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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Before the Spotlight

I had a nice conversation today with Mr. Drew Rogers who now resides in California but 45 years ago was one of the best high school basketball players in St. Louis. He has written a book about his experiences while coming of age in the early 1970’s. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Before the Spotlight. I liked it so much I read it twice.   
Drew led the Kirkwood Pioneers his senior year to a 31-1 record. I was a freshman in high school at Crystal City, MO during Rogers’ senior year, 1971-72. I didn’t play varsity but traveled to a lot of the games. We were a pretty good small school team but I remember Kirkwood ran us out of the gym in the finals of the Maplewood Tournament. After high school graduation Drew went on to play at the University of Kansas.
Nineteen Seventy Two was an impressionable year and we were at an impressionable age. Rogers devotes a great deal of his book to the racial climate of the times. Kirkwood was one of the first integrated teams in the St. Louis area and in 1972 started three blacks and two whites - Drew and his best friend Bill Moulder. His description and detailed account of the clashing dynamics of a society in a racial free fall are candid but very accurate to my personal memories. A good writer prods the recesses of the brain’s memory banks of the reader. Reading Before the Spotlight stimulated me to recall people and events I had not thought of in years.
A personal sidelight: Drew’s high school coach, Denver Miller, and my high school coach Arvel Popp, were big buddies. Once a teammate and I, forged IDs in tow, stopped by the Trophy Inn off Highway 61 in Kimmswick to have a couple of beers. As we walked in front and center at the bar sat Coach Miller and Coach Popp. Being as the bar was poorly lit and the hasty retreat we beat, I thought we had not been detected. The next day Coach called us into his office before practice and said, “I been drinking at the Trophy Inn for 20 years, you boys need to find a different bar.”
Coach Popp won over 700 games in his long career. He gave the same half time speech for every game I ever played for him, “now remember boys we are going the other way this half and let’s get the tip.” He would then leave the locker room to go smoke a cigarette. Several of my teammates would do the same as we waited out the 10 minute half time intermission.
My favorite part of Before the Spotlight entails Rogers' detailed memories  of playing pickup games at the Kirkwood City Rec Center. All social pretenses were dropped. White, black; didn’t matter. What mattered was “The Game” and one’s ability to stand his ground. Many of the players were older, Rogers recalls; 90% were black and the success of a previous night’s high school game held no sway with the street ballers who claimed squatters’ rights at the dimly lit band box of a gym. It is where Rogers tested his mettle, developed his “game.” Drew quotes the magnificent Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, “if you want to hang out, you has to have game.” Over time, Drew's tenacity and grit  earned him the right to “hang out” at the Center.
Rogers’s poignant and colorful description of the sub culture of playground ballers he knew is dead on accurate and for me very easy to relate. We played pickup games every Saturday morning during the season in our high school gym. We would have a school game on Friday night and match up again on Saturday morning. The trash talk from the previous night’s game would carry over.
Players from all over the area would come. Sonny Parker, who later played for Golden State would be there along with a lot of area college players. I remember the Williams brothers from Kirkwood, Robert “Rock” and Donny “Duck“ – both who played with Drew at KHS - came down often. So did Cookie Thornton, notorious today as the mass murderer that shot up Kirkwood city hall a few years ago, but at one time a great athlete and a likeable person.  Cookie always had with him a few of his brothers and cousins. A lot of street guys would drift in, some who never played a minute of organized ball but were great playground players with pedigrees demanding respect. Mark Alcorn from DeSmet was another future D 1 player, a little younger than me, who would at times bring some good STL players down.

"Whose the best here," the new gunslinger would ask?
Come summer, we would move outdoors.  We would gather  early evening at “Old Town” Park, playing until it got dark and then move to Crystal Park in the nicer part of town. Under the lights, we would run off the younger kids and resume “The Game.” We had none of today's options; no organized adult supervision; no AAU, no Summer Camps, only  the outdoor blacktop. We made our own rules.
Before the Spotlight details the 60 year old Drew’s lifelong love affair with basketball. Not the contest played “under the spotlight" by his nearly unbeatable high school juggernaut, but instead the beauty of "the game" Rogers learned “before the spotlight.” Oblivious and detached from the glory heaped upon him as a 18 year old high school star, the tale Rogers weaves so well is how the 1972 Kirkwood Pioneers used a common love for "The Game" to come together as a cohesive unit; overcoming their varied and many backgrounds. It is a compelling story. It is pure sport at its best.

Rogers rhetorically asks, “What is stronger than racism, as enduring as life, addictive enough to grind one’s knees to sawdust and pervasive enough to haunt a middle aged man’s dreams?” His answer is, of course; “The Game.”

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