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Starting at the Bottom : ‘Sucker For a Challenge,’ Louie Nelson Took Harbor Revival Job

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Louie Nelson paced the sidelines, yelling, clearly frustrated as he watched one of his basketball players shoot yet another air ball.

Fourteen minutes into the second half, Nelson’s Harbor College women’s team trailed, 78-20, and all the first-year coach could do was rest his cheek on the palm of his hand and swallow his emotions.

One of Nelson’s assistants, Andre Breland, sat at the end of the bench, head down, arms crossed. Occasionally he looked up, only to shake his head in disillusionment.

Nelson didn’t give up, though. He continued calling plays and screaming out the basic fundamentals of a game he played professionally and loves passionately.

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“Stay in the line! Stay in the line! Now get your hands up--you’re playing defense! That’s it. That’s it.”

And in those rare moments when a Harbor player scored or executed the basic zone defense correctly, Nelson clapped enthusiastically.

“I don’t care if we lose by 100; all I ask is that you play hard and play together,” he said. “As you can see, we don’t have the talent that other teams do.”

Harbor lost that game, its seventh loss in a row, to visiting Saddleback College, 95-29.

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In more than 20 years as a coach and player, Nelson had never been whipped so badly. He played for winning programs at Compton High School and the University of Washington, and later in the National Basketball Assn.

That success carried over into his coaching career, which began in 1982 when he was an assistant coach of the men’s team at Cal State Los Angeles. In 1989 he led the Compton High boys to the semifinals of the state playoffs, and last season he helped the Ganesha boys reach the playoffs.

Losing was a foreign concept for Nelson until he took over the Harbor women’s program in mid-September as a favor to an old friend, Harbor men’s basketball Coach Ken Curry.

Curry made the request because the school was in a bind. Harbor Athletic Director Jim O’Brien had reinstated women’s basketball after a 10-year hiatus, but school had started and he had no coach. O’Brien said Lynwood High girls’ Coach Maurice Roberson made a verbal commitment last spring to coach the team but bailed out at the last minute.

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In came Louie Nelson, a high-strung and controversial man who is used to winning and had never coached women before.

At Compton High, Nelson was suspended for 10 days because one of his players accused him of knocking him unconscious in a post-game locker-room scuffle. Nelson, who denies the incident, was reinstated but quit after one season because of “a difference in coaching philosophy between the principal and me.”

Nelson, 39, says his vehement style of coaching is often misinterpreted. Away from the game, he’s a patient and easy-going guy, but on the court he seems possessed.

“I am an intense coach,” Nelson said. “I love the game and I love to win, so I make my players intense. People take it the wrong way, and sometimes players think I’m getting down on them, but I’m just making them better.”

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The slender 6-foot-3 coach rubbed his neatly trimmed beard as he recalled his initial reaction to Curry’s offer:

“No way! I said there is no way I am taking that job.”

That was understandable, because classes had started and there was no time for recruiting.

Nelson posted colorful signs throughout the Wilmington campus in an effort to attract players. Seventeen women tried out, and 14 are still on the team. Most of them had never played basketball before. Some had been inactive for several years after mediocre high school careers.

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So far, the Seahawks are averaging 46 points a game. Recently they beat two weak teams (Glendale College twice and an Air Force club team once), making them 3-7. It’s unlikely, however, that Harbor will win another game this season.

"(Nelson) started from scratch,” O’Brien said. “He tried to find anybody that could dribble the ball. He’s got girls out there that are still learning about the game, and he’s doing a great job teaching them.

“Lets face it: I’m not so sure I could do what he’s doing. Everybody has an ego, and everybody wants to win,” said O’Brien, who led Harbor’s baseball team to three state titles and 10 conference championships in 14 years as coach.

Nelson, who lives in Montclair, said: “I guess I’m a sucker for a challenge. Anybody in his right mind wouldn’t have taken the job.”

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Now he does more instructing than coaching. Nelson has taught algebra in the Los Angeles Unified School District for seven years, but he has never really taught basketball. The players he had at other schools were top-notch athletes with a strong command of the game.

"(At Harbor,) I have to break the plays down to the simplest form, as they say in algebra. I had to teach them about three seconds in the key and how to dribble with balance. I even had to show them what a jump ball is,” Nelson said. “They can play as long as I tell them where to go and what to do.”

His latest project is teaching his players how to run a press.

“My ladies aren’t that advanced yet,” he said. “It was like a puzzle for them. We have to stick with the bare basics.”

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Saddleback women’s Coach Jack Single said he admires what Nelson is doing. After serving as a men’s assistant, he started the women’s program at the Mission Viejo college two years ago.

“Everyone knows they probably won’t win a game in league,” Single said. “It will be amazing if they can stick together.”

Starting at the bottom hasn’t been easy for a guy like Nelson, who considers himself an expert on the game. He is a disciplinarian who likes a well-balanced offense and a tough defense. He thrives on winning.

“He’s learning patience with the girls,” said Linda Kelly, a longtime friend of Nelson’s and one of his assistants. “It’s also been a big mental adjustment for him to lose. He’s still high-strung and still intense and into the game, but he’s learning to adjust to what he has here.”

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After every two-hour practice in the gym, Nelson conducts drills on the concrete courts outside. He also has optional practice on Saturdays. His players say he’s extremely dedicated.

“We love him,” said forward Mary Esene, who played basketball sparingly at Narbonne High. “He really cares about this team. He’s tough on us and he works us hard because he knows we can do better.”

Nelson doesn’t believe in giving up. He says he was conditioned to win as a kid growing up in Compton. To do that, he says, you must always give 100%.

He was on two state champion basketball teams at Compton High. At the University of Washington, where he earned a degree in architecture, Nelson was named freshman of the year after leading the team in scoring and assists. As a senior he was an All-American.

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The Washington Bullets picked Nelson in the first round of the NBA draft, and he spent the next six years as a point guard with Washington, New Orleans, Kansas City, San Antonio and New Jersey. At New Orleans, he was the back-court partner of Pete Maravich.

Nelson still plays in recreation leagues, but coaching is where he spends most of his energy. Already he is recruiting local high school players who can help the Seahawks win more games next season.

“I still take a loss very hard,” he said, shaking his head. “I still can’t sleep at night when we lose. I twist and turn all night.”

Is sounds as if Nelson is going to have many sleepless nights until the middle of February.

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