M ater Dei High School has risen from the heart of suburbia to compete against schools from the big city.
In 1983, Mater Dei brought Orange County its first Southern Section 4-A championship in 46 years. USA Today began keeping tabs on the Monarchs, and ranking them among the country's best prep teams.
Such national attention hasn't exactly dimmed at Mater Dei this season. College coaches from around the country have made Tom Lewis the most highly recruited prep basketball player in Orange County history.
And while Lewis climbs his way through the county and Southern Section record books, Mater Dei keeps winning. This year, the Monarchs (25-0) became the first Orange County team in nine years to finish the regular season undefeated.
But Tom Lewis and Mater Dei are the exceptions in Orange County. The rules are players who may never enter a major college basketball arena unless they stand in line for tickets like the rest of the spectators; teams that play for the last shot with 1:30 left in the second quarter.
Of the 373 players on Street & Smith Magazine preseason high school All-America list, 27 were from California. Of those, only three were from Orange County. One, of course, was Lewis. Another was Mike Mitchell, Lewis' teammate at Mater Dei. The third was Marco Baldi of Woodbridge, who has since transferred to Long Island Lutheran High in Brookville, N.Y. The reason for Baldi's departure? The club team in his native Italy felt the caliber of play in Orange County wasn't competitive enough to prepare him for international-level competition.
"I'd have to say that the best team I played against while I was at Woodbridge last year was Sonora, and Sonora would be just an average team out here," Baldi told The Times in January. "Playing better teams is making me play better."
Basketball in Orange County is neither flashy nor flamboyant. Some would call it a disciplined style of play; a coach's game of chess in which the players are pawns and each move is strategically planned. Others might say it's just plain dull.
UC Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan chose the words carefully before describing the area's game.
"I think you get more real coaching going on," he said. "It's a lot more conservative type of game. I'm not sure that the really good players flourish in that kind of game, but that doesn't mean it's bad.
"I think over coaching is the biggest sin in the world. But I think what the Orange County coaches would probably tell you is, 'We have to do all those things because we don't have the talent.' "
The average Orange County prep player is just that: average. His coach would describe him as fundamentally sound or an intelligent player . . . a coach-on-the-floor type. Such qualities are admirable, but they don't always impress major college coaches the way 40-inch vertical leaps and 30 points per game do.
But the leapers and scorers aren't always the movers and shakers of the Southern Section playoffs, and, dull or not, this suburban brand of basketball can be effective. Orange County teams have had a significant impact on the Southern Section playoffs in recent years, and they've done it by beating teams they simply weren't supposed to have the talent to match up against.
Estancia, Capistrano Valley and Mission Viejo have all enjoyed successful postseasons in the past few years, and they've done it with the no-superstar system. Corona del Mar was conspicuously absent from the playoffs last year, but has been Orange County's most successful postseason team. Estancia, Capistrano Valley, Corona del Mar and Mission Viejo have a combined playoff record of 65-26 over the past 11 years. With the talented Mater Dei teams the record becomes 81-34, a .704 winning percentage.
Said Ernie Carr, coach of Dominguez High in Compton: "Those teams are consistently getting there. They must be doing something right."
Carr has some first-hand knowledge of Orange County teams. His Dons lost to Estancia in the second round of the 3-A playoffs in 1983 and were upset by El Toro last year. In both cases, Carr's team was believed to have superior talent.
"I don't think there is the quality and depth of the Division 1-type athlete in Orange County but in a high school situation, I don't think that's the most important thing," Carr said.
"If you take an Orange County team that has two good players--maybe one with some size and a good, skill guard--and put three kids with those guys who are fundamentally sound, you're going to have a good team."
The team concept prevails in Orange County gyms, and it's that concept that opposing coaches believe has kept it competitive with other areas.
Frank Burlison, who has been covering prep basketball for the Long Beach Press Telegram for the past 12 years, said the individual talent may be stronger in other areas, but Orange County teams are sound.
"Per capita, in terms of (college) prospects, it might be lower than some areas," he said, "but Orange County has its share of quality players.
"I think if you took the top 10 programs from Orange County and compared them with the top 10 programs from any other particular sector, it would be competitive. There might not be as many guys who can jump as high or run as fast, but in terms of skilled basketball players, they'll be right there."
Rolland Todd would cast a dissenting opinion. Todd is in his second year as the head coach at Taft College, but his coaching resume includes stints with the Portland Trail Blazers of the National Basketball Assn., the University of Nevada Las Vegas and Santa Ana College. He came to Santa Ana in 1975 and left in 1982 as the winningest coach in the school's history. And he did it by relying mostly on players from outside Orange County. Some, in fact, were from other states.
"We didn't have the district that say an Orange Coast or Fullerton had to draw from," Todd said. "Cerritos is on the fringe of Long Beach and Compton, and they would get a lot of players from that area. Mt. SAC had something like 35 high schools to draw from. It (going outside the area for players) was just what was needed in order to be competitive."
And what was Todd's opinion of high school basketball in Orange County?
"I always thought it was fairly average," he said. "I'm sure that if it was really checked out statistically, you would find that very few Division 1 college players come out of Orange County. There are a lot of solid junior college players and Division 2 players, but not a whole lot of size or exceptional talent.
"There are just not many black athletes in Orange County, and basketball is basically dominated by the black athlete."
There is no denying that Orange County consists mostly of white, middle-class families and is not exactly a breeding ground of talent. The fact that some of the county's most serious playground games takes place on Laguna's Main Beach says a lot about the area's basketball environment. Get a tan, enjoy the ocean view and get in a little basketball while you're at it. Such surroundings don't compare to the storied playgrounds of South Philadelphia or the Bronx, which are renowned for producing talented players.
"Maybe it does become a negative thing for those Orange County kids who grow up in a so-called soft life . . . whatever that is," said Carr, who is in his 10th year as the Dominguez coach. "But I think it's the kid's attitude that's more important than anything else, more than the kind of car he drives or how much money he has in his pocket. The guys who want to achieve and be good basketball players are always in the gyms playing."
Greg Katz, the freshman basketball coach at Santa Ana High and the director of the USA Development League each summer, sees some of Southern California's best basketball players in an off-season league designed to help them develop as college players.
In the 10 years he has been associated with the league, Katz said he has seen a marked improvement in the quality of play being demonstrated by Orange County athletes. He believes part of the improvement can be attributed to the increased exposure those athletes are getting to inner-city basketball.
"In the past, Orange County players would never get a glimpse of the great black talent in L.A.," Katz said. "Now, they're playing against it in summer leagues and they're seeing what it takes to be really good.
"I used to say that the difference between an Orange County kid and an L.A. kid is that after a game, the Orange County kid would go home and crank up the stereo or go to the beach. An L.A. kid would go home, grab a ball and go out and find an outdoor game somewhere."
But Katz and many of his contemporaries believe that one characteristic typical of Orange County basketball is good coaching. And it's the appeal of this cluster of sunny suburbs that entices good coaches to the area.
"The communities are a lot safer," Katz said. "Kids come from better socioeconomic backgrounds, and they're more receptive to being taught. An Orange County kid, in most cases, will say, 'Teach me something and I'll learn it and use it.' In an inner-city area, you're dealing with a different breed of cat. They believe they already have the talent, and they don't have to be told how to use it."