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The Key to Perry’s Future Was Locking Up the Past

Times Staff Writer

Locked away in a file cabinet somewhere are 2 years of Chana Perry’s life, penned by her own hand, splashed with her own tears.

Forty or 50 pages long, by her recollection, it is a diary that tells the story of one of the most sordid recruiting scandals in the history of women’s college basketball.

The assignment was intended, in part, as therapy, a way to help reconcile the conflicts that twisted her final years as a teen-ager. It took Perry nearly 3 months to complete, yet she has not seen it since the day 2 1/2 years ago that she turned it over to Earnest Riggins, the San Diego State coach, who said he read it, had it filed and never intended that it be opened again.

“After that, I told her it was over,” Riggins said. “I told her I wanted no discussion of the past unless she wanted to talk about it.”

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If only locking away the memories were as easy as filing away those papers.

Perry has left her hometown of Brookhaven, Miss., for a new life in Southern California with her father and his second wife. She has transferred from Northeast Louisiana University to finish her college basketball career at San Diego State.

She has shown that the troubled years have not diminished her skills, coming within one player of making the 1988 gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team. She has broken off relations with her mother and others who she believes served her poorly during that earlier period.

She has changed her life in many ways, but she knows that her past always will shape her future. Few can go through what Perry did and not be changed.

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“When I look back on it all, I had to grow up fast,” Perry said. “I never understood what I had done to deserve all of this. All I ever wanted to do was to play basketball and have fun.”

Finally, she is getting the chance.

Perry, a 6-foot 4-inch senior center, is the leader of a 14-0 Aztec team that is ranked 12th in the country and plays at No. 10 Cal State Long Beach at 7:30 tonight for sole possession of first place in the Big West Conference.

Perry is third in the country in scoring at 28.7 points a game, fourth in rebounding at 14.1, and is coming off a career-high 45-point performance in a 94-80 victory over Fresno State Saturday night.

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That victory raised San Diego State’s Big West record to 5-0 and set up tonight’s showdown against the 49ers (10-4 and 4-0).

“Chana has assumed the role of a dominant player,” Riggins said. “She is in the role that all All-Americans should be in: She is taking her team to a season such as the one we are having, one that perhaps will take us to the Big West Conference championship and a place in the postseason (National Collegiate Athletic Assn.) tournament.”

One that might begin to wash away some of Perry’s hurt.

Hers is a story of all that can go wrong in college athletics. One that has been called by Michael Gilleran, a former NCAA investigator who now is commissioner of the West Coast Athletic Conference, the worst case he saw in his years as an enforcement officer.

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In January of 1986, Perry’s case led to a 1-year probation for Northeast Louisiana, the school Perry attended before she was declared ineligible to play for the Lady Indians 10 games into her sophomore season. It was the first NCAA penalty levied against a women’s program in any sport and the only one that ever barred a women’s basketball team from postseason play. The school was found guilty of violations regarding improper transportation, lodging, inducements and contact.

Some close to Perry see what happened as a tragedy and call her a hero. Others see her as a victim and continue to rail against those they say took advantage of her. A few even see her for what she is: a woman, just turned 22, within striking distance of becoming the first from a broken family of 10 to earn a college degree, while enjoying a senior season she could have only dreamed about.

“This is what I’ve always wished for Chana,” said Linda Harper, her coach at Northeast Louisiana. “After all she has gone through, she deserves some good to come into her life.”

Shuttled from parent to parent, reared in an impoverished home, thrust into the middle of a recruiting battle that pitted father against mother, coach against coach and ultimately mother against daughter, Perry’s life turned into a public soap opera.

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The most intimate details of her personal life were exposed in a $500,000 suit brought by her mother, Ruth Antoinette Perry Smith, in August of 1984. Smith sued Northeast Louisiana and an assistant coach, Joy Shamburger, in Lincoln County (Miss.) Chancery Court. The suit charged that during her recruitment, Shamburger began a lesbian relationship with Perry, while she was a minor, and that the school condoned Shamburger’s actions.

Shamburger was fired in May of 1985, at the end of Perry’s freshman season. The suit was settled out of court in April of 1987. Perry’s mother received a cash payment, details of which cannot be disclosed because of the terms of the agreement.

Settling the family differences has proved more difficult.

Perry said that the suit led to an estrangement from her mother that has lasted 3 years. She said she has not returned to Brookhaven, nor seen the three youngest of her seven half-brothers and sisters.

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Of her mother, she said: “I think about her, and I love her because she is my mother. But that doesn’t mean I have to like what she did.

“She said she was doing it to help me, but of the money from the settlement, I didn’t get any of it. I didn’t want the money. I just wanted it to be over. The money was the least of my concerns.

“I remember the day it was first in the newspaper, I wanted to hide somewhere. I had just gotten out of class, walked into my room and my roommate came in and asked me if I had seen the paper. ‘Why are we in the paper? No you are in the paper. I don’t think you want to see this before we go to practice.’

