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.