Checking Out the Baby-Faced Brat-Packers of Basketball

It isn't often you hear an Orange County coach say "doo-doo" during the course of an interview. Not with a straight face, anyway. But those were the carefully chosen words Steve Harris used this week to describe Villa Park's woeful past in boys' basketball.

Now anyone familiar with the First Amendment knows Harris--Villa Park's first-year boys' coach--has a right to say whatever he pleases. The fact that he's only 23 gives him even more leeway. Put simply, Harris is young enough to call someone a geek face and get away with it.

The same goes for Tom Gorrell of Cypress and Ken Walker of Santa Ana, first-year coaches who are 25 and 26, respectively. Along with Harris, they are part of Orange County's basketball brat pack, the baby-faced group that took advantage of the many head coaching jobs that opened up this season.

They are young. They are restless. They are the Doogie Howsers of high school sports. Steve, Tom and Ken. They might sound like a lineup of Barbie Doll dates, but let's take a closer look:

Steve Harris. He's the youngest boys' basketball head coach in the county, but don't let that fool you. While other toddlers sat around drooling and watching "Captain Kangaroo," Harris was studying picks and screens from the stands of Ocean View High School.

Harris is nephew of Ocean View Coach Jim Harris, whom he played for as a senior. He went to UCLA as a student manager, and then to San Diego State as a volunteer assistant coach. He describes himself as an egomaniac--photos of him at UCLA, including one with John Wooden, hang on the walls above his desk--and a big fan of pro wrestling.

As for his comment, "Villa Park has been doo-doo for so long," Harris says until Chris Burton guided the Spartans to an 11-12 season last year, the program was an apathetic mess. Harris says he intends to make the program successful. He also promises to shave his head if the team goes .500 this season.

Tom Gorrell. The former lower-levels coach at Woodbridge and Tustin says he originally considered sportswriting as a career, but decided to save his sanity instead. Coaching, he says, "is the only thing that saved me from getting lost (in life)."

Now, if he can only stop getting lost on the way home. Gorrell, a soft-spoken amiable fellow, says he has moved so many times, he doesn't know his current address, nor is he sure in which city he presently resides. "It might be Stanton," he says. "It might be Buena Park." It might be time to ask Santa for an identification bracelet.

(For the record, Gorrell lives in Anaheim. This from his landlord, upstairs neighbor and best friend, Western Coach Matt Cavanaugh, who, at 26 and in his first year as head coach, is yet another member of the coaching youth movement).

Ken Walker. He looks like John Boy, talks as if he hangs out at late-night poetry readings and likes to sing to the soundtrack of "Les Miserables." Not your average coach, indeed.

As a student at Esperanza High, Walker didn't play organized sports--he played saxophone and the French horn in the Aztec band. He didn't get into coaching until two years ago, after an administrator at Santa Ana suggested that it might help him keep his position as social studies teacher.

Now he wants to start acting. In his spare time.

Certainly, Harris, Gorrell and Walker have received plenty of advice from their more-experienced peers. Stick to fundamentals, they say. Believe in yourself. And don't forget to stock your medicine cabinet--and your pockets--with antacids.

But more importantly, do all you can to blend in.

This means resisting the urge to run to the snack bar at halftime for a pack of Starburst. This means leaving your Game Boy at home. This means doing everything you can to look, talk and act like a head coach. For instance, when the ref makes a call against your team, don't just say "Jeepers. What a gyp." Be a man. Needle the guy.

And remember. This is Orange County. Coaches have to look good. Italian suits, silk ties, alligator shoes . . . and a couple of splashes each day from that bottle of Eau de Arrogance.

Now Harris seems to know this. He has the suit and tie. He has the 'tude. He lists Gary McKnight as his role model. He even knew to show up late for his interview and avoid shaking the reporter's hand.

But Gorrell and Walker? What are these nice, angel-faced fellows doing in the throes of Orange County basketball? They look like they should be selling peanuts at Anaheim Stadium or working on their soap box derby entries.

"Actually," Walker says, "My biggest beef with high school coaches is they seem to think they are bigger than they are. They act like they're coaching a college or pro team sometimes.

"People say to me, 'Wow. You're so young and you're already a head coach. Your resume is going to look great.' At times, I've had to keep my ego in check. I've had to remind myself I'm in this to help kids."

Says Gorrell: "My goal is to do my job, not create a persona for myself. (Ten years from now), I want to be known as just one of the other basketball coaches."

One whom the young coaches look up to.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World