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DIVERSIONARY TACTICS : Watts, White Find Shelter From Glare of Spotlight on School Basketball Teams

Times Staff Writer

Quincy Watts understands the ground rules he has created for himself. Every time the Taft High All-American steps onto the track, not only is victory expected, but the margin of each win is scrutinized.

Did he win by enough? Is the competition gaining?

“I feel pressure to win and win by a certain amount,” said Watts, the state defending sprint champion. “In track, I have to be at my best all the time.”

Three miles down Ventura Boulevard at Crespi, Russell White faces similar standards every time he dons a football uniform.

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The All-American running back knows that each handoff carries added responsibility. There are state records to set and expectations to meet. “Every time I play, this coach or that coach wants to talk to you,” he said.

Neither Watts nor White is complaining. Two of the Valley area’s best athletes, they have established national reputations and enjoy the benefits of their fame. They command center stage when they perform and neither lacks for company. Watts has been besieged by autograph seekers after meets, and White receives fan mail and requests for autographed pictures.

White, a 6-0, 190-pound junior, has rushed for 4,609 yards in two seasons and became the first underclassman to be named to USA Today’s high school All-American team. He led Crespi to the Southern Section Big Five Conference title as a sophomore and to the semifinal round last fall. In White’s two seasons, Crespi is 23-3-1.

Watts, a 6-3, 197-pound senior, was state champion in the 100- and 200-meter dashes as a junior and is the top-ranked high school sprinter by Track and Field News. His best times of 10.30 in the 100 and 20.50 in the 200--the fastest high school times in the nation--qualified him for this year’s Olympic trials.

For these two 17-year-olds, sports stardom has few drawbacks. Nevertheless, no longer are track and football mere extracurricular activities. Sometimes, their avocations feel more like vocations.

The pressure of having to excel explains, in part, why each athlete made the surprising decision to play basketball this season. Although they seek fame and glory in their chosen sport, this winter these boys just want to have fun.

“I think Russell has liked being out of the limelight and is more like a regular student-athlete now,” Crespi basketball Coach Paul Muff said. “He seems to be really enjoying himself.”

Taft coaches say the same about Watts. “It’s good for him to not always be the star,” track Coach Tom Stevenson said. “There’s a lot of untold pressure. It’s nice for him to be in a situation that he can do his best and, win or lose, the burden won’t all come down on his shoulders.”

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The motivation may be similar for Watts and White, but when it comes to basketball they are on different planes.

For White, basketball is his third sport. He is also a sprinter on the track team and specializes in the triple jump. His 49-7 jump placed him second in the state last season.

White played no organized basketball until this season when he surprised the Crespi coaching staff by going out for the team. He has played on the junior varsity and concludes his season in tonight’s 6 p.m. game at St. John Bosco.

The Crespi JV is 10-10, 5-6 in Del Rey League play and White has averaged 9.3 points in nine games, with a season high of 22. Although raw, White has shown some ability. But numbers and talent are only part of the picture. Coaches marvel at his ability to mesh with teammates and his quick acceptance of his status as just another player on the team.

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“I was a little apprehensive when I heard he was coming out for the team,” JV coach Jorge Hernandez said. “We’ve got freshmen and sophomores on the team and I didn’t know if he’d mesh. But Russell is a unique young man. He’s been a joy because he’s put his ego aside and been a great leader to the team.”

Hernandez realized his fears were unfounded after White’s first game. White joined the team after the end of football season and had practiced just once so, for his first game, White found himself anchored to the bench.

“Russell didn’t play and he accepted the reason,” Hernandez said. “But he was up cheering for the other kids. We won and when we went home on the bus, Russell had everyone cheering.”

When White joined the team, many of his teammates greeted him with awe. His enthusiasm and hard work brought down the barriers.

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“I was a little nervous around him at first,” said Brandon Bryce, a 14-year-old freshman. “He was such a big All-American, I didn’t know how to act. But he works just as hard as everybody else in practice. He just wants to participate any way he can.”

White also has impressed his teammates with dunks. He is the only Crespi JV player who can play above the rim, and his trademark has become the midcourt steal leading to a left-handed jam.

White does everything on the court left-handed. He is just learning to dribble with his off hand and could not make a right-handed layup at the start of the season. Still, Muff has little doubt White could become one of the Valley’s best basketball players--if he put in the time.

