Two dozen cheerleaders whipped up excitement in the packed gym but Poly High School still struggled toward a half-time tie with Compton, and the glorious past seemed much further removed than a year.
The stars were gone, as was the school's latest version of John Wooden, and fans who had stomached six losses in 14 games were wondering if tradition was on the verge of leaving too.
Chris Sandle . . . Terry Stallworth . . . Morlon Wiley, the standouts of last season's nearly invincible state champions, and Ron Palmer, the coach who left after 11 years and a 271-50 record, were memories.
Now the job of carrying on longtime basketball excellence belonged to mostly untested players and a new coach, Chris Kinder, who used to be a shortstop, not a point guard.
Kinder didn't look much older than his players, and he was a lot shorter. He dressed like a coach, though, with a blazer he wore until he got down to business in the second half. Then he was on them, pressing them to squelch the rumors that this could be the season of poor, poor pitiful Poly.
Suddenly, in the third quarter, the Jackrabbits sidestepped the doubters. The defense was aggressive and intimidating, the shooting sharp, the rebounding ferocious.
Senior center Vincent Camper drove around a Compton defender and jammed the ball through the basket, sending the crowd into ecstasy, a state it stayed in when Camper raced back down the court, leaped to block a shot and whipped a pass to set up another basket.
Forward Chris Roscoe then dove to the floor for the ball and bounced up to score.
"What an athlete," blurted Kinder, his face red and his voice seemingly headed for hoarseness.
In moments, the Jackrabbits had forged a 38-25 lead and demonstrated that they are still a force in high school basketball.
With 36 seconds left in the 58-42 Moore League victory, Kinder walked the length of the bench, shaking hands with each of his players.
His team, he said afterward, is just where he wants it to be.
"Well, it's got some history in it," Kinder said as he sat in his office the afternoon after the Compton game. Photos of champion Poly teams adorned the brick walls.
No stranger to the Poly tradition, Kinder was Palmer's assistant and the junior varsity coach for three years.
Kinder, 32, grew up as a baseball player. He played shortstop at Millikan High, Long Beach City College, UCLA and for a season in the minor leagues.
"Then I decided a lot of guys could hit .280 and field ground balls, so I went to Long Beach State and got my teaching credential in '75," he said.
He went to Avalon High on Catalina Island to coach baseball and basketball.
His background in basketball had been minimal--he played in junior high and one year in high school.
'I Had to Learn a Lot' "I was familiar with the basics," Kinder said. "Like, I knew what a zone defense was, but I had to learn a lot on my own."
After five years at Avalon, he took the JV job at Poly, where he realized his first priority would be to learn how to evaluate talent.
"At a small school, it was easy to pick the five best guys," he said. "At Poly, it's a little tougher."
When Palmer decided last spring to move to Cal State Long Beach, Kinder didn't immediately think about being the head man.
"I wanted to leave here and go with him," said Kinder. "He was my mentor, the man who opened my eyes to what goes on on a basketball court. But I realized I had to prove myself as a head coach."
On the endorsement of the players, he was quickly named to succeed Palmer, and the coaching transition from legend to neophyte began at 1600 Atlantic Avenue.
"I put pressure on myself early in the season," said Kinder, who evaluates his own performance as well as that of his players after each game. "When the kids didn't play up to their ability, I took it personally."
Camper, the center who had found a comfort zone with Palmer, remembered this season's uncomfortable beginning.
"You could see the fear in the coach," Camper said. "He was wondering what would happen next."
Usually, it would be another loss.
"We expected to lose a few, but not six," said Camper, who had contributed as a reserve in last year's 31-2 season. The preseason defeats were to Serra, Ocean View, Cleveland, Dominguez, Mater Dei and Glendale.
"All those teams are in a top 10," Kinder said. "But when we lose, people start to talk a bit."
They were talking about him.
"At the beginning, people on the team and people in the neighborhood were second-guessing him," said senior Andre Purry, who has close ties to Palmer.
Search for Top Players Kinder, still developing as a talent evaluator, played most of his players while searching for the main seven or eight.
