Cleveland High basketball Coach Kevin Crider pushed the baseball cap back off his forehead as he listened to the plaintive voice of one of his players who was explaining why a grade he received in another class deserved to be changed.
Crider, perched atop a classroom desk, nodded his head and rolled his eyes. Seems he'd heard this story before. About a hundred times.
"Just take care of it and get back to me," said Crider, Cleveland's first-year coach.
Five minutes later, the school's athletic director walked in and asked about the academic eligibility of another player, a projected starter.
"Got it covered," Crider said.
Cleveland's second-to-last preseason scrimmage was just a few hours away, yet it seemed the details were like shoestrings in a pair of high-tech high-tops: a million holes to fill and some loose ends always need to be tied up.
A day later, Crider's best player, swingman Brandon Martin, was involved in an automobile crash. Martin was not seriously injured, but he missed an important scrimmage against Manual Arts.
No big deal, except that point guard Kenny Collins had been slowed with an eye injury and reserve guard Sean Gunter was out indefinitely with a broken leg.
The player about whom the athletic director was inquiring? Shawn Bankhead, a 6-foot-6 sophomore center and the tallest player in the Northwest Valley Conference.
"Distractions are part of the job," Crider said with a shrug.
Crider, 39, has been coaching in the L. A. Unified School District off and on for 14 years, the past seven at Los Angeles High. Think things are tough at Cleveland just because a couple of players are hurt and a few academic noses are out of joint?
Ask Crider about the time former Cleveland Coach Bob Braswell dropped by the rough-and-tumble campus of L. A. High. Crider long ago developed a taste for this kind of thing.
"He took a look around and saw the flavor of the place and said, 'Kevin, this is crazy, why do you put up with this?' " recalled Crider, who coached the Romans into the City Section 3-A Division final in 1989. "I said, 'Because I come from the neighborhood.
"No matter what happens, I'm gonna work. It's a job."
Even at Cleveland, tucked in the relative safety of the San Fernando Valley, it is not just a job, it's an adventure. As the Cavaliers' fourth coach since June, 1989, Crider might need a compass. His is a program in search of direction.
It is mid-September and Cleveland football Coach Steve Landress is putting his troops through pre-practice calisthenics when he spots Crider near the edge of the football field.
Crider's squad is out on maneuvers too. En masse, the basketball team is running laps. Crider stands at one end of the track with a clipboard and pencil in hand as players circle by, yelling out their uniform numbers. Crider places a check mark on the clipboard each time a player limps by and breathlessly grunts out a numeral.
Thirty minutes later, Landress notices that the basketball team is still running, making an endlessly long left turn around the track.
"I think Crider wants to be the new track coach," Landress cracked.
Actually, Crider's players could probably hold their own as a cross-country team. Crider claims his teams ran six miles every day at L. A. High.
"We had everybody run the mile last week," he said of his Cleveland team. "Everybody made it in under six minutes. I've never had a team where everybody made it in six minutes."
They might need to develop their lung capacity, because fewer blowouts seem likely for Cleveland this season. The Cavalier bench, once loaded two and three deep at some positions, is thinner than in seasons past. Preseason injuries have not helped.
Last season, Cleveland finished 21-6 under first-year Coach Marc Paez and advanced to the City Section 4-A Division semifinals before falling to Crenshaw in overtime at the Sports Arena. Two starters from the 1989-90 team signed letters of intent during last year's early signing period.
This fall, for the first time in years, no Cleveland players signed early, although Crider regards Collins and forward Kayheed Murray as seniors with Division I potential.
"I believe we should be in the, well, to be safe, I'll say the top 10," Crider said, referring to the City rankings. "If we improve and come together like I think we can, maybe the top five."
Cleveland, in fact, might have trouble defending its North Valley League title. The Cavaliers have lost just one league game in two seasons and have won both North Valley titles since conference play was instituted. But the Cavaliers face serious opposition from Taft and Granada Hills this season.
"We don't have the monsters we've had in the past," said assistant Bort Escoto, who coached under Braswell and Paez.
Last Tuesday, playing without Martin, Cleveland was hammered by Manual Arts, 110-68.
"We have a long way to go," Collins said. "We haven't been together that long."
That places Crider in an unenviable position, for at Cleveland, feedback can be swift and overwhelming. Paez quit after one season--a successful one at that--after citing among other things, interference from outside influences (read: parents, fans and boosters).
Discontentment was a two-way street. One impact player, senior forward Pat McCook, tried to transfer at midseason. Paez's cause wasn't exactly advanced when the team stumbled to a 1-3 start.
A degree of parental concern was understandable. Paez was taking over for the hugely popular Braswell, who in four seasons as coach, twice took the Cavaliers to the 4-A final. Ten Cleveland players signed with Division I schools under Braswell, now an assistant at Cal State Long Beach. Paez has since transferred to Banning.
