Before he ever donned a Missouri basketball jersey, Steve Stipanovich had plenty of fanfare around him.
The St. Louis native was one of the top five prospects nationally in the Class of 1979 and was recruited by schools from around the country.
The 6-foot-11 Stipanovich’s visits were to Missouri, Notre Dame, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke and UCLA.
The high level of interest in the standout came not only because of his natural athleticism but from his winning reputation. During his junior and senior years at De Smet, he led the Spartans to back-to-back state championships and a 63-game winning streak.
Stipanovich eventually committed to Missouri and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated alongside Ralph Sampson and Sam Bowie, a trio the publication named as the country’s best prep basketball centers.
His winning ways continued inside the Hearnes Center as Stipanovich, Blue Springs High School graduate Jon Sundvold, head coach Norm Stewart and Co. went 100-30 in his four seasons in Columbia, winning four Big Eight Conference titles.
“One of the, if not the best, big man to ever play at Missouri,” Stewart said of Stipanovich. “He is one of the great players, not just on size, that ever played in the state of Missouri as a high school player. ... He was a very good team player. He didn't have to score 40 points for us to win and he’d make passes. He knew the game and he was tremendous defensively because he had size and strength also on the inside, and late in the ballgames, everybody else could play their man knowing that he was behind them.”
When Stipanovich arrived at MU, Larry Drew was a senior. Some of Stipanovich’s favorite memories as a Tiger came during his freshman year.
He remembers winning the Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois in Champaign late in 1979 as well as defeating a top-five Notre Dame team with Kelly Tripucka and Orlando Woolridge in the NCAA Tournament.
“I just played hard every day,” Stipanovich said of his time at Missouri. “I was very coachable. I did everything the coaches told me to do. And I thought that between my junior and senior year I made a big jump in my level of play and had a pretty good senior year, which set up nicely for being a higher pick in the draft. But I think if you talk to my teammates and my coaches, I think they would say pretty fun things about us.”
Stipanovich’s senior year was his most productive for the Tigers and started off with a win over Michael Jordan and North Carolina at the Checkerdome in St. Louis, 11 miles from where he played high school basketball.
He earned both CBS and NBC’s national player of the year honors. Sundvold and Stipanovich earned All-American honors in 1982-83, the only time after the 1920s that MU teammates have accomplished that in the same season.
The Tigers advanced to the NCAA Tournament all four seasons Stipanovich was at Missouri but never made it past the Sweet 16. His final collegiate game was a 14-point upset loss to Iowa in the Round of 32 of the 1983 tournament.
“We had higher hopes for the tournament, we didn't do well that tournament,” Stipanovich said. “But then you focus on the NBA, I was done at Mizzou. ... Going up to the draft, you kind of hear things, and the closer you get to the draft, you start being told where you are going to fall into the draft. I was going to be a very high draft pick.”
Those predictions were correct as Stipanovich was selected second overall in the 1983 NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers, behind only Sampson. Sundvold was selected 16th overall by the SuperSonics.
Stipanovich played for only five seasons with Indiana before retiring from basketball. He finished with 5,323 points and 3,131 rebounds as a Pacer.
“I was never really interested in pursuing a career coaching,” Stipanovich said. “I had opportunities to go the front office aspect of pro sports, pro basketball, but I just decided to step away and do some other things.”
Stipanovich is now 59 years old and lives in St. Louis. He’s got six kids (five daughters and a son) and three grandchildren.
He’s been in the industrial equipment industry for many years, where he helps buy and sell industrial parts.
Stipanovich was inducted into the MU athletics Hall of Fame in 1990 and had his No. 40 retired by the men’s basketball team.
Nearly 40 years after his last game as a Tiger, his legacy is still intact in Columbia.
“He’s the cream of the crop and also a great individual,” Stewart said of Stipanovich. “He’s got a wonderful family now.”