Slam 'N Jam: A Chance to Taste Success : Cagers Hustle to Catch the Eye of Big-Time College Coaches, Recruiters From All Over Country.

Times Staff Writer

Bernie Fine sits down, crosses his arms and settles back for a full day of sightseeing.

Wearing a bright orange shirt and blue shorts, he blends right in with the other out-of-towners decked out in colored polo shirts with college logos across the breast pockets.

Fine is not on vacation. If he was, he would be someplace like Palm Springs, relaxing on a chaise lounge with an umbrella over his head and a pina colada in his hand.

Instead, he is in Compton, sitting in the bleachers of a hot gymnasium watching jersey-clad young men race up and down the basketball court and settling for a Coke and hot dog.

An assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University for 11 years, Fine includes Compton College on his summer itinerary for one reason: "I'm here today because everyone else is here."

Goal: Recruit Best

The gang--about 100 college coaches and recruiters--is all here to see and be seen by the best high school basketball players in Southern California in the best known of the West Coast's basketball leagues--Slam 'N Jam.

"A lot of kids play Slam 'N Jam because they know college recruiters are going to be watching them," said Issy Washington, founder and director of the league. "I get 10 or 12 calls a day from coaches wanting to know who is playing."

During the spring and summer, representatives from almost every Division I basketball power and many Division II, NAIA and junior colleges take a weekend outing to watch and evaluate the players.

The recruiters are back again this week, hanging out at Pauley Pavilion where 28 teams from all over the country are competing in the Slam 'N Invitational High School Basketball Tournament, which runs through Sunday.

"There isn't a better situation for the players and college coaches," said Frank Burlison, a sportswriter for the Long Beach Press-Telegram whose annual Best in the West scouting report is filled with Slam 'N Jam participants. "The kids come out and improve their game because the competition is of such a high caliber. The coaches like it because they can see a kid they're interested in perform in a situation where all the players are competitive."

Bluest of Blues

All areas of Southern California are represented. The competition, coupled with the opportunity to perform before college recruiters, draws the bluest of the blue-chip players, making it one of the best high school developmental leagues in the country.

Sean Higgins and Chris Mills of Fairfax, David Whitmore of St. Bernard, Tank Collins of Pomona, Ricky Butler of Ocean View and Don MacLean of Simi Valley and just about every other top player next season will have honed his skills in the Slam 'N Jam league.

"In our high school league you get good competition, but in the Slam 'N Jam you get the best," said Don Brotz, a senior at Long Beach Wilson. "I go back for the regular season and feel like I can play with anyone.

"Playing in the league prepares you for the college game because these are the people you're probably going to end up playing against at the next level."

Slam 'N Jam wasn't always thought of that way.

When Washington, who lives in Carson, began an eight-team league in 1979 with the help of current UCLA coaches Walt Hazzard and Jack Hirsch, it was just another league .

Needed Spring League

The L. A.-based Olympic (USA) Development League, which no longer exists, was the premier summer basketball league in the country, the place where all of Southern California's basketball standouts wanted to play.

But there was nothing special available for high school basketball players during the spring, and it wasn't long before Slam 'N Jam filled that void.

"We started the league for inner-city kids who couldn't afford to get around," said Washington, a retired Air Force finance officer and former player at the University of Puget Sound. "It grew because the good ballplayers from the outlying areas wanted to play against the kids from the inner city."

Slam 'N Jam has grown to 37 teams and includes junior varsity and college leagues.

Players try out for teams and pay $120 in the spring and $65 in the summer to participate. Those fees entitle players to a pair of shoes and a uniform.

Some Can't Afford Fee

Players from the suburbs help subsidize the league, according to Washington, because half of those from the inner city cannot pay the full amount and one-third cannot afford to pay at all. Those unable to pay sweep the floor and work the clock and concession stand.

The league, which last year turned away almost 200 players, is broken into two divisions: the National Division, for "franchise" or club teams that play together year-round, and the American Division, for unaffiliated teams composed of players divided up by Washington.

There are other high school basketball leagues in Southern California--the American Roundball Corp. has 15 playing sites throughout the state--but no other league has such a concentration of talent in one location.

"The ARC is good because there are so many locations and everyone can play," said MacLean, a 6-9 junior who helped Simi Valley to a second-place finish in the CIFSouthern Section 4-A Division. "But theSlam 'N Jam is a meeting point for all the best players."

John Williams, who played at Crenshaw High and Louisiana State University, became the first Slam 'N Jam alumnus to go high in the National Basketball Assn. draft when the Washington Bullets selected him in the first round in June.

Prominent Alumni

Other alumni include Jay Bilas, who played at Rolling Hills High and Duke University; Reggie Miller (Riverside Poly) of UCLA, Chris Sandle (Long Beach Poly) of Texas-El Paso, Tom Lewis (Mater Dei) of UC Irvine, Trevor Wilson (Cleveland), who will attend UCLA; Stacey Augmon (Muir), who will attend Nevada-Las Vegas, and Stephen Thompson (Crenshaw), who will play for Syracuse.

Thompson, the City 4-A player of the year the last two years, led Crenshaw to its second straight state championship last season. He has been playing in the league since he was a sophomore.

