For years St. Louis has been a city where the two favorite wintertime sports were 1) NHL hockey and 2) talking about how the Cardinals will do next summer. But suddenly the Gateway City has gone cuckoo over Spoonball, the name given the heady basketball being played by St. Louis University under coach Charlie Spoonhour. The 17th-ranked Billikens finished last week with a 19-2 record, but before losing 82-77 in overtime at Dayton on Sunday, they had the best record in Division I, despite the fact that they don't possess a starter taller than 6'8" and have a grand total of four dunks this season. Why, heck, unless Spoonball becomes Swoonball down the stretch, St. Louis appears to be a cinch to get its first NCAA tournament bid since 1957.
And there are other good reasons to be crazy about the Billikens. Here's a team that's playing its final season in drafty, old St. Louis Arena, where birds live in the rafters and cats have been brought in to curb the mouse population, yet which still draws near-capacity crowds of more than 16,000 for most games. The power forward is a 6'3", 230-pound Charles Barkley wannabe, the top scorer is a serious NBA prospect whose high-trajectory three-point delivery seems to have been inspired by the Gateway Arch, and the point guard is a UNLV refugee whose first name, H, isn't really a name at all.
And then there's Spoonhour, the white-haired, 54-year-old coaching lifer who became a sort of underground legend in his nine highly successful seasons at Southwest Missouri State. For years Larry Brown—he's with the Indiana Pacers now, isn't he?—has been telling anybody who would listen that Spoonhour can hold his own with any coach in the college game. At times Spoon makes you think that he loves the Cardinals and '50s rock-and-roll almost as much as he does his dunkless wonders, but don't let him fool you. He's crazy about his Billikens. "We're the ugliest 19-1 team I've ever seen," said Spoonhour after the Billikens defeated Iowa State 90-75 on Feb. 9. "I mean, dang, we're something pretty special."
There was a time when St. Louis was pretty special almost every year. Under coach Eddie Hickey, the Billikens were a national power back in the late 1940s and '50s. They rode Easy Ed Macauley's sweeping hook shot to the '48 NIT title, and the '57 team, which was built around Bob Ferry (father of the Cleveland Cavaliers' Danny), won the Missouri Valley championship to get into the NCAA field, where it lost to Oklahoma City in the second round.
But then St. Louis began a long downhill slide that bottomed out in the late 1970s, and the university, a private Catholic school run by Jesuits, faced a tough economic choice: Either basketball or hockey would have to go. Basketball survived, and in the '80s Rich Grawer rebuilt the Billikens, who didn't have a losing record for six straight seasons, from '85-86 through '90-91, while playing in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. "When Rich Grawer came in, St. Louis was really down," Spoonhour says. "He turned it into a very reputable program."
In 1990 the university hired Debbie Yow as its athletic director. She had been a successful women's basketball coach at Kentucky, Oral Roberts and Florida, and is as gung ho as Grawer is dour, so it was hardly surprising that they locked horns over what direction the Billikens should take. Their most serious disagreement was over whether St. Louis would be able to compete in the newly formed Great Midwest Conference. Yow pledged to increase resources for basketball, but Grawer remained skeptical to the point that Yow felt her ability to lead was being undermined. After the Billikens went 5-23 in 1991-92, the first year of the Great Midwest, Grawer and St. Louis parted company. Three starters had quit during that season, and attendance had dropped to around 7,000 per game.
Under fire from Grawer's supporters, who assumed St. Louis couldn't attract anyone better than their man, Yow went after Spoonhour, who had quietly put up a 197-81 record in nine seasons at Southwest Missouri, including a 7-1 record against St. Louis. At first the skeptics scoffed at Yow's wooing of Spoonhour, reasoning that since Spoonhour had turned down more attractive offers—in 1988 the Kansas job was his for the taking—why would he want to come to St. Louis? But where other people saw trouble, Spoonhour saw opportunity.
"I had talked to other schools over the years, but nothing seemed right at the time," Spoonhour says. "I've never had a big master plan. But Debbie convinced me that there was a commitment to try to compete and be a team in the top 30 or 40, which would give us a chance to get some bigger kids. Plus, the league makes this job attractive right now. The coaches get along, and we get to play in great arenas. The league is great." Indeed, the underrated Great Midwest could conceivably send five teams (Alabama-Birmingham, Cincinnati, DePaul and Marquette as well as St. Louis) to the NCAA tournament in March.
The Billikens were 12-17 in their first season as Spoonball U, 1992-93, not bad for a team that went through the season' with only eight scholarship players. The starters had to play so many minutes that they were exhausted at crunch time. Once the Billikens were on the brink of an upset of DePaul, only to lose when Erwin Claggett, their star guard, dribbled a ball off his foot in the closing seconds because he was so tired.
But with all those minutes last season came valuable experience for this year. And while they may not be flashy, the Billikens are well grounded in the game's fundamentals, a Spoonhour trademark.
It's just too bad for the media that the Billikens' leading scorer and best player, Claggett, doesn't have a personality more like that of junior guard H Waldman, the slick-passing transfer from UNLV, or that of senior Donnie Dobbs, the power forward who wears Charles Barkley's number, 34, and tries to emulate the swaggering style of the Phoenix Suns' star. Then Claggett might says things like, "I even amaze myself sometimes," which is what Dobbs said when asked how he is able to hold his own under the boards. Or he might elicit from Spoonhour the kind of comment the coach made about Waldman's passes, which represent the non-dunking Billikens' best shot for a clip on the highlight shows. "H Waldman has a multitude of ideas," Spoonhour says, "some of which I even enjoy." It also would be nice if Claggett had an unusual hobby like that of junior forward Donnie Campbell, who is an amateur magician.
