Basketball of the Past : Coaches Remember the Best of the Bay

Times Staff Writer

This year's Times South Bay high school basketball player of the year, Eric Cooper of Banning, joins an illustrious list of South Bay products stretching from Leonard Taylor, last year's top player, to Mark Acres to Byron Scott to Paul Westphal, and back to Willie Naulls in the early 1950s.

Veteran coaches around the South Bay were contacted recently to name the best players they had seen and the best teams the South Bay has produced.

Generally, the same names rolled out of the memories: the North Torrance teams in the mid- and late 1960s ... El Segundo in the late 1960s ... Inglewood in 1980 ... Carson in 1982 ... Morningside in the mid-1970s.

And always, Palos Verdes. It was 10 years ago that Palos Verdes knocked off one of Verbum Dei's most powerful teams on the way to the CIF 4-A title, a feat many area coaches still talk about with awe. The star of that P.V. team--the only player who went on to Division I and pro success--was 6-11 center Bill Laimbeer, now an all-star with the Detroit Pistons. Verbum Dei, which had won four straight CIF titles, had future pros David Greenwood and Roy Hamilton.

The real star of P.V. may have been Coach John Mihaljevich, who molded that team. The upset, he recalled, "king of put a focus on how good we were--Verbum Dei was 30-0. Laimbeer was the only Division I prospect."

The best South Bay team ever? Well, at least for Palos Verdes, which has had several other fine teams under Mihaljevich, it might be the '75 team. "I'd be partial to them," he said.

That '75 team featured Tom Spillane and Sam White at guard and Rick Dillon at forward along with Laimbeer. Mihaljevich's 1969-70 team may have had even more talent physically, with future pro Jan van Breda Kolff at 6-7, two other players who went on to Division I colleges and a front line of 6-9, 6-7, 6-5.

The best may be yet to come. Acres, the CIF 4-A player of the year in 1981, recently finished his college career at Oral Roberts and is projected as a high pro draft choice. Several coaches said the 6-11 Acres may turn out to be the best player ever to come out of the area. He teamed with older brother Jeff, 6-9, to lead a team that in many years might have challenged for a CIF title. But in 1980 the Sea Kings had to face undefeated Inglewood in the same league.

Mihaljevich said, "It remains to be seen what (Acres) can do professionally ... (but) he was 6-10 and could play all the positions on the court."

At the other end of the spectrum, little Jim Spillane drew a lot of support. Mira Costa Coach Jim Nielsen, himself a member of the powerful North Torrance teams in the 1960s, said he felt the 6-11 P.V. guard "was as good a high school guard as I ever saw in the South Bay, including Westphal."

Most coaches wouldn't go that far, but Mihaljevich called Spillane "the prototype point guard, when that philosophy of guard was just beginning--one guard to be your ball handler, break presses, run the team and also score. He was 5-11 and he could stuff the ball, which was a novelty in those days."

Spillane played for UCLA from 1974 to 1977.

How about a Palos Verdes all-star team? Mihaljevich says he would take his chances against most opponents with Laimbeer, Acres, 6-8 Brian Jackson--a college and European pro star--Van Breda Kolff and Spillane, with Jeff Acres and Woody Jones as backup.

The challengers step forward. Nielsen, a 6-7 center forward who went on to play for the University of Washington, points out North had 7-footer Ron Taylor, later a USC star, all-CIF guard Jesse Jacobs and a strong supporting cast in 1964-65 on a team that made it to CIF finals, and an even stronger team in 1968 with him at center, 6-10 Bill Taylor at forward and Dan Anderson, a future pro, at guard.

Anderson, now in the construction business in Portland, where he played briefly as a pro, is generally ranked with Westphal, Spillane and Byron Scott as the best guards to come out of the South Bay.

El Segundo didn't have the height of those P.V. or North High teams but the Eagles had a nice run in the late 1960s under Cliff Warren, who was recently named the Rolling Stones coach.

Warren's 1967 team, featuring CIF player of the year Dana Pagett and John Pleick, a future Notre Dame and European pro star, won 34 games in a row before losing the CIF title game in overtime to Monrovia. Pagett went on to USC. The team also sent Ed Hora to Brigham Young, Alan Christianson to Stanford and Mike McCreedy to pro baseball. Pleick still ranks third in CIF annals in rebounding for career (1,130) and single game (38).