"When I started, I was thinking, 'Am I going to be able to hang with guys like Chris Sandle and John Williams?' " said Thompson. "Once I got out there on the court, I found out I could.

"The league was helpful in that way. I got to compare myself to other players and improve my game."

Some players feel the jump in competition elevates their game into a higher plane.

"This league teaches you to play above the rim," said Adam Keefe, a junior at Woodbridge High in Irvine. "The guys from Orange County have to come up here if they want to get better. You learn to take the ball hard to the basket. If you don't go with force, you're not going."

Chance to Show Style

Others flock to the Slam 'N Jam because of the looser style of play.

"On your high school team, everything is geared to winning as many games as possible," said MacLean. "You do the things your coach wants you to because you want to win for the school. In Slam 'N Jam, there aren't that many restrictions. You can run the floor more and show what you can do.

"I think the price is a little steep, but the fact that all the best players are down there makes the drive to Compton worth it."

Dave Wolfe, a 6-7 center/forward from Crossroads High in Santa Monica, views the cost a worthwhile investment.

"They guarantee you a quarter of playing time, a jersey and some shoes," said Wolfe, who helped lead Crossroads to the Southern Section 1-A title. "When you get down to it, you're paying $120 for a chance to earn a $60,000 scholarship.

"If you play at a school like Crenshaw, the colleges are going to see you. But if you play at a 1-A school like me, you're never going to get seen."

Improved by Competition

Said Tank Collins of Pomona: "Sometimes a high school league can be lopsided with just one or two good teams and a couple of good players. The Slam 'N Jam brings all those good players together, so your own game naturally gets better. My dribbling and jump shot improved a lot this spring."

Playing in the league this spring also helped elevate the status of a number of players, most notably 6-8 1/2 Gary Gray of Granada Hills and 6-10 Mark Georgeson of Marina High in Huntington Beach. Both were big players when the league started. When it was over they had become big prospects.

Their performances couldn't have come at a better time.

The NCAA instituted the early signing period in 1983, allowing high school seniors to sign letters of intent on the second Wednesday in November and thereby avoid the pressure of recruiting during their final year in high school. Thus, the bulk of college basketball recruiting is now done in the spring and in the summer at a plethora of leagues and camps throughout the nation.

The NCAA stipulates that coaches cannot personally contact players from May 15 to June 15. Between June 16 and Aug. 1, coaches are allowed to watch--but not recruit--players in leagues, camps, clinics and whatever other showcases can be invented until Aug. 2 when the dead period goes into effect once again.

Easier for Recruiters

"You have to really bust it during those periods," said Pepperdine Coach Jim Harrick. "It's like two full-time recruiting seasons. If you can get two or three players in the barn early, it cuts your work in half.

"The advantage of the Slam 'N Jam is that we can see a kid play 10 times or as many times as we want."

The real benefits, however, are for the the coaches who trek to Compton from outside the state.

"With the early signing period, you're recruiting a year ahead of what you used to do," Fine said. "This gives coaches like me the opportunity to see all of the good players play in the same gym on the same day."

Said Weber State Coach Larry Farmer: "We started coming out here my second year coaching at UCLA. Now that I'm recruiting from out of town, this makes it easier to see these kids.

"It's a waste of time trying to get in on the real top kids. But this league helps you build a program by getting some 7s and 8s and turning them into 10s."

Some Criticism

A number of high school coaches, however, say it is tough to build a program of their own when their players are involved in so many leagues, camps and all-star tournaments.

"The major issue with a lot of high school coaches is the feeling that the kids just show up for those leagues and play," Simi Valley Coach Bob Hawking said. "It's kind of a situation where, from a positive point of view, the players can try things on the court that they normally wouldn't be allowed to do. The negative side is that those things that they are trying aren't going to help them in a more structured situation."

Greg Herrick, who coached such Division I players as Kevin Holmes, Keith Morrison and Trevor Wilson at Cleveland High, said all-star leagues contributed to his decision to leave high school coaching.

"Those leagues are good for kids who have high school coaches who don't get too involved in the summer," said Herrick, who is an assistant coach at College of the Canyons. "But, to some extent, they undermine the good high school programs.

"They give the kids free shoes, shirts and trips. It makes it tough for a kid to get his priorities straight when he has three coaches.

"The question you have to ask is, when is it going to end? Weekend winter leagues?"

Because of complaints like those, Washington decided to put the league for underclassmen on hiatus this summer. It may return next year along with a Slam 'N Jam league for girls.

Friendships Formed

"We're just trying to give kids the opportunity to go as far as their ability allows," Washington said. "Plus, it's good for the image of Compton to have these kids and their parents come in from all over and see that the inner city is not all bad. There are friendships that develop here and last a lifetime."

There is also the opportunity for recruiters to find that once-in-a-lifetime player that may help bring their university an NCAA championship. People like Bernie Fine, who--like so many college coaches--has made the Slam 'N Jam League a must-stop on their Southern California itineraries.

"There was a time when we never came out here," said Fine. "But this has become one of the best leagues in the country.

"There seems to be a lot of big kids out here. I don't know why, maybe it's the smog. I'll have to take some back and give it to the kids in the East."

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