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A NEW FACE TO SET THE PACE : Paez to Bring a Softer Approach to Cleveland Basketball Program, but Team’s Renowned Fast Break Should Remain Its Signature

Times Staff Writer

It has long been scrawled in red letters across team T-shirts, emblazoned on players’ sweat tops and posted on the wall of the Cleveland High gym. It is incitement to excite, this team motto, the basketball equivalent of “Born to Run.”

“Our Mission is Transition,” the motto reads.

The sequence takes place in the blink of an eye: Cleveland picks the opposition clean with one of its seven different defensive traps or zones, and the break begins. In a matter of seconds--the time it takes to whisk a pass and toss in a layup--chalk up another two points. Typically, it happens during a game about 128 times more often than the opponent would like.

This summer, however, the slogan has taken on a new context. There is a new coach at Cleveland, the Valley area’s most successful team of the 1980s. And, as it is with the infusion of new blood into any successful program, some have wondered about the possible changes, whether things will be status quo or status no, fast break or fast brake.

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Marc Paez, 29, has been hired to replace Bob Braswell, who on July 1 became an assistant at Cal State Long Beach. In four seasons at Cleveland, Braswell, 27, compiled a record of 75-19, twice led the team to the City Section 4-A Division final and established one of the most highly regarded programs in the state.

“It’s definitely transition,” senior guard Eddie Hill said. “A big transition.”

For the second day in a row, the Cavaliers were playing badly, and everyone associated with the team knew it. After a loss to Hawthorne in the opening round of pool play in the Slam-N-Jam summer tournament Wednesday, Cleveland was losing to San Diego Vista a day later.

Paez, sitting in the coach’s hot seat for only the second time, worked over a piece of gum, shook his head and mumbled to his assistant coaches. Midway through the first 16-minute half, Paez finally called a timeout. Players took a deep breath and awaited the verbal assault, to be chewed out, chewed on.

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Breathe easy, fellas.

Paez, the junior varsity coach at St. Bernard High in Playa del Rey for the past seven seasons, never raised his voice in the huddle. In fact, he was barely audible to the players standing at the back of the semicircle. This marks a definite change from Braswell, the master blaster of referees, the whiz kid who refined the science of the mega-decibel sideline foot stomp.

Sure, it’s only a summer game and the stakes aren’t high, but the contrast was more than a little noticeable.

“He doesn’t yell like Braswell did, but I guess I’ll get used to that,” senior forward Brandon Battle said. “He talks to us more. Braz could kind of hurt our confidence a little at times. He’d yell, and people would get scared of him. Instead of playing the game, you’d be worried about what he said. When I first came here, I was kind of intimidated by Braz.”

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So in the transition from Braz to Paez--granted, it has been only a week--major difference No. 1 seems to center on a decrease in flying objects. During halftime or postgame talks, Braswell would sequester the team in the Cleveland weight room. A tip-off for outsiders on how smoothly things were going was the amount of time that passed before players were allowed to leave. A tip-off for those inside was whether Braswell’s timepiece passed by your head.

“He’d get pretty emotional sometimes,” Bort Escoto said with a laugh. Escoto, an assistant and junior varsity coach for Braswell, will remain in the same capacity under Paez. “He’d take his glasses off and throw them down or take his watch off and throw it across the room. Sometimes, he’d unload a clipboard. I don’t think anything was ever broken, though.”

Except an occasional eardrum.

“Bobby had a thing about execution and perfection, all the way to the end of the game,” said varsity assistant Larry White, who also will remain at Cleveland. “Even if you slacked off for 10 seconds, he hated it. He expected 100% all the time, and when he didn’t get it, look out.”

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Paez concedes that he sometimes blows a gasket, but only privately. Yet Braswell and Paez do share a fondness for clipboard shrapnel, it seems.

“I’ll do more yelling behind the scenes,” Paez said, smiling. “I tend to pick and choose my spots. I break a lot of clipboards, the marker-board kind you can write on. So I buy them by the dozen because I anticipate breaking them.”

For Braswell, the iron hand he sometimes employed helped to mold dozens of multidimensional players. When Hill first transferred from Burroughs High in 1988, he popped off as often as he popped from three-point range.

“I’m sure others will tell you ‘He was all over me,’ but he was on me more than anybody else,” Hill said. “I might have come in as a spoiled little kid. But I’ve matured a lot. Coach Braswell was like a second father to me.”

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As important as Braswell’s basketball successes were his contributions off the floor, where he was big brother to many players, someone who kept players firmly on the path toward college.

In the past two seasons, seven Cleveland players have signed to play at Division I schools, and several others have earned academic scholarships. Braswell, a 1980 graduate of Cleveland, was mentor and mother, coach and compadre.

Still, Braswell’s emotional outburst were as well-known as his benevolence. Paez, who graduated from St. Bernard in 1977 and attended UCLA, says he will establish a program of a kinder, gentler nature.

