The young man's tale was bizarre, combining elements from the works of two of his distinguished predecessors at the University of Missouri: Tennessee Williams, the playwright, and Mort Walker, the Beetle Bailey cartoonist.
Steve Stipanovich, Missouri's 6'11" junior center, explained to police he was alone in the house on Sunrise Drive in Columbia, Mo. on the evening of Dec. 27, 1980 when a man wearing a ski mask, a red-checked flannel shirt and cowboy boots broke a pane of glass in the front door, entered the house, proceeded to the bedroom at the rear of the residence in which Stipanovich lay reading, began shouting obscenities against basketball players and opened fire with a rifle. Three bullets struck Stipanovich's mattress, after which the intruder picked up a revolver from a table, shot Stipanovich in the left shoulder and fled. Overnight reports of the assault understandably alarmed university officials and Missouri players and their parents, and sent shock waves through the entire state, in which Stipanovich was regarded the archetypal all-American boy.
The next day, however, Stipanovich gave a different account: He had accidentally shot himself. Because the police report of the whole affair was sketchy and because Stipanovich and his family didn't offer further explanation, lunatic rumors began to circulate. Stipanovich was taking and/or dealing drugs. He was sleeping with prostitutes and/or the wife of the athletic director. He was homosexual, depressed, suicidal. He wanted an excuse to get out of practice. He was betting on games and had been the target of an underworld assassin.
In a society permeated by the Watergate syndrome, that Stipanovich changed his story, even if the new version was more plausible, left both accounts open to question. Few people, it seemed, would accept the truth: that Stipanovich simply had come across a pistol he had forgotten about in a closet. He had flipped the gun onto his bed, and upon impact a bullet had been discharged, grazing his shoulder. Then, perhaps feeling the pressure of being a public figure and certainly failing to comprehend the gravity of his act, he had panicked and concocted a lie to avoid embarrassment. When Stipanovich's second story got out, suddenly he was no longer just another star basketball player but a certified weirdo.
In the spring of 1979, after Stipanovich had led DeSmet Jesuit High in suburban St. Louis to a two-year 63-1 record in basketball and its second straight Missouri Class 4A championship, he was linked with Ralph Sampson and Sam Bowie as one of the three finest schoolboy centers in the land. But while Bowie of Kentucky made the U.S. Olympic team in 1980 and Sampson of Virginia was named Player of the Year last season, Stipanovich was only second-team All-Big Eight in each of his first two seasons at Missouri. Still, he has lifted the Tigers to two conference championships. This season, with Sampson and Bowie among the lame, Stipanovich had led Missouri to a 5-0 record through last Sunday and put it in position to become the first Big Eight team in 48 years to win three consecutive Big Eight titles outright.
Unlike Sampson and Bowie, Stipanovich isn't a natural player. Yet back in the summer camps and the high school all-star games in which he competed with and against Sampson, Bowie and other big boys, he often outperformed them. Stipo (pronounced STEE-poe), as his friends call him, has a fairly laughable 28-inch vertical leap—"Six inches better than last year," he says proudly—which means he can get the tap from Herve Villechaize but not from many others. "I can't go up and jump over people like a lot of guys," he says. "I'm the wrong color for that. Right away I saw in those all-star games that people had a lot more talent then I had. I just outworked and outhustled them. I have to work hard. When I don't, I get in bad trouble."
In high school, Stipanovich was a local celebrity, largely because he had little competition. The Cardinals—baseball and football—were barely fluttering. The hockey Blues were a disaster. Ditto St. Louis University basketball. The high school career of this tall, blond athlete with the Serbian surname became one of the most heavily covered sports stories in the city.
First there was Stipanovich's ninth-grade transfer from Chaminade in Creve Coeur to DeSmet, five miles away. Sam Stipanovich, who played at St. Louis U. in the 1950s and now runs his father-in-law's funeral home, wanted his son, Steve, to learn basketball from Rich Grawer, the highly respected coach at DeSmet. Because the highway department was planning to level the Stipanovich house to make way for a new freeway, the family had an excuse to move and for Steve to change schools without losing eligibility. But Chaminade raised holy hell, anyway. At a special hearing before the state high school athletic association, Grawer and DeSmet were exonerated of "recruiting" charges.
Then there was Ted Stipanovich, Steve's older—by 13 months—brother. Ted was a brilliant football player and the state 3A shotput champ. Ted was another reason Steve changed schools. Sam had told Steve he'd never be able to compete with Ted. The boys' rivalry had become fierce, punctuated by, Steve says, "brutal fistfights." By the time Ted was a senior offensive tackle at Chaminade, where he'd remained despite his brother's transfer, he stood 6'5", weighed 240 pounds and was highly recruited by big-time colleges. But Ted said he didn't even like football. He enrolled at Colorado, stayed a few weeks and quit. Sam had quit basketball at St. Louis in his senior year. Do as I say, not as I do. "My dad kicked Ted's ass back there to try again," says Steve.
