THE COUNTDOWN TO THE CIF FINALS : STEPPING FORWARD : Often Misunderstood, Cleveland's Wilson Takes Aim at Greatness

Times Staff Writer

Ever since he stepped out of junior high school and into the starting lineup of the Cleveland High basketball team, Trevor Wilson's every move, every expression, has been scrutinized.

Some have interpreted his leaving the court in a huff as a sign of cockiness. They say his game face--a scowl--is a show of arrogance.

And why, they wonder, was Cleveland's record 5-5 with Trevor in the lineup--but 5-0 without him--for a stretch this season?

Bob Braswell, Cleveland coach, says Wilson, the player, is difficult for opponents to figure. Wilson, the person, is just as complex.

"People who don't know him tend to misinterpret some of his actions," Braswell said. "People see a guy who stomps up and down the basketball floor and never smiles. Lots of times he looks upset when there seems no reason to be.

"The fact is, he's a perfectionist. Chances are he's mad at himself for not playing up to his expectations. Sometimes, I'll pull him out of a game and he'll storm off the court. I don't take it personally because I know that he's not mad at me--he's mad at himself. Other people see that and get the wrong impression."

Braswell shook his head when asked why Cleveland struggled early in the season with Wilson in the lineup--then improved while he nursed an ankle injury.

"Just one of those things you can't explain," Braswell said. "This is certainly not a one-man team. We have some other guys who really came through when we needed them. But don't try to tell me that we're a better team without Trevor Wilson. That's ridiculous.

"Trevor has been a starter and the leading scorer on three league championship teams. That's no coincidence. He's a hell of a player."

So good, in fact, that he has almost lived up to all the hype that preceded his high school career.

When Wilson enrolled at Cleveland, Braswell said Wilson was hailed by one newspaper as the best sophomore player in the Valley. Ever.

That's better than Gail Goodrich, Darren Daye, Stuart Gray or Paul Mokeski, all of whom made it to the National Basketball Assn.

And all of this before the 6-8 forward ever laced up his sneakers for the varsity team.

No wonder he quickly became the favorite target of sharp elbows from opponents and pointed remarks from opposing fans.

Yes, Trevor Wilson, 17, Mr. All-fill-in-the-blank, has his share of critics.

"There was a little extra pressure on me to live up to expectations, but I tried to not pay much attention to what people were saying or doing," Wilson said. "It's nice to hear how good people think you are, yes, but I knew deep down inside that I needed to work hard or I'd fall. To stay on top you have to keep working."

Wilson has been working every day since the summer of 1981. That's when he started playing in the American Roundball Corp.

Between the end of last basketball season and the start of this one, Wilson played in three spring-summer leagues and attended a summer basketball camp at Princeton University.

"He's a basketball workaholic," said Rich Goldberg, president of American Roundball. "One day he made up his mind he wanted to be a great basketball player and he hasn't stop working since."

UCLA basketball Coach Walt Hazzard, who has already signed Wilson to play for the Bruins next season, recognizes the two-time All-City player's tenacity. He believes that Wilson will quickly raise the level of intensity at UCLA practices.

"He's the kind of kid who will come in here and battle for some playing time right away," Hazzard said. "He can shoot, he can rebound, he can run and he can play some defense. But what I like most about him is his work habits. He's willing to pay the price to be the best."

Wilson's penchant for playing basketball got him in trouble last April. Braswell, who was a Cleveland assistant at the time, dismissed Wilson from the team after the player walked out of a team meeting following one of Cleveland's Vocabulary League games.

Wilson, who was upset after a close loss, said he didn't have time to stay for a word test given after each of the spring-league games. He had to go to a Slam 'n' Jam League game. Braswell told him to stay or be dropped from the team. Wilson walked--and didn't show up for the team's next game.

Three weeks later, Cleveland Coach Greg Herrick told The Times that Wilson had been dismissed because of "recent violations of team rules and his continued disregard of our program and its objectives." The next day, Herrick announced his own resignation.

Said Braswell: "The timing of both announcements was unfortunate. One had nothing to do with the other, but it didn't look that way. The whole thing was blown out of proportion."

