Ruben Shelton and Drew Rogers, frozen for all time in the biggest contest either will ever play in, Northwest High vs. Kirkwood High, St. Louis' Kiel Auditorium, March 8, 1972. The stylish confidence of both jumps out from the black and white photograph. Both lanky teens ooze with the measurable quality any 1970’s teenage boy strove for, the cool factor: Shelton with the perfectly symmetric Afro hairstyle, Rogers with the blown-dried long curls covering his ears and cascading over his collar. Both are obviously, young Alpha Males.
Oblivious to the 9,000 rabid fans in attendance - an out of focus background blur in the photo - both are alone on an island with the other. They are two young warriors at the peak of life, deadly stares locked in. Rogers has the ball, body creating space from Shelton who is deep into his defensive crouch. Shelton’s body is coiled, set for action as he studies the eyes of his opponent. Rogers is looking to score, Shelton set to spring into shot blocking mode.
The next move and the ball belong to Rogers. He is sizing up his adversary. A pump fake to get Shelton off his feet? A quick fall away jump shot over the lunging Northwest star? An up-and-under move and attack to the rim, perhaps with a foul on Shelton as a bonus? Or, maybe Rogers should concede this one, reset the offense with a kick out pass to a teammate in a white Kirkwood jersey: The Thrill or Sugar Bear or Prime Time or The Rock, all out of the picture but assuredly into their own personal battles with the other four blue jerseyed Northwest players. And where is Shelton’s teammate, Hercle Ivy? Is the future collegiate All-American and NBA star leaving his own man, sliding into help Sheldon on Rogers? We will never know for sure.
And the coaches, Denver Miller of Kirkwood and Northwest's Jody Bailey, legends who would combine for almost 100 years of coaching experience and near 2,000 victories, are also outside the border. They have brought both combatants to this intersection but can only now watch.
Although both players have taken on statuesque poses, remember this is a frame freeze. Within this brutally hard-fought contest, both teams will continue flailing away mightily at the other as they sprint to the game’s conclusion. Winner to the final four, loser goes home. The stakes are high.
In a millisecond the game resumes to a blur of action, this frame of Shelton and Rogers now rudimentary and delegated to history. The ball and the players continue to ricochet off each other, the passion of the contest driving the packed Kiel Auditorium to a pitch of frenzy destined for an ugly ending. It is good for the imagination that the conclusion of this momentary standoff has been lost to time. Neither Rogers nor Shelton, I am sure, can today recall this possession. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of just such one-on-one duels in that evening's 32 minutes of fevered action.
Shelton and Rogers would both move on and out of this still shot and beyond the school kid's game of basketball to become the successful adults they are today; Shelton, a corporate lawyer and first African-American President of the St. Louis Bar Association and Rogers, a successful California corporate sales manager and a author of distinction.
But, let’s stop now and relish this simple black and white photo from 47 years ago. All the trash talk and posturing- false attempts to impress peers and foes alike- the phony pretenses we use to prop up our self-esteem – are all stripped away in a moment like this: Shelton vs. Rogers; show me what you got.