"That was as good a (South Bay) team as any I've seen, perhaps not as good as Verbum Dei," Warren said.

Acres was 'Best' Warren, who went on to coach collegiately and didn't see Westphal's senior year, tabbed Acres "the best player I've seen."

Ken Brown, longtime coach at Aviation, had the fun of coaching Westphal and several other stars. The Westphal team in 1967-68 went 28-4 before losing to eventual champ Compton in CIF quarterfinals. Brown's next two teams didn't suffer much despite Westphal's graduation, going 23-6 in 1968-69 and 26-5 in 1969-70 and beating Verbum Dei, led by Raymond Lewis, in the Inglewood Tournament.

But Brown says nobody he saw was better than Westphal, who went on to star at USC and for the Phoenix Suns in the NBA. Westphal's pro career ended last year and he is now doing basketball commentary and considering coaching.

"He was the best high school offensive ballplayer I have ever seen," Brown said. "That includes every phase of offense-scoring, shooting, dribbling, passing, rebounding. He averaged 32 points his senior year and it could have been 42 easily. The closest I've seen was Byron Scott."

Morningside, which is back in the spotlight again, had a nice run in the mid-1970s, producing players like Jackie Robinson under Jim Harrick and winning a CIF 3-A title in 1974 under Ron Jacobs with the likes Mike Santos. Scott was the South Bay's best player in 1978.

The more recent championship teams like Inglewood and Carson don't appear to nudge memories yet; they may be too fresh to have settled rightfully into their historical niche, but they were mentioned.

Inglewood's 1980 team went undefeated, received a mythical national championship and had four standout players; point guard Ralph Jackson, the CIF player of the year and all-time assists leader, center Vince Kelley, off guard Jay Humphries and wing man Angelo Robinson, Jackie's younger brother. All went on to Division I colleges. Coach Vince Combs molded them into a selfless machine driven by Jackson, called by Warren "a great high school player, better than Spillane."

Though Jackson never became a college superstar at UCLA, Humphries escaped his shadow to earn stardom at Colorado and is now playing for the Phoenix Suns. Inglewood also produced pro star Reggie Theus, a virtuoso in the mid-1970s.

State Tourney Winner Carson won the first state tournament in 1982 led by the colorful Eldridge Hudson, acclaimed that year as the best player in California. Coach Dick Acres' team had a strong supporting cast including Doug Brown at forward and junior Mark Wilson at guard. Wilson is now at Oral Roberts University. Hudson is at Nevada-Las Vegas where he has been battling serious knee injuries.

In between, Sera had a fine team in 1981 that reached the CIF semis. The roster included 6-9 Kerry Boagni, then a junior, 6-7 Joe Cormier, the starting USC tight end, and Glenn Smith, Patrick Lombard and Dwan Hurt at guard; all went on to play in college.

Mira Costa produced a strong team in the late 1950s led by Harry Dinnel, who went on to coach in the area and produced 6-9 Gig Sims at Redondo, possibly the best player to come out of that school despite a disappointing career at UCLA. "I'd rank him right after Acres. He was a truly great high school player," Warren said.

Individually, one name that kept popping up was Bart Johnson, the Torrance High star who went on to a pro pitching career with the White Sox. He scored nearly 2,000 points in high school.

'Great Vertical Leap' "He was not in the class of Acres as a player, but on pure ability he might have been the best ever," Warren said. Mihaljevich remembered him as "one of the first players who had great vertical leap." Nielsen said he may be the best all-around athlete ever produced in the South Bay.

That leaves St. Bernard, which some saw developing into the Verbum Dei of the 1980s. The Vikings never quite reached that level, though they did win a 3-A title in 1982, but they may have more players in major colleges now than any school west of Baltimore Dunbar.

Vikings playing at major colleges last season included Taylor, the Pac-10 rookie of the year at UC Berkeley, Chris Washington at Berkeley, Corey Gaines at UCLA, Bobby Thompson at Arizona State, Rod Keller at USC, Kevin Vidato at Washington, Eric Knox at Oregon State, Keith Ramee at Stanford and assorted others around the country. "A St. Bernard all-star team could do pretty well in the Pac-10," Mihaljevich noted.

The first great star out of the South Bay may have been Willie Naulls of San Pedro, who led the Pirates to their last city title in 1952. He went on to national prominence at UCLA.

The best ever? Take your pick. Maybe go Westphal, young man.

There are certainly Acres to choose from.

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