“Two people can have the exact same ideas and goals and both be perfectionists but can go about it in different ways,” says Paez, who also was dean of students at St. Bernard, a private parochial school of 1,250 students. “One is not better than the other, it’s just different. That’s the nice thing about coaching. Your personality comes into play more than in most jobs.”

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Yet Paez’s approach with players will be paternal, not fraternal.

“He’s always been able to cement the bond between player and coach without breaking down the barrier between adult and student,” St. Bernard Coach Jim McClune said. “He’s always been there for the kids, but he draws the line at a certain point.”

And he draws his experience from a variety of sources. In addition to coaching at the high school level, Paez has coached for the past two seasons in the Southern California Summer Pro League at Loyola Marymount. His first season in the league, he coached a team of free agents. But last summer, while serving as league general manager, Paez coached a team of professionals.

Obviously, Paez can drop a few names and raise a few eyebrows of Cleveland players when he’s in the mood. His team last year included National Basketball Assn. players such as Ron Harper, Spud Webb, Karl Malone and Charles Oakley. The developmental league was at least as much a growth experience for Paez as it was for the professionals, though.

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“You learn how to deal with personalities,” Paez said. “From the standpoint of that, it was a big help for me, dealing with those guys. The Xs and O’s, you draw up the play and they go out and execute it, and it’s that simple. But dealing with a grown man is much different that dealing with a high school kid. You have to treat them accordingly, and there is a big difference.”

Paez says he anticipates few problems in dealing with his new team.

“The area we draw from (at Bernard) goes all the way from Inglewood to Westchester and out into Carson,” he said. “I don’t think the kids will be that different at all, especially style-wise.”

And if they are, beware. As dean of students, Paez often was called to mete out discipline at St. Bernard.

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“You end up doing as much counseling in that position as you would as a real counselor,” Paez said. “I’ve always been close to the kids, but you still have to maintain that gap, and I think the kids look for that.”

But can Cleveland fans look for the same level of success under Paez? Early indications appear positive.

The program, it seems, will continue to flourish, just as it did in 1985 when Braswell moved up from junior varsity coach to take over for Greg Herrick, who now coaches at Hart High. Players long have been attracted to the Cleveland program, and transfers have been its lifeblood. Cleveland is a magnet school--students may transfer from one attendance area to another to take advantage of certain curricula that are not offered at their home school--and has reaped the benefits.

Among the players participating in the magnet program is Andre Chevalier, a senior guard who lives in North Hollywood but is enrolled in Cleveland’s honors English and history program. Chevalier, a team captain, is a three-year letterman and a probable starter next season at point guard. Returning starter Bobby McRae, a forward who lives in the Grant High attendance area, also participates in the magnet program.

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Hill, a likely starter at off-guard, moved from Burbank to the Cleveland attendance area in Reseda last summer.

“I transferred here for a lot of reasons,” Hill said. “I came because of the whole atmosphere, the whole picture at the school. Good people come out of Cleveland, not just good basketball players.”

Battle, who moved to Reseda and transferred to Cleveland from Canoga Park High after completing his sophomore year, probably will start at forward.

“A lot of people wanted to play for Cleveland--and a lot wanted to play for Braz,” said Battle, a 6-foot-6 senior. “I just knew that Cleveland was a good program and that I wanted to play at a good program.”

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And even though Braswell is gone, the players keep coming.

Taft High point guard Kenny Collins was junior varsity player of the year in the Northwest Valley Conference last season. He checked out of Taft and into Cleveland on the final day of school last month--Collins said that he and his father have moved from San Fernando to Reseda--even though he had heard that Braswell would be moving on.

“There’s more intensity in (Cleveland’s) game,” said Collins, a 6-foot junior. “Taft--they’re good, I enjoyed it and I got to play more over there--but it is better for me over here for the exposure. I had a feeling that a good guy would come in after Braswell left.”

Another guard, Joe Eddings, transferred to Cleveland from Van Nuys High in the spring. The continual migration prompted one coach to predict that there won’t soon be a talent decline at Cleveland. If ever.

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“They’ve got a Valley all-star team over there right now,” said Jim Woodard, coach at league-rival Taft. “They’ll be good for the next two to three years just with what they have right now.”

And Paez says that for now, no team overhaul is in the offing. He promises that he will not grind down the transition transmission.

“The break that Cleveland runs is very similar to the break we run at Bernard’s,” he said. “The basics of what Bob and Herrick put in are very similar. I like to run too.”

Chevalier says that new coach or not, he is confident that Cleveland again will have something to shout about next fall. Call it a quiet certainty.

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“Once (Paez) learns the system, the plays and traps and defenses, we’ll be a real good team next year,” Chevalier said. “We might lose something because we won’t have Braswell out there to yell at us, but we’ll be OK.”


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