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Go West, Young Man

Mizzou lures a black trailblazer from St. Louis.

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Quin Snyder rides the Hearnes Center elevator to court level and walks briskly toward the bouncing basketballs and squeaking Nikes. He's ready to watch the boys' 4A state high-school championship basketball game between St. Louis rivals Vashon and DeSmet. More important, he wants to watch Jimmy.

That's Jimmy McKinney, Vashon's 6-foot-3-inch senior guard. University of Missouri fans are going to write songs about Jimmy, name their babies after Jimmy, go to Final Four tournaments with Jimmy.

"Signing McKinney is absolutely huge," gushes Scott Welman, a Kansas City attorney and die-hard MU alum. "In my mind, we're getting another Anthony Peeler [the NBA star from Paseo High and Mizzou]. Now that we've signed the best player in the state, this helps us compete for the best players out of state -- something we've never been able to do. Norm [Stewart] couldn't get a connection or ingrain himself with St. Louis coaches. Quin has done that, and this will help us stay on top."

Jimmy is the first African-American player out of St. Louis' inner-city high schools to sign with Mizzou in more than thirty years. According to rival coach Bob Steiner of DeSmet, McKinney is also one of the finest players of the same period. "Jimmy McKinney is the best player to come out of the St. Louis area since JoJo White," Steiner says.

JoJo White was an All-American guard at the University of Kansas in the mid 1960s. He helped the U.S. team win an Olympic gold medal in Mexico City in 1968 and was a seven-time All-Star for the Boston Celtics.

Despite Mizzou's three impressive victories in this year's NCAA Tournament, Snyder's MU teams have mostly disappointed. They have finished sixth in the Big 12 Conference three straight years and have rarely played up to their talent.

Snyder isn't the only MU Tiger in the Hearnes Center watching Jimmy. Just to the right of the east basket sit several members of the MU basketball team. "They're excited to watch their future teammate play," Snyder says. Kareem Rush, Arthur Johnson, Travon Bryant, Josh Kroenke and other players have given up a portion of their Saturday night to come see Jimmy do his thing.

Rush watches McKinney and his Vashon teammates destroy DeSmet 82-27 for the largest-ever margin of victory in a 4A championship game. "We're here to show our support for him," explains Rush. When asked how it feels to have such a star-studded audience attend his final high school game, McKinney smiles and laughs. "They've got to support me," McKinney says. "I'm going to be their teammate next year." After a slow start, McKinney almost outscores DeSmet by pouring in 26 points from almost every spot on the floor. His performance is sensational.

Floyd Irons has coached at Vashon for 29 years. The black coach was fiercely critical of Mizzou in the early and mid-1990s, after a ten-year period during which observers said only two African-American basketball players graduated from the university. Over the years, Irons discouraged black families from sending their high-school graduates to Tiger country, once telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "It can be rough in Boone County for African-American kids, and Norm will have to change that unless he wants the fingers pointed at him."

Now Irons makes little of the dispute. "I don't see Jimmy as some sort of Jackie Robinson," huffs Irons. "I don't see Jimmy as a pioneer." Irons then turns to McKinney. "Do you think you're a pioneer, Jimmy?" Jimmy looks his coach in the eye and then lets out a low, "Awww, no."

Don't believe it. Jimmy might be the most important pioneer to head west from the Gateway City since Lewis went for a hike with Clark.

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