When Paez issued his resignation last spring, Escoto, a longtime Braswell assistant and a player favorite, was hired as a walk-on coach. Escoto coached the Cavaliers through summer-league play and promised a return to the swashbuckling style that was the hallmark of Braswell's teams and the Greg Herrick era that preceded them: fast-break swordplay, a jab-and-parry defense and a dizzying charge of reserves off the bench.
Yet over the summer, Cleveland was designated a minority school by the district and the faculty was shuffled, creating a position for an on-campus coach in the physical education department. Crider was hired a few days before school started. Bye-bye Bort.
"First we had Paez, and nobody thought he'd leave after one year," said Martin, testiness showing in his voice. "Then Escoto got the job and everybody was fired up. Then, two weeks before school started, we get this new guy. Now we've got to deal with Crider."
Escoto remained as the junior-varsity coach.
"The district wants credentialed, certified teachers who are on campus," Crider said. "That is no knock on Bort, or to say he is unqualified, but that's just the way it is."
Among other things, Crider teaches two P.E. classes in modern jazz dance, but he promised Cleveland's traditional break dance would not change with his leadership. Just run, baby.
"I like to run," said Crider, whose teams compiled a winning record in six of his past seven seasons at L.A. High. "I like to let the kids play."
For a few days, it looked like one of his most talented players would do his running elsewhere. Martin, perhaps the best player in the region, considered transferring to Carson High two weeks ago but has since changed his mind. Martin, a 6-foot-4 starter last season as a sophomore, said he was so concerned over the direction of the program that he almost changed his own and veered south.
"Nobody knew where things were going," Martin said.
Indeed, the coaching staff has had a turnover rate that could make the Italian government look stable. Cleveland High, Valley home of the fast break, had become home of the clean break. Ciao, guys.
"This is the third system in three years that they've had to learn," Crider said. "It takes time. Coaching is a complete system. Your team takes on your personality, your philosophy of what a program should be."
Players must be spending a lot of time looking in the mirror, because if they are a reflection of their coach, they remain unsure of who he is. What's with this guy's guise?
"He's the most interesting coach I've ever had," Martin said. "Braz was a disciplinarian, a normal kind of guy. Paez was like Pat Riley, a real cool type. This guy's a different person."
He is, perhaps, a person bent on making a difference. Since his arrival in September, Crider has been trying to make up lost ground. He has signed agreements to play in tournaments next fall in Hawaii and Florida after similar agreements ironed out under Paez fell through after his resignation, Crider said.
"I think everybody understands that things will get better next year," Crider said. "That's kind of tough on the seniors, though."
And this season? There might be some rough edges.
"He told us at practice last Wednesday that this is the hardest offense we will ever have to learn," Collins said. "He said it might take us a year."
Collins said a singular thought flashed through his mind: "I don't have a year."
As part of Crider's rebuilding process, Cleveland also will compete in off-season leagues, although Crider is uncertain to what extent.
"We won't be out there every day," Crider said. "But we'll get our work in. They'll never be completely rid of me."
For coaches wishing to bid good riddance to the Cleveland program, hold your tongue. Despite the many coaching changeovers, the Cavs remain the haves: Crider said that 90 students tried out for the B and C teams alone this fall.
Crider seemingly possesses the credentials to keep the program headed in the right direction.
"Some guys think they know all the answers and they don't know much of anything," said Glendale College Coach Brian Beauchemin, who hired Crider as an assistant 8 1/2 years ago. "He always paid attention to what was going on around him. I'm sure he'll do fine at Cleveland."
Before coaching for 1 1/2 seasons at Glendale, Crider coached as an assistant at Harbor and L.A. City colleges. Before joining the college ranks, he coached for seven seasons in a variety of capacities at L.A. High, his alma mater.
He has brought some change to the Cleveland program, however. Martin said that under Braswell and Escoto, Cleveland used an array of traps and zones on defense.
"We had about 10 of them (traps and zones) and they were all effective," Martin said. "We have about two or three right now, and they are not effective. At least not yet."
It's a safe bet that Valley-area guards will heave a collective sigh. And if anyone at Cleveland--parent, player or otherwise--protests?
"When it comes to criticism," Crider said, "they'll find they might as well shoot spit wads at a battleship."
It would seem that Crider likes taking on heavy armament, namely, automobiles. Many mornings, he rides a bicycle 27 miles from his Los Angeles home to the Reseda campus. He is up before 6 a.m. When he heads home, it is well after dark.
"I don't mind riding at night," he said. "The problem is sunrise and twilight. When you're coming out here in the morning, the sun is coming up over here (in the east), and a car heading toward you that's turning left can't see you. Same story when I go home at night.
"That's when it gets dangerous."
He apparently would like his players to share some of the thrill. Collins said Crider recently planned to have the entire team ride bikes into Los Angeles, then run 10 miles. But the plan had its flaws.
"Some guys didn't have bikes," Collins said. "And then he figured out that the guys who lived in the Valley might have to ride back too. It wasn't real organized."
Guess there are only so many loose ends a guy can bring together in three months.