PREP WEDNESDAY : Lynwood Fights His Way Back on the Court

Times Staff Writer

You're going to take a left here . . . . OK, now turn right at the sign . . . . All right, slow, that's it.

No one on Shelly Street called Jesse Lynwood III "Jesse." He was Scootie, a name pinned to him by an aunt who noticed that, as a baby, he didn't crawl so much as scoot across the kitchen linoleum.

His character had long been established among the neighborhood kids: fighting his best friend, Bobby Joyce, for the affection of a kindergarten teacher named Miss Coggins; heaving rocks at passing cars, swiping Bit O' Honeys from the shelves of the local market.

Part lover, part warrior, part adventurer, he was the fastest boy around and everything the kids on the block looked up to.

"Everyone idolized Scootie," Joyce said.

When his father, Jesse Jr., told him he was leaving Shelly Street, Scootie, 7 at the time, said he didn't cry. He said he listened to what his father had to say and surmised, "It's just something he felt he had to do."

His mother, Dorothy Love, left him when he was a freshman at Santa Ana High School. She had become sick, blacking out at times, Scootie said.

"She had a tumor," he said, though he can't remember where the tumor was located.

When she and Scootie's sister, Tracy, moved to a different part of Santa Ana, he moved in with a family friend. Eventually, Dorothy moved to Seattle where she is living.

To the surprise of no one who knew him, Scootie gained fame at Santa Ana as a basketball player as early as his freshman year.

As a sophomore, he was an all-Century League point guard. Bobby Joyce, also a sophomore, was an all-Century League center, and together they led their team to a league championship. Scootie was out on his own, and yet he prospered.

"He was always the kind of guy who stood on his own two feet," said Robert Lee, a childhood friend and one of Orange County's best high school running backs. "He was very independent because he never really had an adult he could depend on."

But, strong as he seemed, the family problems weighed on him. By his junior year it bogged him down to the point that it led to his dismissal from the basketball team. The outlook for his future, even from his closest friends, was bleak.

"That's all Scootie had was basketball," Joyce said. "It got him through everything. When he lost that, I said here's another guy from Santa Ana who's going to go down the dumps."

He ended up in a continuation school for the spring semester in 1987. Though he did not play interscholastic basketball, he did attend Santa Ana games, painful as that was.

"I wanted to cry sometimes because I wanted to be out there with them so badly," he said.

Athletics, especially basketball, had always made him special. Situations changed frequently at home as did homes--he lived in four houses in Santa Ana between age 7 and 15--but basketball was constant.

He was always good at it. He always played on good teams stocked with good friends. He developed skills as a point guard that cannot be taught, one of which was his amazing ability to accelerate. Scootie could scoot.

"The kid has big-time speed," said Dick Katz, Westminster coach. "He'll run a team right out of a game."

He has run himself back in. Scootie is back at Santa Ana for his senior year. He is back on the basketball team, and is arguably the best point guard in Orange County. As in the past, he has done this on his own.

"It's remarkable he's been able to rise above the problems in his life," said Greg Katz, assistant basketball coach at Santa Ana. "I've seen the same type of thing happen to others and those kids are never able to make it back. They don't have the strength. The one thing you can say for Scootie, he's got a good heart."

Which is what Scootie Lynwood believes he must prove this season to himself, his friends, teammates, opponents and the colleges he desperately wants to play for.

Go straight after the light . . . . Over there, that's where Robert Lee lived. And right up here, that's the Jerome Center. That's where I got my start.

It was so easy for him. Winning. Looking good on the court.

His team, the one that got its start in Santa Ana's Jerome Center gymnasium, went on to play at Spurgeon Intermediate School.

For the most part, the team stayed intact from sixth grade until the conclusion of its freshman season at Santa Ana. In that time, including summer league games, it won 180 and lost 2.

The freshman team, coached by Greg Katz, may have been one of the best in county history. With players the caliber of Lynwood, Joyce and Kenney Bennett, who went on to star at La Quinta, it averaged 77.8 points per game and allowed an average of 36.3 points.

In the opening game of the season, Santa Ana's freshman defeated Pacifica's freshman, 128-37.

The reputation of the team and its players spread. Scootie Lynwood had arrived.

"Everyone wanted a piece of Scootie," Greg Katz said.

On a team full of stars--Lee, George Tuioti and Royal Wilbon, who went on to star on the football team, and Joyce, Willie Lane and Leo Leon, who star on the basketball team--Lynwood was the acknowledged leader.

He seemed older, not by any physical virtue, but because of a certain knowledge he seemed to possess.

"He always seemed to know what was the thing to do," Joyce said.

It was Lynwood who convinced Joyce to come out for basketball in the sixth grade. It was Lynwood who convinced Joyce to stick to the sport though he did less than excel at it right away. Today, Joyce is one of Southern California's best players.

After his sophomore season, Lynwood was a king. Everything came so easy, the game, friends, advice.

"I guess I started to think that I didn't have to work at anything," Scootie said.

By his junior season it was showing. There was a tense feeling on the team and all signs pointed toward Scootie. He would arrive at practice in jeans, sandals and a beanie. The point was clear. Scootie did not feel, nor felt, the need to practice.

The feeling soon spread.

"He's remarkably charismatic," Greg Katz said. "His peers idolize him. When he's in a positive frame of mind he's dynamite. But last year, when he was unhappy, he was like Moses, but instead of leading his people to the Promised Land he led them back into Egypt."

Lynwood recognized his stature on the team.

"Someone had to be daddy," he said.

But before December had ended, Lynwood was off the team, the final act coming when he and a teammate got into a heated argument that promised to escalate into a fist fight.

