From Sherman Oaks to Kingston, R.I., to Flagstaff, Ariz., Josh Oppenheimer has lived the life of a basketball gypsy. He was a gym rat who earned a scholarship at a Division I university, only to have the 3,000-mile roller-coaster ride stop in Carson. Now he is trying to resurrect his once-promising career at Cal State Dominguez Hills, a Division II school.
Oppenheimer, 22, averaged 11.9 points during his senior season at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks. He accepted a scholarship to the University of Rhode Island after considering DePaul, New Mexico, Xavier and Notre Dame.
As a freshman at Rhode Island in 1987-88, he played behind Tom Garrick, a former Clipper and current member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Rhode Island earned a berth in the NCAA tournament that season and advanced to the round of 16. With Garrick departing, Oppenheimer was scheduled to start at point guard as a sophomore.
But five games into his sophomore season, he quit the team. Tom Penders, the man who recruited him, left in the off-season to become the coach at Texas. Oppenheimer was unhappy with new coach Al Skinner.
“I was 19 years old and I was stubborn and didn’t want to change,” Oppenheimer said. “I try not to think about it or I’d be miserable. I am where I am and I have to make the best of it.
“I don’t look at the paper every day and see the big exposure Rhode Island is getting or how high I could have scored there.”
Penders, in his fourth season at Texas, says Oppenheimer was a solid player with a good future.
“He was a great outside shooter,” Penders said. “I liked his feel for the game and he was a very competitive kid. There’s no doubt that he’d be my starting point guard as a sophomore.”
Instead, Oppenheimer transferred to Northern Arizona, a struggling Division I program that won 13 games the past two seasons. Oppenheimer selected Northern Arizona because his former junior Olympic coach, Dave Benezra, was an assistant there.
Since Oppenheimer played only five games in his second season at Rhode Island, he was granted redshirt status and started at point guard for Northern Arizona as a sophomore in 1989-90. He averaged 19.7 points a game and made the All-Big Sky Conference team. But Oppenheimer grew weary of losing during a 9-19 season.
The losses continued to mount during the 1990-91 season, Oppenheimer’s junior year. After an 0-5 start, he quit the team knowing he would lose a year of eligibility. The Lumberjacks finished 4-23 overall and 1-15 in Big Sky play.
Oppenheimer had contemplated quitting for some time, but the deciding factor was losing a road game to Cal State Northridge before family and friends.
The Matadors, in their first season of Division I play, defeated the Lumberjacks, 109-80, in Oppenheimer’s last game. Northridge finished 8-20.
“It was embarrassing,” Oppenheimer said. “I realized then how bad we were. After that I didn’t want to go back. I just wanted to come home.”
So he completed the fall semester and moved to Torrance.
Although he is used to competing against big-time collegiate players, Oppenheimer is content at Dominguez Hills, where he played his first game Dec. 21 against The Master’s College. He played 25 minutes and had six points, two assists and a steal in the Toros’ 52-51 victory.
Oppenheimer had practiced with the Toros, but was ineligible to play until completing the fall semester.
“Since high school I’ve known Coach (Dave) Yanai and I know he’s extremely knowledgeable about the game,” Oppenheimer said. “I wanted to go into a situation where the program had potential to win, and I wanted to come back to L.A. so my friends and family could see me play.”
Yanai has downplayed Oppenheimer’s presence in the backcourt. But Oppenheimer should help the Toros rebound from last season’s disappointing 5-7 finish in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. Dominguez Hills was 16-11 overall.
“He’s no different than any other player we have,” Yanai said. “It’s all going to be new for him. We don’t want to put too much pressure on him.”
Yanai acknowledged, however, that Oppenheimer’s experience should help the team. He is expected to replace freshman Chris Thompson as starting point guard.
“He has a lot of experience and savvy,” Yanai said. “He has a multiplicity of skills on the offensive end and he has good instincts as a guard to see open players. He also has great leadership qualities.”
Although he had not played in a collegiate game for a year, Oppenheimer has remained competitive. Last summer he played in a 16-team league for local college players at Cal State Los Angeles. Among those participating were Arizona’s Chris Mills, UCLA’s Tracy Murray and Stanford’s Adam Keefe.
“I just love to play,” Oppenheimer said. “I’m always searching for a place to play against the best players. I just play every day. . . . It doesn’t matter. I’ll play in pickup games at Dominguez Hills, at UCLA, but I play every day.”
Benezra said Oppenheimer is a popular player at local gyms.
“Wherever he goes, any gym, they know him,” Benezra said. “He’s a real gym rat.
“I’ve coached a lot of kids and Josh is the most highly skilled guard I’ve worked with,” he said. “He started shooting NBA distance jump shots before graduating from high school.”
Issy Washington, who runs the Slam N’ Jam all-star camp, remembers Oppenheimer for his hard work.
“He was a pretty good player at a very young age,” Washington said. “But I think pure determination made him a decent player. He was never the tallest or the quickest player, but he was a competitor.”
Benezra, who also coached Oppenheimer when he was a member of the L.A. Rockfish, an all-star traveling squad, believes the 6-foot-2 guard has been wrongfully labeled as difficult to work with.
“He’s a great player and he’s very coachable,” Benezra said. “He wants to win so badly and (at Northern Arizona) it didn’t seem that we were headed in the direction to do that. You could see that the university didn’t necessarily support the program.”
Oppenheimer, a communications major, plans to lead the Toros into the playoffs.
“My role is to be our leader,” he said. “As a point guard I have to be almost an extension of Coach Yanai on the floor and I’m mature enough to handle that.”
Confidence is not a problem.
“Offensively, with the ball, I don’t think there’s a guard as good as me in the country . . . at any level.”