Bob Braswell was wearing his go-to-bed-without-any-supper scowl at a practice last season, an expression that can darken the day of an entire basketball team.
Every Cleveland High player was lined up across the baseline, and Braswell, the youngest coach in the City Section, proceeded to tear into the team.
“You’re going through the motions,” he said. “All I ask is that you work hard when you’re on the court. It isn’t happening today.”
A couple of players broke into smiles. “What are you smiling at?” Braswell demanded. “What the hell’s so funny?”
The entire team was smiling by now. Braswell turned around and noticed a large box at center court. A bow was tied to the top.
It was a wedding present--a food processor--paid for by the players. Braswell’s wedding was two days later.
“Boy, did I feel like an ass,” he says. “They planned the whole thing. They knew if I got mad enough I’d have them on the baseline like I always do.”
As the players circled around the coach, he read a card signed by the team and opened the gift. Tears streamed down Braswell’s face.
“He was too choked up to say anything,” guard Michael Gray says. “We wanted to show how much we cared about him. This year we bought him a birthday cake and a card.”
Bob Braswell, 25, is pal and poppa, motivator and mother, boss and brother to his players, who insist their fondest memories of high school won’t be the tall stack of Valley League victories or the back-to-back trips to the City Section 4-A final.
“I’ll remember the love we shared,” senior guard Andre Anderson says, “the togetherness and the friendships. It begins and ends with Coach Braswell.”
After Cleveland beat Crenshaw, 87-75, last Friday in the semifinals, a landmark victory for the Cavalier program, the team bunched together in the locker room, preparing to yell, “ ‘Land,” on Braswell’s command. Forward Damon Charlot, a usually reticent young man, spoke up: “You know why we won? Because we’re a family, that’s why.”
The team goes bowling, to movies, to Dodger games, like a family.
The team has barbecues at Braswell’s house on weekends, like a family.
Five or six players end up staying the night, sit up, tell jokes and plan the future, like a family.
The man leading Cleveland into tonight’s City final against Fairfax at the Sports Arena is clearly more than a coach.
“We have become so familiar,” Anderson says. “Braz will always be my friend.”
Braswell has found fulfillment in familiarity all his life.
He met his wife, Penny, in elementary school. “She used to call me in the third grade and hang up the phone when I answered,” Braswell says.
He is the youngest of Doris and James Braswell’s seven children. James spent 25 years in the Army and Bob describes his father as a disciplinarian. The family meets every Sunday for Bible study and dinner. “We have a mini-reunion every week,” Bob says.
Bob attended Cleveland High, where he was student body president, center on the basketball team, a member of the band and was voted most likely to succeed.
“Bob was a leader from the day he came to Cleveland,” says Greg Herrick, who coached the Cavaliers for seven years before Braswell took over last season.
Herrick decribes Braswell as an average but highly motivated player. “He was slow but very intelligent,” Herrick says. “He liked to mix it up in the paint.”
Braswell coached the Cleveland junior varsity team for six years before taking over the varsity last season. He knows that his youth makes developing special relationships with his players easy. He wonders how long it will last.
“Sometimes other coaches look at me like I’m crazy for spending so much time with the guys,” Braswell says. “I think, ‘God, am I going to change as I get older?’ The minute I stop caring and don’t have the time to do it right, it’ll be time to get out.”
He never really got out of high school. The year after he graduated, Braswell coached the junior varsity at Herrick’s request.
“I let Bob have complete control of the JV program from day one,” Herrick says. “Little did I know what it would lead to. He was very inquisitive, always going to clinics and reading about coaching. People would have never guessed his age.”
Some still have trouble believing that the 6-3 Braswell, a brawny man with a trim beard, is only two years out of college.
“I had no idea Bob was so young,” Taft Coach Jim Woodard says. “I didn’t know until I read his age in the newspaper.”
Braswell might have felt considerably older after his first game as junior varsity coach. Crenshaw walked all over Cleveland, 96-38.
“A Crenshaw guy dunked on the first play and it just blew my guys away,” Braswell recalls. “It was the most humiliating experience of my life. I was ready to get out of coaching.”
Last week’s win over Crenshaw was redemption in Braswell’s mind.
“It meant so much,” he says. “Crenshaw has always been the benchmark for City basketball, the program we’ve strived to equal.”
