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.