Alas, Claggett's style is more like that of 6'8" center Evan Pedersen, a serious-minded Mormon who transferred from Northwestern, or that of 6'5" junior forward Scott Highmark, a devout Christian whose role is to do whatever it takes on a given night to help St. Louis win. "Clagg's real quiet and shy," says Highmark. "He stays in with his girlfriend and doesn't go out a lot. I call him Mama's Boy because he's real passionate about his family."
Claggett went to high school in Venice, Ill. (thus his nickname, the Venice Menace), which is about 10 miles from St. Louis. He picked the Billikens over Colorado, Iowa State and Wake Forest in large part so that the three strong women who raised him could easily come see him play. He was so upset when his grandmother Louise Anderson—whom Erwin called Ma Dear—died in the summer of 1992 that he considered giving up basketball. When his aunt Ruby Berry died in February 1993, Claggett skipped the Billikens' game at UAB to attend the funeral. That leaves his mother, Anna, as his No. 1 booster. "I have the best mom in the world," Claggett says.
Already the most prolific three-point shooter in Billiken history, Claggett this year is converting better than 45% from beyond the stripe with his rainbow jumper. When he's cold or when defenses double-team him, he tries to get the ball inside to Dobbs, who's a bit like Barkley in his ability to use his wide body to gain position.
Dobbs leads St. Louis in dunks. With two. "We don't have to dunk because we've got such great outside shooters," he says. "But we can dunk if we get the opportunity. I had one against DePaul that I thought was pretty sweet myself."
Still, much of the credit for the Billikens' success must go to Spoonhour. And let's put to rest the rumor that he took the St. Louis job only so he could be close to the Cardinals. Not so, even though St. Louis baseball has been the love of his life since he was a kid growing up in Rogers, Ark., during the 1940s. "My dad was a meat cutter by day who tried to write music at night, and my mom loved sports," Spoonhour says. "All you had back then was listening to the Cardinals on KMOX. The first family vacation we took, in 1951, we came to St. Louis and watched six Cardinal games."
In the winter Charlie's mom, Irma, followed Henry Iba's Oklahoma A&M basketball teams, so early in Charlie's coaching career, when he was working his way up through the high school and junior college ranks, he was thrilled when he became a friend of Moe Iba's, one of Henry's coaching sons. That subsequently led to friendship with the elder Iba, who died last year at the age of 88. All through his coaching career Spoonhour has used Henry's motion, ball-control offense and aggressive man-to-man defense.
In his office at St. Louis, Spoonhour has three clusters of photos, each dedicated to his lifelong passions. Over here is the coaching cluster, dominated by photos of the Ibas. Over there is the baseball cluster, which mainly features Whitey Herzog, Ozzie Smith and various other Cardinals past and present. And then there's the music cluster, in which Willie Nelson is most prominent. Spoon loves old '50s tunes so much that when he was at Southwest Missouri, he was thrilled to learn that the head of the school's marketing department was none other than the immortal Robin Luke, whose recording of Susie Darlin' had been a big hit in 1958.
The fans in St. Louis love the way Spoonhour loves the Cardinals. He tapes his weekly TV show in the downtown restaurant owned by Mike Shannon, a former Cardinal star and the team's current radio analyst, and his guests so far have included Shannon, Smith, Cardinal broadcaster Jack Buck, outfielder Bernard Gilkey and manager Joe Torre. (This is a basketball show, right?)
Nothing would thrill Spoonhour more than to make the NCAA tournament field this season and get assigned to the Southeast Region's first-round site in St. Petersburg, Fla., home of the Cardinals' spring training camp. Noting that the Cardinals' biggest problem last season was an error-plagued defense, Torre put an arm around Spoon recently and said to him, "Charlie, you really got to get into that end of the draw so you can coach your team at night and then come out and help me talk to our team about the value of no turnovers."
In their five regular-season games after Sunday's loss to Dayton, the Billikens must play Cincinnati and UAB twice each. Waldman, who gained some insight—and cynicism—about the NCAA during his two years under Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV, isn't taking anything for granted. "Who knows about the NCAA?" Waldman says. "Who knows what they'll do if it comes down to us and some established program?"
Even so, the players are beginning to feel their oats and have even started to speculate about the tournament a bit. "I'd like to play somebody from the ACC or the Big East," Claggett says. "They get a lot of recognition even if they're not any good."
"Yeah, and you can throw the Big Ten in there too," says Dobbs. "I like a physical game, like they play in the Big Ten. I've been playing that way all my life. Man, I'd love to play in the Big Ten because the officials let you play."
Barring a late-season collapse, surely there will be a place for the Billikens somewhere in the NCAA draw. And if the tournament committee just happens to Spoon-feed the Billikens a first-round game against a team from the Big East or the Big Ten in St. Petersburg, well, who knows? The kids from Spoonball U might get so jacked up that, outrageous as it may sound, a dunk wouldn't be completely out of the question.