Play to Win! : Compton High Basketball Coach Goads Team With Tough Talk

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Compton High School was losing a basketball game, something it had never done when Louie Nelson played. Now, 20 years later as the Tarbabes coach, Nelson walked into a locker room, bounced his clipboard off the concrete floor and screamed: “Everybody’s playing scared, you don’t want it bad enough.”

“You’re 6-5, you got one damn rebound,” he raged at junior Calvin Curry. “Let me tell you why you don’t play, Calvin. You don’t put out.”

That was at half-time of Compton’s Moore League opener Friday night at Long Beach Wilson High. The day before, in the green-walled classroom where he teaches algebra, Nelson had said, “I don’t like to lose. I was trained not to lose in basketball, I’m not used to it.”


Long before losing began to persist at Compton, Nelson starred on the school’s 1967-68 and ’68-'69 undefeated state championship teams. In his first year as coach, he has revived the Tarbabes, who were 4-16 overall a year ago but are 11-4 this season.

Emotional During Game

“I’m emotional, they’re laid back,” said Nelson, 36, who was a wreck in the 65-56 loss to Wilson. His shirttail was out. He rarely sat. He pleaded with the referees and berated them for calling a multitude of fouls on his aggressive players. He abruptly benched forward Ron Williams, telling him, “Don’t you ever talk back to me again, you understand me?”

Away from the charged atmosphere of his sport, Nelson’s beard frames a smile and he gives no hint, while helping students master equations, that he is capable of blasting anyone.

“Sometimes I do things without thinking,” he said. “My personality fluctuates. There’s only two ways I can be, real nice or real mean. If we’re not winning, I’m mean.”

Nelson’s top priority has been to instill discipline in his players.

“I have to keep adding rules because they’re used to doing things on their own,” he said. “It’s different in the inner city. Most of them don’t have a father image, they don’t know what to expect from a black adult male. They’re not used to taking orders, so they have a tendency to mouth back a little.”

One of Nelson’s rules is that if a player does not come to school or class on the day of a game, he does not play that night.

“I didn’t realize the job it is getting them to go to class,” he said. “They come to school, come to practice, but they won’t go to class. I tell them to go to class, but I can’t walk them to class because I’m teaching.”

Team Catching On

Faced with Nelson’s tough-guy approach, the Tarbabes have begun to catch on to what he is telling them.

“All of us respect him,” said point guard Alonzo Lemmons. “He’s always thinking positively. He only yells for us to do better. I’d rather have him yell at me than make a mistake over again.”

Nelson, who lives in Montclair, hopes he will be a positive role model for his players but worries about their outlook on life.

“The expectations are not the same,” he said. “When I was coming along, if you were a black man, you needed to prove yourself. Now, expectations are low. They don’t really feel good about themselves. I think most of these kids don’t know whether they want to be successful. They live day to day and I thought about long-range goals. I wanted to be comfortable in life, have a good job, be able to afford nice things.”

After graduating from Compton High, Nelson played at the University of Washington and then spent the mid-'70s in the National Basketball Assn. as a 6-foot-3 guard with Washington, New Orleans, Kansas City, San Antonio and New Jersey. At New Orleans he was the back-court partner of Pete Maravich and averaged 12 points a game.

“They didn’t know of me,” he said, recalling his introduction to the Compton players. “To the kids I’m old. The principal had told them I played, but you don’t really know until you get on the court, so a couple of times I had to get out there and show them I could still do the job.”

After his playing career, Nelson decided, because of an affinity for math and a desire to have summers off, to become a teacher. He earned a teaching credential at Cal State Los Angeles in 1981 and was an assistant basketball coach there for five years.

Weak in Fundamentals

When he took the Compton job last June, he discovered a team that had talent but was weak in fundamentals and had little knowledge of winning.

“I was programmed to win, these kids were programmed to accept losing,” Nelson said. “As long as they played hard and almost won, that was good. They don’t realize the sacrifices it takes to win. To go home from practice, eat and go to bed so they can be at practice at 8 in the morning. They might go home, then hang out, or watch videos till 2 in the morning and miss practice. When I played we thought it was a cardinal sin to be late.”

Compton’s leading scorer is senior forward Terrance Adams, who is averaging 17 points a game. But Adams, who called a timeout late in the Wilson game when Nelson did not want one, has not won his coach’s respect.

“He’s used to doing it his way,” Nelson said. “He’s really talented, but he uses his skills only to score or block a shot. He plays toward a crowd. I don’t think he’ll learn this year.”

Friday night was a hard lesson for all the Tarbabes, who had made a comeback in the fourth quarter before letting Wilson pull away. They picked up their blue gym bags and walked gloomily back to the locker room.

“Some of you guys don’t know how to win,” Nelson told them without screaming. “ Almost don’t get it, fellas. We lost ‘cause you guys won’t play together. Practice tomorrow at 9 o’clock, be on time.”

The shouts of the Wilson players celebrating in an adjoining locker room could be heard.

“Go to the bus, just be quiet,” Nelson said.

There was nothing else to say.