“He’s a great athlete and has a smoothness for the game. He needs to work on his shot but has great form. His defensive skills aren’t the greatest but he has a nose for the ball,” Muff said.

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Perhaps White could have helped the Crespi varsity, which is 13-11 and struggling for the league’s final playoff spot. Muff nearly succumbed to the temptation.

“I’d look at him in the JV games and see he was such a talent and say to myself, ‘God, he could be helping us.’ But I think it’s been better for him to play a season on the JV and learn our system. Besides, he’s enjoyed it,” he said.

White does not object to his JV status. Besides having fun, he also has benefited from the experience, he said.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, Russell’s on the JV, not the varsity,’ but it doesn’t bother me to play on the JVs,” he said. “Besides, you learn from people around you. Some of the freshman were better than me. But I didn’t let that get in my way. I do have some potential.”

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Despite all the fun and games, White did not leave his competitive drive on the football field. Sitting on the bench was good for one game, but he wanted to crack the lineup as soon as possible.

Muff sought an agreement from White to play next season and the player needed no arm twisting. White said football recruiting pressures must take a back seat to basketball.

“I love to play and I intend to make the varsity,” he said. “I set a goal this year to start and to score in double figures, which I did. I accomplished something. I’m sure we can work around the recruiting thing.”

If it wasn’t for his track talents, Watts might be a prized basketball recruit. It was not until his sophomore season that Watts exchanged basketball for track as his priority.

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Watts entered Taft having competed in only two track meets. He started on the junior varsity basketball team and set a school scoring record, averaging 20.6 points, and was elevated to the varsity for the playoffs.

As a sophomore, he was Taft’s starting center, averaging 15 points and 8 rebounds, and was a second-team All-Valley League selection. Track still ran second to basketball until Watts ran second to none in the 200-meter dash that season in the state meet. He also ran second in the 100, anchored the 400 relay team to a second-place finish, leading Taft to the state championship, the first for a Valley boys’ team.

Watts’ interest in basketball began to fade, but it was not until he suffered a stress fracture in his left foot at the start of his junior season that he quit.

Taft basketball Coach Jim Woodard was the most surprised--and delighted--man on campus when Watts told him in October that he again wanted to play basketball. But first Watts had to convince his father.

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“All of a sudden he wanted to play basketball,” Rufus Watts said. “I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ His goal was to make the Olympic team and I thought he needed to spend the off-season conditioning.”

But Rufus discovered his son had solid debate skills, too.

“He made a very good case for himself. I was disappointed, but what could I say? This is something he really wanted to do. He isn’t living his life to please me. He has to please himself,” he said.

That quality is not lost on his teammates. Watts was welcomed back to the starting lineup, moved to off-guard, and is averaging 19.8 points a game. Taft (14-6, 6-5 in league play) has clinched a playoff berth in the City Section 4-A playoffs.

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“He’s his own person and makes his own decisions. I admire him for that,” junior guard Dedan Thomas said.

Admiration aside, Watts had other motives. He reasoned he owed it to himself to have some fun.

“There’s no stress on me like the other guys,” he said. “They’ve got to worry about which college will offer them a scholarship. Dedan and some of the other guys are gym rats. They stay after practice and work on their game and I can go home.”

But basketball means more than pure pleasure to Watts. Woodard insists Watts is the team’s best player in important games, pointing to superior performances in the playoffs two seasons ago. Still, even his decision to play basketball was influenced by track.

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“After last summer I was burned out on track. I knew I wouldn’t compete that well if I didn’t have that feeling that I missed it. Now, I’m starting to get it back,” he said.

Which is why Stevenson endorsed Watts’ decision to play basketball. “We were all trying to look at his decision through logical adult eyes. He still wants to have a good time, be around his friends and enjoy all aspects of school,” he said.

Watts and White occasionally cross paths at sporting events. Their exploits are never the topic of discussion.

“We pretty much know what each other has done, so we talk about other things,” Watts said. “We just shoot the breeze.”

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When White and Watts meet during track season and the conversation turns to basketball, they will both be smiling.

Said White: “Playing basketball takes the pressure off and I can relax. When the games are over, I can go party. But I still want to win. This puts the tiger back in my eye.”

Said Watts: “I’ll have my whole college career to run track. These are my high school days, my days to remember.”


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