Illustration: Sam Woolley (GMG)

The streak wasn’t mentioned much. Sure, everyone wearing a purple Eutectics hoodie on campus knew that the St. Louis College of Pharmacy men’s basketball team hadn’t won a game in four years—that sort of ineptitude earns a modicum of notoriety—but future pharmacists don’t generally spend upwards of $35,000 a year to pay much attention to a sports team.

But thanks to an aggressive advertising campaign orchestrated by the school’s athletic department for this upcoming season, 200 fans attended STLCOP’s home game versus Lindenwood University-Belleville last month, and those fans witnessed history: College basketball’s longest losing streak is over, a 77-66 win that culminated in a dunk, confetti, and the most earned court-storming of all time.

When I wrote about STLCOP’s streak toward the end of last season, the team was stuck at 100 straight losses. The future wasn’t entirely grim, but coach Danny Brown was in the midst of a multi-season rebuild, one that had the potential of outlasting his tenure at the school. While he still stressed job placement—Brown likes to brag that other than Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari, he is the nation’s only college basketball coach who can promise a $125,000 signing bonus post-graduation—he underscored his conversations with messages about changing history.

One of those recruits Brown targeted was RJ Wright. As a child, Wright dreamed of becoming a doctor or dentist. “I’ve always wanted to help people,” he says. But when he was 15, he realized he fainted whenever he saw blood. The St. Louis native was still interested in healthcare, though, and a summer spent at a local college’s pharmacy camp—where he mixed his first batch of calamine lotion—convinced the then–high school sophomore to attend a pharmacy college. “I wanted to be a part of something different,” he says.

Advertisement

Wright’s friends didn’t understand his thought process. After all, Wright, who stands 6-foot-2, was a starting guard for Webster Groves, a high school that had won back-to-back Missouri state championships (Wright scored 16 points in the 2018 title game). But Wright explains that he has always believed in the big picture: “Life is more than just basketball, and [my teammates] didn’t see that route.” Which is why he enrolled this fall at St. Louis College of Pharmacy, intending to graduate within six years and become a pharmacist—and yes, play for an NAIA team that, by the time he stepped on the court for the Eutectics’ 2018–19 season opener versus Central Christian College, hadn’t won a game in four years.

When Brown recruited Wright and his seven fellow freshmen teammates, he chose his words carefully. “He didn’t want to publicize the streak,” Wright recalls of his recruitment. Instead it was about how to “change the culture.”

According to Dalton Shust, a 6-foot-8 freshman who says he’s studying to “do something in medicine,” the team’s three-digit consecutive loss streak was the “elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about.”

Advertisement

Through this season’s first seven games, though, the losing culture remained intact. As with last year, Brown’s first full season as head coach, several games were close: a nine-point loss to Lincoln Christian; an eight-point loss to Columbia College, a team then ranked eighth in the NAIA’s Division I national poll. “We go into every game thinking we’re going to win,” Brown says.

And that was the team’s mindset entering the school’s recently opened $50 million gym in late November, fresh off a 24-point loss to Hannibal-LaGrange University (which Brown referred to as “laying an egg”), to play Lindenwood-Belleville. Down five at halftime and outfitted in new uniforms—the team swapped its customary gaudy gold jerseys for more refined home whites with yellow lettering and purple trim—Brown repeated what has become his mantra since accepting the job in January 2017: This is all on us. “[I]f we stay together and do our jobs, we have all we need,” Wright recalls Brown saying.

Wright remembered that mantra as he snatched a long LBU carom, raced down the court past two defenders and, just past the free throw line, slammed down a tomahawk dunk. He landed, fists balled, and screamed—it was his 27th point of the night, and STLCOP, a team that hadn’t won in 107 games, led by 11 points with nine seconds remaining.

Advertisement

The squad had been in a not-dissimilar position a season ago, only to lose anyway—“something crazy always happened at the end,” Wright says—but once freshman Devon Howard grabbed the rebound of LBU’s final shot, the Eutectics were on a one-game winning streak.

The team expected the 200 fans in attendance would storm the court. What they didn’t expect were the confetti cannons, which athletic director Jill Harper secretly ordered prior to the season for just this moment, and began distributing through the bleachers in the game’s final minutes: “I didn’t know about that,” says Brown, “but I guess someone believed we would win this year.”

