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South Gate’s Billingslea Takes Long Way Home : Basketball: After attending Fresno State, Harbor College and Northern Arizona, he ends up at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took nearly fours and a like number of colleges, but senior Keith Billingslea, the much-traveled shooting star from South Gate High, may have found a home in his own back yard.

Billingslea, the 1986 Times Southeast prep basketball player of the year, becomes eligible to play at Cal State Dominguez Hills on Friday. The Toros opened the season with three consecutive losses, and although the team has shown signs of shaking out of its doldrums, the addition of Billingslea will provide Coach Dave Yanai with the option of starting three Division I transfers.

“He’ll see a lot of playing time,” Yanai said. “I don’t want to rush him, but if we’re going to get him ready for the conference season (in January) he will be seeing a lot of playing time quickly.”

How he came to play at Dominguez Hills, a Division II school, is a saga that even the athlete wishes he could rewrite. During his wayward journey through collegiate basketball, he started at two Division I colleges and starred for a season at a local community college.

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“I know I’m worse off because the reputation (of being a quitter) follows you wherever you go,” he said. “People are always going to say, ‘When will he leave next?’ But if people get to know me they will see a different type of person.”

At South Gate Billingslea, a 6-foot-1 off-guard, averaged 30.1 points a game. He was so heavily recruited that, at times, he wouldn’t answer the telephone in his house.

“I was tired of being recruited,” he said. “I thought that if I signed early I would be left alone.”

Wake Forest was his first choice, but for some reason that even Billingslea can’t explain, he signed during the early signing period of his senior year with Fresno State.

“With Fresno State, I wish I could change things, but I can’t. . . . I felt it was the best program at the time,” he said. “If I had waited, passed up on the early signing period, I think I would have had more options.”

Billingslea started a handful of games for the Bulldogs and was voted to the 1987 Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. all-freshman team. But he felt uncomfortable playing point guard, where he had been shifted.

At the start of his sophomore year, he was told he was being shifted to small forward.

“I think I was counted out as a sophomore,” he said. “They had signed four more guards. In practice I was behind three forwards, two of them were 6 feet 6.”

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In mid-December, after completing his third semester of classes, a disillusioned Billingslea left Fresno State, determined to return to college, but not sure of his playing future.

“At the time I was so confused I didn’t want to rush anything,” he said.

He enrolled at Harbor College in the fall of 1988. His goal was to earn another chance at a Division I scholarship, but to be eligible under new NCAA guidelines, he had to first earn an associates of arts degree.

On the basketball court he helped Harbor advance to the state playoffs, averaging 18.8 points a game. But despite being voted first team All-Southern California Athletic Conference honors and gaining the required academic degree, few four-year schools came knocking.

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“I talked to several of them early in the year, but then (it got out that I was a quitter),” he said.

Northern Arizona Coach Pat Rafferty stayed in touch with Billingslea and, with a lack of offers on the table, Billingslea signed a letter of intent to play the 1989-90 season.

But once in Arizona, he quickly discovered that the campus at Flagstaff wasn’t to his liking. Among other things, he realized that “I’m not a cold weather person.” An honors student in high school, he also felt that Rafferty had misled him about educational opportunities at the university.

“At Northern Arizona, when I got there, all the courses I wanted were full,” Billingslea said. “I had to add on classes. . . . We studied (in a noisy building). I asked the coach to get the team another place to study and (he didn’t seem to care).”

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Still, Billingslea started 12 of his first 13 games and led the team in scoring (13.5 points) and rebounding (4.7).

Amid a player uprising in January, Rafferty was fired. Three players, including Billingslea, quit the team.

“At that point, I didn’t want to play basketball any more,” he said.

But former Santa Monica Crossroads High Coach Dave Benezra, who was a part-time assistant at Northern Arizona, recommended that Billingslea contact Dominguez Hills. Billingslea called Yanai and enrolled in classes in late January. Because of NCAA regulations, he does not become eligible until he completes two semesters at the school. He’ll miss the Toros’ first seven games.

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“It gets to me sometimes, just watching,” he said of the start of the season which saw the Toros drop games to Grand Canyon, Biola and Northwestern Iowa. “I see things--passes--that I know I can do, that don’t get done, but in the back of my mind I know my time will come.”

According to Yanai, Billingslea is expected to provide leadership as well as add a proven player to the lineup.

“He is a very solid guy who adds a great deal of maturity to the team,” Yanai said. “He has a settling affect on the other players.”

Playing out his career only minutes from his South Los Angeles home, Billingslea acknowledged that it has been difficult to justify to others why he took the route he did.

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“If you talk to any coach, they will tell you that I am very likable and very coachable,” he said. “Those were just situations that weren’t very comfortable to me.”

But he appears to be comfortable at Dominguez Hills.

“This has been a very positive experience so far,” he said. “I love the people here. I love the school and its educational opportunities. The coaching staff is very good and Yanai is the best teacher around.”

Billingslea said he has learned from his past experiences.

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“I can inform other people (about making decisions about college),” he said. “If I was to write out a list of things I would tell them, it would be a long one.”

Ironically, the long trip that eventually brought him back home has ended at Dominguez Hills, a place that he said he had been looking for all along.


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