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Marty Biegel dies at 90; former Fairfax High basketball coach

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Marty Biegel, who took over as Fairfax High School's head basketball coach in 1969 at a time of racial tension in Los Angeles and united players and students both in the classroom and on the court, died Tuesday. He was 90.

Biegel, who taught history in Los Angeles schools for more than 30 years, died at an assisted-living facility in Los Angeles. His death was confirmed by the Los Angeles County coroner's office.

When the pint-size Biegel became the varsity basketball coach, Fairfax High was a mostly white, Jewish school near Hollywood that was strong in academics, not sports.

But his program benefited from a redrawing of boundaries in 1968 that allowed African American students living south of Pico Boulevard to attend the school at Melrose and Fairfax avenues.

Within four years, the number of African American students grew from 35 to 1,000. In the gym, the Orthodox Jewish coach would gaze heavenward as he celebrated his new African American athletes, players who could go to the basket with either hand and leap high above the rim.

"We're winners! We can take anybody!" he would crow, according to a 2008 Times article.

His Fairfax Lions won four straight East Valley championships, a school record. Fairfax was one of the few city schools to achieve racial balance on its own without a court order, and the team's on-court triumphs became a unifying symbol of change.

After the colorful Biegel berated a referee, he was replaced as the coach in 1975. He returned to coaching at Fairfax in 1979 for two more seasons and won another league championship.

Although his teams never won a city championship, he established a winning tradition.

"Give him credit," former UCLA coach John Wooden told The Times in 2008. "He knew you don't win games just with talent. You have to bring people together."

The youngest of four children, he was born Morris Julius Biegel on Feb. 11, 1922, in New York City. He attended the University of Colorado on a baseball scholarship but left to join the Marine Corps during World War II.

"Marty always wanted to be different," his sister, Ruth Herman, told The Times four years ago. "So he took his own course in life. He rooted for the Chicago Cubs while he lived in New York City. Who does that?"

Biegel graduated from Hunter College in New York City in 1951 and, after marrying his high school sweetheart, moved to California and began teaching in 1955.

At Fairfax, he was a popular history teacher. "The work was demanding, and you didn't want to let him down," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a former student, said in 2008.

Biegel also coached basketball at the Westside Community Jewish Center and worked his way up from refereeing high school and college basketball games to the NBA.

He left teaching behind in 1983 and held a variety of part-time basketball coaching positions, including at Malibu High School and at Los Angeles' Shalhevet High. He also coached baseball at North Hollywood High before retiring in 1997.

Steve Miller, who succeeded Biegel as the coach at Fairfax in 1976, recalled meeting him. "He squeezed my cheek and said, 'Bubala,' like he knew me for 100 years," Miller said Wednesday. "He was a great man."

In 1990, Biegel was inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

The front-page feature in The Times about his Fairfax years ran in 2008 beneath the headline, "On Court and Off, He Made Them Winners." At a reunion lunch at Canter's Deli with former players, the once-fiery basketball coach told them: "You gave me the very best years of my life."

His wife, Helen, died in 1985. Survivors include a son, Stuart; and a daughter, Elena Bazes.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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