After Chuck Fairbanks took over as coach at Colorado, Ted grew to hate the game even more. Sam and Steve went to Boulder for Ted's opening game as a sophomore; the day after they left, Ted departed, too, for San Diego, where he moved in with four other former Buffalo football players. "Ted wasn't animal enough to play football," says Sam.
According to Steve, Ted, now married and working at a metals plant in Overland, a St. Louis suburb, didn't realize the importance of staying near the family. "Ted worked his butt off in football," says Steve. "He lifted weights, ate right. He was interested in a healthy body. If he'd gone to Mizzou, he'd be All-America here now."
The Stipanoviches are a close, proud clan. After Sam married Elaine Ortmann, they dropped the "h" from their last name, but when Steve excelled at DeSmet he put the "h" back in. "If I was going to get the publicity, I wanted my name spelled right," he says. "Hell, we have relatives. It's the way the name should be spelled."
At DeSmet Grawer wrote every name coach he could think of, inquiring about methods for teaching a tall center. Then he worked Stipanovich to the bone. Teammates who guarded Stipo in practice used pieces of rolled-up carpet as arm extensions. Grawer had him carry bricks during jumping drills. Eventually Stipanovich made himself into a player, and Grawer made himself a reputation. He has since published a book, Secrets of Winning Post Play Basketball, and is now an assistant at Missouri.
As the usual five trillion colleges came hustling after Stipanovich, Notre Dame's Digger Phelps, perhaps figuring that Stipo couldn't resist being coached by an undertaker's son, hinted that he had Stipanovich "locked up." But Missouri Coach Norm Stewart persuaded Stipo that he should be "united" with his state university. Phelps still is searching for a center at South Bend.
Stewart, a tough, demanding fellow with a wry congeniality, sometimes asks more of the Tigers than they can deliver. However, when Stipo was a freshman, Stewart asked only that Stipanovich be "comfortable." A good season (25-6) resulted with Stipanovich epitomizing the Missouri team, which was smart, patient, defensively hungry, with an exquisite passing sense and the ability to recognize its limitations and never overextend. Stipanovich shot .598 from the field, averaged 14.4 points and 6.4 rebounds a game and contributed particularly strong efforts against Kansas (a career-high 29 points) and in Missouri's second-round upset of—dig?—Notre Dame (15 points, eight rebounds) in the NCAAs. The Tigers began the tournament by beating San Jose State; they lost in the Midwest Region semifinals to LSU.
Stipanovich provided instant credibility to Missouri basketball. Attendance at Hearnes Center increased by 2,836 a game in his freshman season, the largest rise in the country. Moreover, other Big Eight schools imported a passel of huge beefeaters to combat him on the boards. The most prominent were Kansas' massive 6'9" Victor (The Fat) Mitchell, who has since ballooned to the size of a blimp and drifted away from school, but not before one P.A. announcer read off his stats as "Mitchell—eight points, six rebounds, four orders of fries," and Oklahoma's 6'10", 250-pound Charles (Big Time) Jones, who as a redshirt last year was caught sleeping behind the bench during a game and was renamed "Bed Time." Already this season Sooner Coach Billy Tubbs has screamed "Time!" (for time out), only to watch Jones's teammates, thinking his name had been called, look for him to shoot.
Stipo fit right in with the crowd. "My body was a mess," he says. "I've always drunk a lot of beer and gorged on greasy junk food, and I was never strong or aggressive." Quick leapers, especially, took advantage of his granite Converses. He had only 15 blocked shots as a freshman.
Sometimes Stipo appeared to be one long sweat gland, the water pouring from his face and shoulders and soaking his sneakers. During many games he had to change uniforms and shoes. Against San Jose State in the '80 NCAAs, he hyperventilated and missed the second half.
The summer after his freshman year, Stipanovich took an extended vacation. He passed up the Olympic Trials, lay on the beach in California and wallowed in the suds. "That was stupid," he says. "I screwed myself up for a long time."
Twenty-five pounds overweight, at 265, out of shape and not caring, in the fall Stipanovich moved into a dilapidated house in a crummy neighborhood with five buddies, much against Stewart's wishes. "It wasn't the right atmosphere, and I never studied," says Stipo. "I was more interested in having a good time than having a good basketball team."
About the same time, a lot of other things on the Missouri team began going wrong. Mark Dressler, Stipo's high school teammate and the Tigers' valued sixth man, injured a knee and was lost for the season. An acclaimed freshman, Richie Johnson, transferred to Evansville. Backup Center Lex Drum left for Alabama-Birmingham. The Tigers lacked chemistry and desperately missed Guard Larry Drew, who, as a senior the previous year, had spread the defenses and delivered the ball inside to Stipanovich.