Advertisement

When Brown reached the team’s locker room and checked his iPhone, he had 85 text messages. News spread quickly, and that was before a clip of the celebration had aired on the midnight edition of SportsCenter. The joy and resulting glow was brief—by the next morning, STLCOP had less than 48 hours to prepare to play Harris-Stowe University. “Winning a game was our goal, and any time we accomplish a goal, it’s a success, but our goal is also to overachieve, so if we are only meant to win one game, we’ll try to win two.” Brown said.

This may the most athletic squad STLCOP has fielded in at least a decade, but installing a winning culture after 108 losses is still very much a work in progress. Playing their third game in five days, the Eutectics lost by 24; Brown said they just “ran out of gas.” In past years, maybe that malaise would’ve carry into the next game, and the next. But this season, and this team, is different: STLCOP won again, defeating Lincoln Christian 90-85. When I ask about the impact of winning two games in the span of a week, Wright says, “It proved to me if we keep playing as team, we are capable of winning more games.”

“But,” he adds, “personally, I felt it was just another win.”

Which explains why STLCOP is sui generis. For years, the streak was omnipresent, clouding all future promise, but now that the albatross has been dispatched, the Eutectics essentially have a clean slate. Brown doesn’t have to skirt around the “elephant in the room,” and potential recruits and current players can envision building off this season’s accomplishments rather than being part of the wrong kind of history. That feeling of accomplishment feeds team building, which forever eluded former coach Brian Swift, with whom the streak began. Before Swift arrived at STLCOP for the 2005-06 season, the team never practiced during the season, and while STLCOP started to function less like a club team when he took over, the primary focus was still never on hoops.

Advertisement

Specifically, Swift says, “I couldn’t bring in a basketball player and make him a pharmacist. I had to recruit pharmacists who liked to play basketball as a way to distract themselves from studying. My kids were kids that no one else recruited, but my job wasn’t to make them NBA players. My goal was to make sure every kid that played for me became a pharmacist.”

But a change this past year in STLCOP’s admission guidelines afforded Brown much more leeway than his predecessor: The school began to offer more varied paths to healthcare careers, relaxing what had been strictly a pharmacy school. Coupled with the expansion of financial aid parameters—a student-athlete who scores a 27 or higher on the ACT can now receive both athletic and academic funding (previously, Swift had just $16,900 to dole out among his entire squad)—and STLCOP began to envision not just sloughing off the streak, but casting itself as the Vanderbilt or Saint Louis of the NAIA: a school of high academic and athletic repute. Which, then, enables Brown to recruit players that “aren’t at our level. We want kids who could play at a higher level, but are willing to take advantage of the opportunity we’re offering them.”

The process has already begun, even with a 2-11 record. According to Synergy Sports, the Eutectics have scored .82 points per halfcourt play, up from .74 PPP a season ago, which translates to about four more points per game (accounting for the squad’s increased possessions per game—roughly 79). Nearly half of the team’s plays are in transition or spot-up jump shots, and the squad scores .99 PPP, which ranks amongst the top third of the NAIA. “We use everyone equally on offense this year,” says Brown. “We teach guys simple basketball, and then let them make the decision of how to attack the defense.”

Advertisement

Most impressive is that STLCOP has accomplished this renaissance without Jordan Anderson and Anthony Vallejo, its two best players from 2018. The latter is recovering from a lingering back injury, while the former redshirted, a decision that represents an investment in the future. “I’m pretty excited about how good we’ll be next season,” Anderson says.

Anderson was on the bench during the program-defining win against Lindenwood-Belleville. I ask him whether he was disappointed that he wasn’t in uniform as the confetti fell, but he demurs: “I wanted just to get a win, and that’s what they did.”

When Brown arrived home that night, his wife and daughters surprised him with homemade confetti and sparkling grape juice. After several hugs and kisses, Brown put his children to bed, having stayed up well past their normal 9:30 bedtime. Meanwhile, Wright, the team’s leading scorer, was back at study hall. He had a calculus test the next day, and he wasn’t totally comfortable with the information yet. “Some people celebrated, some got dinner, but coming from the game, I had a good focus level,” he says. “It felt right to study at that time, just keep looking ahead.”

Advertisement


Matt Giles is a writer for Longreads, and he also freelances for several other publications, including the New York Times, New York magazine, the Washington Post, Bleacher Report, and FiveThirtyEight.