“It was like, ‘Oh my God!’ That’s all I remember saying, ‘Oh my God!’ I went to practice, and I was sure everyone had read the article. They didn’t know what to say to me, what to do. That first day was the hardest.

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“I’m sure people stared at me after that, but I couldn’t hide. I had to get on with my life. I tried to do the best I could. But to be ridiculed and laughed at and embarrassed was something that took a long time to get over, and, at times, it still messes me up.”

Perry said she has done her best to put those times behind her. She has tried to make a new start since she left Northeast Louisiana and announced plans to transfer to San Diego State in April of 1986.

The move has brought her closer to her father, Curtis Perry--no relation to the former pro basketball player of the same name--who lives with his second wife in Los Angeles. Perry had lived on and off with her father since her parents were divorced when she was 6, but this is the first time since Perry’s mother moved her and two sisters back to Mississippi when Perry was 13 that she has come to call Los Angeles home.

Riggins recruited Perry when she was in high school, and he remembers the experience with trepidation.

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“I couldn’t get out of there fast enough,” Riggins recalled. " . . . I knew right then I wasn’t going to recruit her anymore. I wasn’t going to get involved in that stuff.”

But Riggins said he kept in touch with Curtis Perry frequently during his daughter’s troubles at Northeast Louisiana and shared a common background, because both had played high school basketball in Mississippi.

Perry said she wanted to stay at Northeast Louisiana, where she had helped lead the team to the Final Four as a freshman. But when the NCAA forbade her playing there, San Diego State provided a way for Perry to remain close to her father and to quietly regain her footing.

“I didn’t want to go through the hassles of being recruited again,” Perry said. “And I told my dad that if San Diego State is where he wanted me to go, then that is where I would go. I was tired of moving. I figured I came this far, let’s stay.”

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Riggins said he did not hesitate to accept Perry, even though he realized her past could prove controversial.

“Don’t get me wrong, I felt that Chana could do something for us,” Riggins said. “But I always felt we could do something for her. It has been accomplished for both of us.”

But the relationship got off to a rough start. No sooner had she enrolled for the fall semester in 1986 than she got into an argument with Riggins.

Riggins wanted her to sit out her first season to concentrate on her schoolwork before completing her final 2 seasons of basketball eligibility.

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But Perry wanted to play that first year, basketball being what she loved most. It took some convincing by Riggins before Perry agreed.

“After all that had happened to me, it was hard to trust anybody,” Perry said. “People I had thought were my friends were not my friends anymore.

“I just wanted to be Chana, who that was I was not sure. But for the first time, I just wanted to do something that I wanted to do.”

She sat out the year and came back last season to lead the Aztecs to their first winning season in 3 years, 21-10. She shared conference player-of-the-year honors with Penny Toler of Long Beach, ranked 17th in the country in scoring at 23.2 points, and sixth in rebounding at 12.6.

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That earned her an invitation to tryouts for the Olympic team. She finished as the 13th player on a 12-woman roster.

“I was so frustrated,” she said. “It was like, what else could happen to me now,” Perry said. “The Olympics were a dream I had from the time I started playing basketball. At first, I told myself I would never try out again. It was like a big chunk of my life was pulled out, and I didn’t want to go through that again. But the more I thought about, I figured I’d give it one more shot. I’d love to end my career on the 1992 Olympic team.”

And the experience probably helped her as a basketball player, she said.

As a person, it brought her back in touch with some of the players and friends she had left behind. One of those was Tommy Goodson, her coach at Brookhaven High, now an assistant coach at Louisiana State.

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Goodson accepted the job at LSU after Perry’s senior season and tried to to persuade her to sign with LSU.

They had split, bitterly, when Perry decided that Goodson had sided with her mother in their dispute and had been out of contact until Goodson and his wife sent a note to the trials, offering Perry their best wishes. It was the Goodsons’ first attempt to mend the damage with Perry.

Perry responded favorably and letters and telephone calls have followed.

The years have made Goodson reflective. He said he made mistakes and the one who was harmed most was Perry.

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Others have not found it as easy to renew their ties with Perry. She has not seen her mother since she left for California. She has not heard from Shamburger in 3 years, and Charles Domino, her coach with a traveling team in New Orleans during high school summers, has not had been in contact with Perry since her move.

Perry said she believes Domino is among those who acted contrary to her best interests. She said he tried to keep her father from intervening on her behalf. But Domino defends his role in the matter, and wonders if a day will come when all can be forgiven between him and Perry.

“I’d love to talk to her now that she is grown up,” he said. “I’m so glad she has given Tommy a second chance. We’re all entitled to a mistake. I hope that all of this is behind her now. Let it stay in the past.”

That is one wish he and Perry still share.

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