. . .While 'Old Men' Lead the Dominguez Hills Cagers

Times Staff Writer

They are four elder statesmen on what is heralded as a basketball team of the future.

To center Roger Coleman, 24, and guards Barry Johnson and Leonard Eaton, both 23, and Derrick Clark, 22, youth is in the eye of the beholder.

In after-game comments, Coach Dave Yanai often speaks of the youth on his Cal State Dominguez Hills men's team. A press release last week called the Toros "the young CSUDH team."

Then there is the case of the four "old men" of the team, each with major roles this year, a large part of that being the maturity they are expected to exude in front of younger players.

"We have accepted our role. We'll do whatever it takes," said Clark, a 6-foot, 2-inch junior, who is the floor leader during games as well as an inspirational leader off the court.

Friday night at Chapman College the team begins defense of its California Collegiate Athletic Assn. title with, among others, five teen-age players and a 21-year old assistant coach.

The Toros are 1-5 away from home this season and only 6-6 overall, and, yes, they start only one senior at times and their big-play man is just a 20-year-old junior.

Those facts prompted the bearded Johnson, one of only two seniors, to reflect: "I feel like the father of the team."

A fifth-year player, Johnson is the only member of the group that did not leave basketball for at least a year.

Clark, a junior transfer from Chapman College, redshirted last season after sitting out a year. Eaton, a junior, and Coleman, the other senior, sat out two seasons for personal reasons.

At the ages when most college basketball players have ended their careers and are preparing for life in playground leagues, these guys are showing the youngsters moves from their prime. Eaton is the team's best three-point shooter, hitting 48% of his attempts. Coleman has committed only seven turnovers, fewest of any starter. Clark leads the team in assists, dishing off more than four a game.

"I can't express enough the value of their maturity on this team," Yanai said. "Sometimes older players give the wrong kind of leadership."

Their maturity factor goes beyond basketball. On the team's first road trip to Northern California in early December, a school van driven by assistant coach Bart Yamachika, who is all of 21 years old, broke down en route to a game. Coleman came to the rescue.

"I looked over at Roger and said, 'What are we going to do?' And he took care of it," said Yamachika.

Coleman's diagnosis: The van was low on transmission fluid. A stop at a gas station solved the problem.

Coleman is the team's all-purpose man. "I just look at him and he says, 'I know what to do,' " Yamachika said of problem areas that arise while the team is traveling. Among other things, Coleman, who is majoring in athletic training, tapes the ankles of each player before every road game.

Johnson and Clark double as laundrymen on road trips. They say their first chore when the van roles into town is to find a place to wash the team uniforms.

Eaton, an easy-going guy who has been nicknamed "Sleepy," looks for the local buffet restaurant.

"For Dezi," he says. referring to 18-year old freshman forward Dezi Hazely. Hazely, 6-feet, 5-inches and 225 pounds, is the team's designated eater, according to the four.

The camaraderie that is developing between old and young players on this team, some as many as five or six years apart in age, is unusual.

"We're one big happy family," said Eaton.

Yanai agreed.

"This is a tremendously cohesive group," he said. "They genuinely like each other. There is a great deal of caring for each other."

"It makes the younger players grow a lot faster," said Eaton.

Coleman agreed. "It feels good," he said. "The young guys look up to you."

Clark suggested that the approach Yanai takes with the team has allowed the Toros to become close. "In other programs the focus might be on class status, but not here."

Johnson agreed. "You don't rate yourself. When you come here, you start from scratch."

Yanai bunks at least one younger player in each room with an older one on road trips. The quartet says they know the younger players are watching.

"We, the older guys, don't go to bars," said Clark. "We concentrate on the game and what we should be doing."

Clark, Eaton and Coleman made their returns to basketball in different ways after considerable lay-offs.

Clark, a good penetrator and ball-handler, left his native Detroit when he was 18 to attend Chapman College on a basketball scholarship. However, after a couple of seasons in which he said he "picked up some bad habits" on the court, Clark left the Orange County school.

For a year after he quit, "I felt out of it, not playing basketball." He contacted Yanai.

"Coach Yanai was looking for leadership from me," he said.

Eaton was a second-team all-state prep player in his native Texas. The death of his father, however, put severe financial strains on the family and the 6-foot, 2-inch junior guard was forced to get a job. Two years later, on a visit with a brother here, Eaton remained and made a comeback at East Los Angeles College. He averaged 19 points a game and eventually earned an all-Inland Valley Conference first-team selection.

"I've done a lot of growing up on my own," he said with a soft drawl.

The 6-foot, 6-inch Coleman, a gangly bean pole from Bell High School who plays taller because of extremely long arms, first played at Dominguez Hills in 1983, where he started eight games. But after a disappointing sophomore season, Coleman quit.

"It was the last thing on my mind to come back here," he said. "If I was in a gym and a ball would roll across the floor to me, I wouldn't touch it. That was how much I cared about playing."

Two weeks before practice began this fall, Coleman was driving to class when thoughts of basketball popped into his mind.

"Something in me snapped," he said.

"I walked into the gym where Coach Yanai was teaching a basketball class. I went up to him and said, 'Coach, I think I have a year of eligibility left, I'd like to play basketball.' "

The four old men take their roles in stride.

Said Johnson:

"I love it. But I ain't that old."

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