Through it all, Wilson remained silent. He had no comment to speculation about where he was going, what he was doing, or if he even cared about not being on the Cleveland basketball team. Was he going to Fairfax? To Van Nuys? Even now, Wilson only says that he knew his options were open.

Said Braswell: "Basically, he's a shy person and a little hesitant when it comes to dealing with the press. Some bad things have been said about him and it's made him leery."

Wilson said he simply didn't know who he could trust.

"I guess I was a scapegoat," he said. I don't know. It's all in the past now. Dealing with it all was something I had to learn."

Wilson was reinstated at Cleveland in June, shortly after it became apparent that Braswell would become the new coach.

"It was a nasty situation for both of us," Braswell said. "You never want to throw a kid out in the street. You always hope they come back and things can be worked out."

Before he was reinstated, Wilson was urged by Braswell to meet with the team and explain himself.

"We sat down one day before a spring league game and cleared the air," Wilson said. "Some feelings had been hurt. There was a lot of pride at stake, but we left that pride at the door and talked it out."

Said Damon Greer, the team's point guard: "A lot of people took what came out in the paper the wrong way. Some people might have thought that he thought he was above the team.

"Personally, I know Trevor better than that, but it was good that he sat down with the team and explained his side. It brought the team that much closer together."

Said Herrick, now an assistant coach at College of the Canyons: "I'm glad things worked out. In looking back, the whole situation probably wasn't really his fault. Outside influences changed him. All of a sudden, the high school team was no longer the focus. These outside leagues give players shoes, free meals and take them across the country to play in all-star games. It's easy for a kid to be torn between priorities. I never thought Trevor was a bad person. He just got caught in the middle."

As a result, Wilson might have inherited a reputation he doesn't deserve.

"I think I'm really a nice person," he said. "It bothers me sometimes that people go by what they hear. Those people who were saying I thought I was too big for the team, do they know me? No. Have they ever talked to me? No."

Said Braswell: "People tend to forget that under that 6-foot, 8-inch body there's a teen-ager. Everyone expects a big person like Trevor to act like an adult. Kids have to grow up and it doesn't happen overnight. It takes time and there are mistakes made along the way.

"Sometimes kids want to do things you don't want them to do. It happens all the time--especially with big-time athletes like Trevor. We've all been able to learn from the experience and put it behind us."

A makeshift message at the south end of the Cleveland High gym reads, "The '85-86 Cleveland Dream Team is Here."

Braswell cracks a sly smile when the dream-team theme is questioned by a visitor.

"Yeah, someone has a pretty creative imagination," he said. "We knew we were going to be good, but you have to remember that this team lost four starters from last year. Ain't no dream team ever lost four starters."

Of the top players on the Cleveland team, only three--Wilson, Greer and Antoine Shofner, the sixth man--saw much playing time on the varsity last season.

Wilson was the player the team looked to whenever it needed points at the start of the season.

He responded by averaging almost 30 points a game in nonleague games, including a school-record 46 against Calabasas. But Cleveland lost four of its first six games.

"We were putting a tremendous amount of pressure of him," Braswell said. "We were always looking for him. Whether it's consciously or not, when you have that 6-8 kid in the middle, you look for him."

The Cavaliers had a 5-5 record when Wilson suffered ligament damage to his left ankle and missed five games. Cleveland won all five, including an 81-80 victory over highly regarded Fairfax.

"We're a better team right now because he did miss those five games," Braswell said. "The team learned that they could win without him, which was very important. They also learned how much of a team player Trevor is. He was our biggest cheerleader on the bench. The guys needed to know that this All-City and All-American cared about them.

Said Wilson: "They were relying on me too much before I got injured. They got a lot of confidence by winning without me. Before it seemed like sometimes they were hesitant out there. Not anymore. Everyone can play on this team. I've known that all along. I think maybe they just needed to prove it to themselves."

Wilson's ankle injury still hasn't healed completely and his scoring average has fallen off about four points since his return. However, his rebounding average has gone up by two.

"Now that everybody has more confidence, the scoring load in being shared," Wilson said. "That takes a lot of the pressure off me. I can concentrate on rebounding and playing defense now--or whatever it takes to win."