In December, Stipo learned that another close DeSmet pal, Mark Alcorn, a guard at LSU, had cancer. At a tournament in Atlanta, Stipanovich came up empty on the backboards against Florida State. Zero. Soon afterward, Tiger forwards Ricky Frazier and Curtis Berry began feuding, and eventually stopped speaking to each other. Stipanovich would exchange blows with the sulking Berry in practice. "I'm surprised he fought back," says Stipo. "He hadn't been that active all year."
It was amid such goings-on that Stipanovich lay in the run-down house two days after Christmas. "I was rummaging in the closet, and there was the gun," he says. "Why was it there? We'd had a wild party after a football game, and some crazed drunk was going to shoot himself, so somebody took it away from him. We'd all forgotten about it. I turned the gun over and tossed it on the bed. It went off. The bullet hit my shoulder, nicking off some skin. Another millimeter and it misses me completely. It was real scary, very embarrassing. I just panicked. I wanted a way out without making myself look bad. I thought people would forget about it. Everything just backfired."
Because of the decaying neighborhood, because Drum had reported telephone death threats against him and because of the incomplete and ambiguous statements by the police, Stipanovich wasn't fully believed. The story made headlines in Missouri for more than a week. "I wanted the hostages to come home from Iran just to get Steve off the front pages," says his mother, Elaine.
"After it happened, I wasn't about to explain anymore," says Stipo. "I had a lot of hatred for people and life in general. I went berserk and beat up a high school kid in a White Castle in St. Louis for mouthing off. My mind was just not right. Sure I was depressed about not playing well. But suicidal? Basketball isn't that important."
After three days in seclusion, Stipanovich returned to action in the most pleasant environment possible—at Oral Roberts. Nobody exploded popguns or flashed WHO SHOT STIPO? WHO SHOT STUPO? signs, as fans later would at Kansas and Kansas State. Nobody wore bandages with fake blood gushing out, as spectators would at Colorado and Oklahoma. And, of course, Stipanovich didn't have to face the Big Eight's most rabid partisans, Mizzou's own Antlers, who, besides heckling, hand-deliver sardine pizzas to the opposing players and once suspended the brother of an Oklahoma player over the Hearnes Center railing and screamed, "Cary Carrabine, we have your brother!"
The pressure got to Stipo at Iowa State where he intentionally pounded Cyclone Guard Lefty Moore on top of his head with the ball on an outlet pass. Fuming Iowa State Coach Johnny Orr received two technical fouls, but Stipanovich wasn't called for anything. "I think the ref felt sorry for me," he says. Pulling himself together, Stipo then averaged 12 rebounds in one six-game stretch and finished with a 12.7 scoring average as Mizzou won its second-straight league title.
In the NCAA tournament, the Tigers came a cropper against Lamar, which they had beaten by 22 during the regular season, after Stewart had caught several players, including Stipanovich, with beer in their rooms the night before. The enraged Stewart barely spoke to the team and, during the first half against Lamar, left virtually all the coaching to an assistant. "It made us feel like, well, why did we want to win at all?" says Stipo. "I mean, I didn't throw up on my dress or anything. But basically I hated myself for screwing up. We should have been much better, and I didn't care. I was waiting for the season to end. After Lamar, you could say I went out and celebrated."
Over the summer, Stipanovich once again worked as he had in his high school days. He came back to Columbia with a new look, a new attitude and a new diet devoid of sugar, preservatives and alcohol. A nutritionist tested Stipanovich's strength and proved to Stipo that he was a weakling and hadn't skimmed the surface of his potential. Now Stipanovich talks of health and body toxicity and muscle balance. "I'm stronger than I've ever been," he says. "I feel 100 percent better. My leg muscles and adrenal glands are working properly for the first time. My body's cleaned out of all that junk. I won't be one of the boys anymore and go downtown for some beers. I'm mature enough to know I have to sacrifice to see how good I can be."
Back home in St. Louis last week, Stipanovich was plenty good enough. He passed well, defended the hole and played within himself and the team concept while getting 12 points and 12 rebounds against an old nemesis, powerful Illinois, as Missouri won 78-68 in overtime. Four nights later in Columbia his numbers were only eight points, but 13 rebounds, in a 70-51 defeat of Baylor. And with each win, it seems, Stipo's bizarre shots of last year become more a thing of the past.
In last week's overtime victory over Illinois, Stipanovich had 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Stipo's folks, who live above their mortuary, didn't help bury doubts about his veracity.
Grawer followed his protègè to Missouri.