After Herrick coached Cleveland to two City 3-A titles and a 45-5 record his last two seasons, he turned the program over to Braswell, who had completed requirements for a teaching credential from Cal State Northridge the previous year.
“It was a weird situation,” recalls Herrick, an assistant coach at College of the Canyons. “I had been a finalist for several college jobs and never got it. I was very frustrated. One day I said to the principal, ‘What would be Bob’s chances if I left?’ She told me he’d probably get it.
“Sometimes, you have to step aside and let someone do his thing when he’s ready. He took me to dinner and must have asked me 20 times, ‘Are you sure?’ ”
Braswell led Cleveland to a share of the league title with Fairfax last season and to the City final, where the Cavaliers were substantial underdogs against Crenshaw and lost, 95-79. And here they are again, underdogs against Fairfax (24-0), the only team that has beaten Cleveland (20-3) this season.
“Cleveland has a chance in the final because they are peaking and Fairfax isn’t,” Woodard says. “The question for Fairfax is, ‘How do you get up for a team you’ve beaten three times?’ ”
No one disputes the Cavaliers’ intensity.
“I saw Cleveland 12 times this year and they are always emotionally ready,” Woodard says. “That’s a credit to Braswell. His kids will do anything for him.”
Says Anderson: “We’re willing to go to the wall for Braz.”
And the bond between Braswell and his boys strengthens the friendships among the players.
“If you have a bunch of guys who just suit for practice and games, they won’t care about each other,” Gray says. “We’ll take a charge, help each other on defense, whatever it takes to pick one another up.”
A coach who pals with players runs the risk of losing respect. Along with all this affinity, Braswell enforces a rigid set of rules.
“On the court there is no mistake who is the coach,” Anderson says. “If it takes yelling to get me going, he’ll call me a wimp or a nerd. He doesn’t really mean it but it makes me bear down.”
There is a mandatory daily study hall for the team, which Herrick began and Braswell continues. If a player misses study hall or practice, he loses court time the next game--no exceptions. Braswell maintains control even during the off-season.
“I come down on a guy who skips class anytime during the year,” Braswell says. “I can see the frustration in their eyes. They figure I ought to stay off their cases after the season.” He shakes his head and says, “Uh-uh.”
Just as quickly, it’s buddy-buddy time again. Gray and Anderson enjoy giving Braz the razz.
“We imitate his mannerisms real well,” Gray says. “The way he folds his legs when he’s upset with a referee, the way he rubs his head on the bench.”
Anderson recalls a time Braswell needed to establish control.
“When Albert Fann came out after football season, he said something and Coach was on him,” says Anderson, who promptly begins mimicking the coach. “ ‘Albert, you’re just such a wimp. You come off the football field and expect to be special. Well, it won’t work with me. Uh-uh. It won’t work here, Albert.’ ”
Anderson lets out a giggle and says: “And Coach has that little stroll we all imitate. When he’s mad he presses his rear end in when he walks.”
Fann, a senior who was the team’s leading scorer and a captain, flunked a geometry class two weeks before the end of the regular season and has been ineligible for the playoffs. Yet Braswell hasn’t forgotten him.
“Coach could have ignored me for letting everybody down,” Fann says. “But we talk almost every day. I made up the credit at night. He says I’m still part of the team and he wants me to join in on everything.”
Joining in means being a Cavalier 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The guys spend as much time at my house as they do at their own,” Braswell says. “I trust them, leave them at my house when my wife and I leave. I give them a key.”
Braswell is acutely aware of his sizable influence.
“Several players don’t have fathers at home,” he says. “I try to be a positive male role model. I tell them not to grow up too fast. ‘Be a child and enjoy it,’ I say.”
This week the players are simply enjoying being Cleveland Cavaliers. They walk around campus with a spring in their step and nod at each other as if to say, “All the work paid off, just like Braz told us it would.”
They have Braswell’s next gift already planned, and it doesn’t need a box and a bow.
“The biggest present we can get Coach Braswell is the City title,” Gray says. “That’s the ultimate gift.”
Win or lose, the friendships will linger.
“The end of the season is a rough time for me because I am losing people who are very special,” Braswell says. “I think back and remember the things we did together. But we’ll never really lose one other. That’s the great thing.”