Wilson, who will turn 18 this month, grew up with his mother in West Los Angeles. He has a half brother, Hunter Greene, and a half sister, Cassandra Isumu. Trevor's father, Larry, left the family when Trevor was 6.

Mrs. Wilson moved her family from West Los Angeles to Sherman Oaks before Trevor started junior high school.

Wilson said he gets his height from his mother, Antoinette, who is 5-11. His father is 6-2.

"My father wasn't really into basketball or sports very much," Wilson said of his father. "He used to take me bowling. That was about it. My mom just now is starting to get interested in basketball. She's not really into sports either, but she's gone to all of the playoff games."

She is, however, responsible for a Trevor trademark: a rather unique haircut.

Most of Wilson's hair is cut very short except for the back, which hangs almost to his shoulders.

"I think it's called a shag," Wilson said, laughing. "My mom is a hair stylist and she likes it long. I like it short, so this was the compromise."

Wilson first started playing basketball around the parks of West Los Angeles with Hunter Greene. Greene played at Van Nuys and was 3-A Player of the Year three years ago.

But neither player was very good before they met Goldberg, the founder of the American Roundball, at his summer league at Valley College during the summer of 1981.

"Trevor was so bad that he led the league in rebounding just by grabbing his own misses," Goldberg said. "He absolutely could not shoot."

His attitude about learning the game wasn't the best, either.

"He thought he knew everything," Goldberg said. "He was pretty belligerent, actually. He'd get into a fight a game, but he also listened and learned. He shaped up his attitude real fast when he realized he could really play this game. All of a sudden, he had some goals.

"Players try to provoke him now and he turns and walks away. Before, if someone hit him with an elbow, he punched them."

Goldberg said he worked with Wilson every weekend, stressing fundamentals.

"After school he'd go to Sherman Oaks Park and play against older men and work on everything I showed him," Goldberg said. "Then he'd come back the following weekend and show me what he'd worked on. He just improved tremendously."

Wilson, who is averaging 25.7 points and 15 rebounds, still has the same blue-collar work ethic.

Don MacLean, who will lead Simi Valley into the Southern Section 4-A title game against Muir on Saturday, said Wilson's practice habits impressed him when they were on the same American Roundball all-star team this summer.

"He works tremendously hard in practice," MacLean said. "And he works on every part of his game.

"There are guys like Sean Higgins who has a great outside jumper, and guys like Stevie Thompson, who are great on the fast break, but Trevor can do everything well.

"He can hit the 15-footer. He has a great first step to the basket, and he works hard on both ends of the floor."

Higgins, of Fairfax, was the most valuable player of the Valley 4-A League. Crenshaw's Thompson was last season's City Player of the Year.

Said Herrick: "If I had my choice of any of those players, I'd take Wilson. I think he does more for his team. He can play inside, outside, bring the ball up the floor and play defense.

"My last game as coach he scored 40 points and had 20 rebounds in a playoff game. I've never seen a high school player dominate like he did in that game."

But it was a game Cleveland lost, 81-80, to Banning in the City quarterfinals.

After three long years as the player opponents and their fans loved to hate, Wilson is now in the unfamiliar role of sentimental favorite.

He will lead Cleveland against all odds and the Crenshaw Cougars in the City 4-A title game tonight at the Sports Arena.

Crenshaw (22-2) is defending state champion and--much to the delight of Wilson--is heavily favored to repeat as City champion. Finally, the pressure is on someone else.

"No one expects us to win," Wilson said. "If we lose, we did the expected. If we win, there'll be even more glory."

Wilson has reveled in glory ever since he first donned Cavalier black and red. He has received just about every individual honor that a high school athlete could dream of.

But what he wants most is to help Cleveland (16-7) become the first Valley-area boys team to win a City 4-A title in 22 years.

"We should have won it the last two years," Wilson said. "We had unbelievable talent, but we had too many problems with who wanted to be the star and the scorer--that type of thing. If we can accomplish the City championship, it would not only help the basketball program here in the future, but also hopefully quiet some of the critics from the past."

Said Braswell: "Trevor told me not too long ago, 'Coach, I've always had whatever I wanted. A City championship is the one thing that I still want. And we're going to get it.' "

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