Greg Coombs, the Santa Ana coach, walked into the middle of the argument and decided the time had come to make a change.

"It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do as a coach," he said. "I knew all the problems he had in his personal life, but I just couldn't allow it to keep affecting the team the way it was. . . . I never considered him kicked off the team, though. I told him there were things in his life that he had to straighten out before he could come back."

Lynwood certainly considered himself finished at Santa Ana.

"When he told me to turn in my uniform, my attitude was, fine, if that's the way he wants it," he said. "He knew about my problems at home."

It was at that time that his mother moved to Seattle, leaving his sister.

"I was worried about how my Mom was going to be," he said. "I was worried about where my sister would end up."

There were now so many questions, so many doubts, so many fears for the kid who, to his friends, always seemed 16 going on 45.

He had moved in with Rick Bentley, an assistant basketball coach at Santa Ana Valley, and his son Dedric, the Falcons' point guard. An arrangement with the Santa Ana Unified School District allowed Bentley to be responsible for Lynwood--such as write excuse notes when he is sick--without becoming his legal guardian.

His father lived in Fullerton, but the only contact he had with him was on the telephone.

Having lost basketball at Santa Ana, it was only a few weeks before he left the school.

"It isn't unusual around here," Greg Katz said. "We deal with a lot of kids who really have a rocky road in life. Athletics keeps them in school. It gives them reason to work. When the lose that . . . "

He attended Saddleback, a Santa Ana Unified School District school, for about a month but didn't like it. Some thought he might end up at Santa Ana Valley because Bentley coached there. But Lynwood said the thought never crossed his mind.

"I could never think of playing against my friends, against Bobby, while I was still in high school," he said.

Saddleback plays in the Sea View League, whereas Santa Ana and Santa Ana Valley are in the Century League.

He ended up at the district's continuation school, Mountain View, a drab gathering of nondescript wooden buildings surrounded by a high chain link fence.

"They used to send thugs and gang members there, but I got along fine," Lynwood said.

And someway, somehow around March, Scootie Lynwood changed the direction of his life. There was no flash of light, or trumpets or tearful admissions. It just happened. He decided he would go back to Santa Ana, make up the school work he had missed and get back on the basketball team.

Perhaps it was because he had sat in the stands only a month earlier and watched Santa Ana defeat Santa Ana Valley for the Century League championship without him.

"I think he realized then, that life at Santa Ana went on without him," Greg Katz said.

Perhaps it was because at Mountain View he realized what he had lost.

"I think it was a case of a kid who went to the other side of the mountain and realized how good he had it before," Coombs said.

By September he was back at school. By November he was practicing with the team, and by December he was the starting point guard once again.

"I realized that everyone has problems in their life, you just got to deal with them," he said.

The house on Cubbon Street has no screen door. You don't have to turn the knob to open the worn wooden door, one push and you're inside.

When Lynwood moved in with Bentley, "a friend of the family," it was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. His mother was supposed to recuperate in Seattle, and study to earn a real estate license.

But things have not worked out. Dorothy Love remains in Seattle, communicating with Scootie over the telephone. But her phone was disconnected several weeks ago. The phone number Scootie gave a reporter to contact his mother rings a convenience store near the bar where Love works as a bartender a couple of nights a week.

Scootie has had offers from his father to come and live in Fullerton, but he said he could never think of leaving Santa Ana. Not yet.

He is playing as well as ever. Santa Ana is 15-3 overall and 2-0 in Century League play.

Friday, Santa Ana played Foothill, reputed to be its toughest league competition, and won easily, 60-43.

"He dominated the tempo of the game against us," said Jim Reames, Foothill coach. "I don't know how much he improved, he was always very good. But I did notice that he seemed more responsible during the game, more intense. There were no Cadillac antics, he was all business. You could tell this was important to him."

Said Greg Katz: "His senior year means more to him than any basketball player in Orange County. He's got to show a lot of people he's corrected his life."

There never was any question of his talent. That was unquestioned as a sophomore and remains so today. But now that he is on the brink of college ball, the questions about Lynwood are about his character.

Midway and after his sophomore season the letters from the colleges rolled in for Scootie.

"They made up a mail slot for Scootie and I," Joyce said. "Getting college letters was a big thing to us. We used to see who could get the most mail."

But when word got around the college circuit that Lynwood was kicked off the team, the mail dried up.

"It just stopped," Joyce said. "Even when he left Santa Ana, he would still ask if there was any mail for him. I didn't have the heart to tell him. So I said, 'Yeah, but I forgot to bring it.' After a while, he caught on. It really hurt him inside."

So, when Lynwood returned this season he knew he did so on his own. He got to practice early and stayed late. No jeans, no sandals, no beanie. He remains one of the top ballhandlers around and has developed into an exceptional defensive guard.

"He's a true player," Coombs said. "No one ever doubted that."

But in the days of rampant turnover in college programs thanks to the transfer rules, college coaches and recruiters have become increasingly sensitive not only about talent but also temperament.

"Scootie has to understand that he's considered a risk prospect right now," said a college recruiter, who asked not to be identified because coaches under NCAA rules are not allowed to talk about prospective recruits. "I would like to see him go to a junior college so we could see if he really has overcome his problems or if they start over again."

Still, the mail has slowly increased. Schools are expressing cautious interest.

"I know missing last year hurt me," Lynwood said. "I've got a lot to prove to people. But I will. There's no doubt in my mind. I will."

Looking back on the road he's traveled, the one that has led him through numerous houses and neighborhoods, the one that parted him from his parents, and, for a time, with basketball, it may be that the only thing that kept him going, the only thing that brought Scootie Lynwood back was will. His.

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