmet practices only on Wednesdays. "There was a lot of national attention on me," Stipanovich says. "Digger Phelps, Joe B. Hall of Kentucky, big-time coaches at our practices. It was quite a circus. Personally, I did feel a lot of pressure."
DeSmet had six games in the regular season in which it won by less than five points. "Teams were gunning for us, no question," said Stipanovich, now 48 and working as an advancement associate at Westminster Christian Academy. "It wasn't like we just blew everybody out. At that time, if you were the team to play - and we were - Coach Grawer's philosophy was to play the best teams, and it would help you in the (state) tournament."
Grawer found a supporting cast that could operate off the skills of his big man. There was burly Tom Hornof, a 6-3 forward who also played on the football team, with 6-3 John Culliton, a dependable, do-it-all forward who was a good passer and could hit the short jumper. The starting guards were Rick Calcaterra and Ken Klump, with junior Frank Cusumano getting ample playing time off the bench.
"You don't win that many games with one good player," Stipanovich says. "You have to have solid players around you."
And Stipanovich pointed to one other factor as a big edge for DeSmet: Grawer's preparation. "I played at Mizzou for Coach (Norm) Stewart and in the pros, and we were prepared better at the high school level than at the other levels, believe it or not," Stipanovich said. "Rich Grawer is one of the smartest men I've ever met. He's the John Wooden of Missouri basketball."
The grind got tougher in state play. DeSmet had four more difficult games, beating CBC by four for the regional championship, narrowly escaping Hazelwood East by one in the quarterfinals, and then topping Kirkwood - which DeSmet had beaten by 18 in the regular season - by four in the state semis.
The last test was William Chrisman, and again DeSmet had to battle, overcoming a four-point deficit in the final minutes after a pivotal play. Russ Morman, who went on to play major-league baseball with three teams, turned in a determined game in the pivot against Stipanovich even though at 6-4 he was giving away plenty of height. In the last six minutes, he and Stipanovich - who both had four fouls - collided on a play that could have gone either way. Morman was called for the foul. With him gone, DeSmet coasted in the final minutes to a 77-64 win.
Another banner was hung, a scoreboard-sized weight was lifted off the backs of the DeSmet players, and the streak was intact. The next season, Stipo-less DeSmet managed three more victories before losing to Soldan 67-63 in the DeSmet tourney final, an event that annually brought together some of the area's toughest teams.
And so the streak stands, 30 years later, although it was challenged in recent years by a superlative run by Vashon from 2003 to 2005 - a 60-game streak that later was voided after Vashon coach Floyd Irons was ruled to have used ineligible players.
Irons said his team had its eye on 63. "You can believe we were looking at it," he said with a laugh. "Those people who say they don't worry about winning streaks ... don't believe it."
Irons, who is a friend of Grawer and now attends Bible study with both Grawer and Stipanovich on a regular basis, agrees with Grawer that it's difficult to compare great teams from different eras. "It's about like comparing Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson," Irons said.
Stipanovich is content to let the number, and the achievement, speak for itself. "I wouldn't put us as the most talented team of all time," he says. "We had some smart kids on our team. That trumps talent most of the time."