Getting lost in the crowd has never been an option for Rich Niemann.
That’s the way life is for people who hover above most everyone.
Niemann, a 6-foot-10 center at DuBourg in the early 1960s, went through his share of struggles in his days with the Cavaliers.
“You’re just different,” Niemann, now 65, said of his towering stature. “Blending in is just not possible.”
Niemann, however, had a few things that kept him grounded. One of the most important was basketball.
As a senior during the 1963-64 season, Niemann averaged 25 points to lead DuBourg, a school of almost 2,000 students back then, to the large-schools state championship.
It not only was a big moment for the team’s players, but for the school and its student body. The school newspaper published a special 24-page keepsake, “Red-clad Conquest,” that tells the story of the title run and is filled with photos of cheering students, beaming players, postgame celebrations and championship assemblies.
As for Niemann, the championship season gave him a sense of accomplishment that has stayed with him through the years.
“DuBourg was a life-changing event that gave me the confidence to be what I wanted to be,” he said. “It tempered the feelings of ‘I’m not good at this or that.’”
Niemann went on to play ball in college and in the NBA before settling back in St. Louis. Following stints in both chemical and steel sales, Niemann returned to school, earning a master’s degree and starting a long career as a teacher and coach.
He coached basketball for a few seasons and spent 22 years as the baseball coach at Brentwood. Niemann and his wife, Julie, who works in the financial reporting field, reside in University City.
Today, the boys basketball championships are played at Mizzou Arena in Columbia. Back then, the games alternated between St. Louis and Kansas City, and in 1964 the site was Washington University.
In the semifinals, DuBourg held the ball for the last four minutes before defeating Kansas City Central 43-41 on a last-second layup by Gary Kovarik. The Cavaliers then beat Springfield Parkview 62-52 in the title game. Niemann scored 40 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in the final.
Niemann went on to play at St. Louis University where he teamed with Randy Albrecht, who has coached the St. Louis Community College Archers (formerly the Meramec Magic) for 28 years. Albrecht, still one of Niemann’s close friends, joined the SLU coaching staff when he graduated and worked closely with the Billikens big center late in his career.
At first, when Albrecht was a senior and Neimann a sophomore, they didn’t see much court time.
“We were part of what we called ‘F-Troop’, after the old TV show,” Albrecht said, laughing. “We were the guys that got beat up by the first team in practice all the time.
“Later, I worked with him all the time. I think I passed the ball to Rich Niemann more than any human being.”
Niemann was drafted by the Detroit Pistons and spent three seasons in professional basketball, most of it in the ABA. His best year came with the Carolina Cougars, where he averaged 11.3 points and 8.9 rebounds during the 1969-70 season. Niemann played two more seasons in the ABA, but had left the game by the time the Cougars became the Spirits of St. Louis in 1974.
“That was a fun year for me,” Niemann said. “I would have liked to have stayed a little longer.”
Albrecht said Niemann’s improvement was tremendous.
“He was a real effective center in the pros,” Albrecht said. “I remember when he played against (Kareem Abdul-) Jabbar. The plan was to draw Jabbar away from the basket, so Rich shot a lot from the outside. But Rich ended up going two for 12 against him.
“Rich is a really great person,” Albrecht added. “If everyone was like Rich, there would be no wars.”
As DuBourg teammate and close friend John O’Brien recalls, there was nothing about the gawky freshman who arrived at DuBourg in 1960 that hinted at a future college and pro basketball career.
“You would certainly not look at him and say he was going to be a super athlete,” O’Brien said. “I’m sure that when he was a freshman, there were people snickering. The biggest thing to me was how he worked his butt off to get better.”
By the time he was a junior, Niemann’s game was dramatically improved. He developed a pretty nice touch for a big man.
That came in handy as the Cavaliers, coached by Roger Laux, made their run to the state championship. Starters included Niemann, O’Brien, Kovarik, and 6-foot forwards Jim Eberhardt and Mike McEvoy. The pivotal victory that had the Southside talking was a 57-56 regional win over rival St. Louis U. High, which had beaten the Cavaliers twice during the season.
“The school was caught up in it, and it just kept getting bigger and bigger,” O’Brien said. “The bishop even gave the nuns permission to go to the title game. It became the school’s focus.”
The title contest was broadcast on KMOX radio with “Easy” Ed McCauley and SLU coach John Bennington on the call.
“This was before the advent of the media,” Niemann said. “They would play some of the excerpts over the intercom at school long after we graduated.”
Former DuBourg athletic director Kevin Regan said Niemann still makes it back for alumni contests at the school every season. The next one is coming up in early February.
“He still gets his fair share of points out there,” Regan said. “He’s a very pleasant person who never misses it.”
Niemann said it all came together at the right time and in the right place. Had the title game not been local, it would have been a totally different experience.
“We had a really fortunate situation at Washington University, being reasonably close to where DuBourg was,” Niemann said. “It was different to ask your dad if you could drive to Clayton versus driving to Columbia. It was a special time.
“It all goes back to basketball. It is the core.”