"Because players were competing for spots, we were arguing among ourselves," said guard Demond Cooper. "Now we're more like a family."
Purry said Kinder installed strict rules the players didn't like. "Now we realize he was trying to get us closer together," he said.
The pressure on Kinder was expected because of the inevitable comparisons with Palmer's Poly teams. "Before our first game," Kinder said, "the headlines said, 'Poly's 23-game winning streak on the line.' That's kind of hard to live up to."
Palmer said comparisons to his teams can only harm Kinder.
"The measuring stick should never be what we accomplished in 11 years," Palmer said. If people look at it that way, he doesn't have a chance in the world."
But Kinder disregarded the comparisons and decided there wasn't anything basically wrong with the players or his coaching methods. "We just had growing and maturing to do," he said. "As soon as I realized that, the pressure left."
The players say the fact that they are black and Kinder is white had nothing to do with the preseason difficulties.
They call him the White Shadow.
"That's kind of neat," said Kinder.
'We Believe in Him' Camper said, "He believes in us now and we believe in him--as a coach and a friend. You can sit down and talk to him."
Losses to the tough teams helped, Kinder believes.
"We're ready to play now," he said. "We're maturing and growing and getting better all the time. The kids are up. We're on the rise at the right time."
Poly won its second straight Moore League game last Friday night, 44-33, at Lakewood.
"They're very good, very talented," said Lakewood Coach Tim Sweeney. "No, I wasn't surprised they lost those games. Their schedule was brutal. Throwing them to the lions right away shaped them up."
Sweeney said playing Poly is different with Kinder coaching.
"Palmer would change more during a game," Sweeney said. "He would always be innovative in timeouts. Chris has yet to get that kind of thinking."
Poly's starting lineup consists of Camper, who is 6-5 and a very strong inside player who is averaging 13 points and 7.7 rebounds a game; Purry, a 6-6 forward who excels at rebounding and defense; Roscoe, a 6-3 forward considered one of the finest athletes in Southern California; Cooper, a 6-foot guard who runs the team, and Michael Green, a 6-1 guard whose forte is scoring, although he only averages 10 points. Purry's brother, Cedric, a 6-6, 200-pounder, comes off the bench and attacks the backboards with such vengeance (7.3 rebounds a game) that his teammates call him Moses, after pro star Moses Malone.
The trainer wasn't around so Kinder taped Andre Purry's ankle before a practice in Poly's windowless gym.
"Feel good last night?" Kinder asked, referring to the Compton game.
"You looked good last night."
Before the drills began, Kinder asked a slender man with a beard to address his team.
He was Erroll Parker, 35, a supervisor in the Long Beach Parks and Recreation Department who has been a volunteer assistant coach at Poly for 11 years.
"You are tremendous athletes," he told the players. "Teams fear your athletic ability. You fall down and make a shot, you go off-balance and spin one in.
"Mater Dei and Glendale are mediocre clubs. They play with us because we fight ourselves. When you play together, there is no team that can play with you."
After he finished, Parker talked about the transition.
"I compare it to Wooden leaving UCLA," Parker said. "There is every problem you can imagine when following an act like Ron Palmer's. People try to make comparisons, they second-guess him, players test him to see what they can get away with."
Parker's presence has made it easier for Kinder.
"We go to (Parker's) home on weekends," Purry said.
Used as Buffer Palmer said he used Parker as a buffer.
"He knows the kids away from the campus setting," Palmer said. "They would go to him with problems, and he'd relay what they were to me. He's a very integral part of the Poly program. Over the years he has gained coaching expertise."
Parker said it is too early to compare Kinder and Palmer as motivators.
"Palmer was a very organized man," Parker said. "These kids needed structure and he provided them structure. He was more aloof, he wasn't a rah-rah man.
"Kinder is a very warm man. He is still gaining respect, although he hasn't received the ultimate respect yet." That may come next year when the last players who have links to Palmer will be gone. Then it will unquestionably be Chris Kinder's team, his style, his system, although he says it will still emphasize Palmer's insistence on great defense and "110% effort."
Kinder insists it already is his team.
"Ron's not here right now," he reminded.