After his team beat North Hollywood High for the first time in four years on Feb. 1, Grant boys' basketball Coach Howard Levine vented his frustration over North Hollywood's ability to attract quality players from out of the area.
He isn't the only Valley coach complaining. Under Coach Steve Miller, North Hollywood consistently has drawn many of its best players from Central Los Angeles neighborhoods.
Miller, though, says all of his players attend North Hollywood legally. He denies ever recruiting a player, which would be a violation of high school rules, or instructing others to recruit for him. Moreover, no formal complaint has ever been lodged against North Hollywood with the City Section, according to Director of Athletics Barbara Fiege.
"We beat a recruited team," Levine said, after Grant defeated North Hollywood, 56-51, in double overtime. "It's a sweet victory because Grant is a local ballclub. The local kids at North Hollywood don't play.
"I like Steve Miller. I feel close to him," Levine said. "But I don't like the way the program is handled at North Hollywood, in terms of how they get players. I don't have time to investigate. But all the coaches in the Valley know (what is going on) and we're darn sick and tired of it."
Miller has several advantages that might help draw players: North Hollywood's zoo magnet program at the Los Angeles Zoo, the magnet's proximity to central Los Angeles neighborhoods, his connections with educators and basketball organizers, his program's strong reputation, and the fact that North Hollywood is the main Southern California site of the American Roundball Corporation, a popular off-season basketball program.
Through those means, Miller attracts players from diverse backgrounds.
North Hollywood's season ended Friday night in a 71-65 loss to top-seeded Crenshaw in the first round of the 4-A Division playoffs.
Of the eight North Hollywood players who saw the most action in recent weeks, five have Los Angeles home addresses and are enrolled through one of the school's two magnet programs. The other three are transfers. Only two have North Hollywood addresses, including the team's latest addition, Nikola Batzkovich, a 6-foot-8 junior who enrolled early in January, days after arriving from Yugoslavia.
Batzkovich, still adjusting to the faster-paced American style of play, plays in the front court with Shannon Johnson, a 6-7 sophomore who played for Faith Baptist last season and attended Canoga Park last spring. Johnson, who lives in Van Nuys, transferred to North Hollywood in the summer under the new open-enrollment policy, making it his third high school in less than a year.
"It seems like every time they're vulnerable, they pull a player from somewhere," said first-year Reseda Coach Dave Enowitz, a former Grant assistant. "Take a look at their games. The home-grown talent are the guys who go in with two minutes to play."
Johnson said he was not approached by anyone to attend North Hollywood, saying instead he was attracted to the program by newspaper accounts of the team's success.
Miller, 49, says there is a simple reason players from various parts of the city find their way to North Hollywood. After coaching for 33 years, the last 10 at North Hollywood, he has acquired numerous contacts who put him in touch with prospective players.
"I have met a lot of people and I have coached a lot of people," Miller said. "Because of certain available situations and people respecting what I do with kids, I have been sent many, many kids to North Hollywood. Legally.
"A lot of these coaches who have criticized me are jealous. They are hypocrites. Because I know if a kid came to their school by a recommendation, they would take him."
Miller, whose streak of eight consecutive league titles ended with a runner-up finish in the East Valley League this season, acknowledges he has built his program with the help of friends and associates.
"It's an entire network," a former coach at North Hollywood said.
Those who are reportedly part of the network include:
* Leonard Johnson, a physical education teacher at Muir Junior High in South-Central Los Angeles.
* Carol Altshiller, a physical education teacher at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES), a college preparatory magnet school.
* Roger Milstein, a businessman who coaches an off-season all-star basketball team called Team Avia, which included two North Hollywood players last year.
Leonard Johnson, who played for Miller at Fairfax High and helped the Lions win the 3-A title as a senior in 1978, said he advised the fathers of Jamal (Fantasia) Johnson and Arthur Lee to send their sons to North Hollywood.
Jamal Johnson, who attended Burroughs Junior High near Fairfax, was a two-year starter at guard for North Hollywood and was named to the All-City 4-A team as a junior in 1993. Lee, who attended Muir Junior High near Manual Arts, is a Stanford-bound senior who is considered among the best point guards in the Southland.
Altshiller, a longtime friend of Miller and his wife, Miriam, said she advised Dana Jones to attend North Hollywood when Jones was a ninth-grader at LACES. Jones, who wanted to attend a bigger high school to get more exposure as a basketball player, led North Hollywood to the 3-A title and was named 3-A player of the year in 1990 before going on to a stellar career at Pepperdine. After Jones, several other LACES students went on to play basketball at North Hollywood, including three this season, but Altshiller denies influencing any of them. LACES Principal Marion Collins jokingly said of Miller, "He stole all my boys."
Miller coached the basketball team at LACES from 1982-85. Leonard Johnson coached the LACES basketball team for one season, in 1993, when he came in contact with three players who now play for North Hollywood--varsity players Jeff Carpenter and Melvin Goodman and junior varsity player Jeremiah Arnold.
Milstein, a friend of Miller, strongly denies ever influencing a player to attend North Hollywood. Like Miller, Milstein is a longtime UCLA booster. He has season tickets to Bruin home games. Less than a week after Batzkovich enrolled at North Hollywood, he was invited along with his father, Chad, to be Milstein's guest at a UCLA game Jan. 14 against Washington, Chad Batzkovich said. North Hollywood players Shannon Johnson and Alonzo Cotton also were at the game. Miller said he put Milstein in touch with his players because he wants Batzkovich and Johnson to play for Team Avia.
"People have been talking about (North Hollywood) for years," said Jim Woodard, girls' basketball coach and former boys' coach at Taft High in Woodland Hills. "Coaches tend to be suspicious."
Fiege, director of athletics for the City Section, said there is nothing illegal about Leonard Johnson and Altshiller plugging Miller's program. To prove undue influence against any coach, Fiege said, evidence would have to be presented that the coach is instructing others to talk to prospective players and their parents.
"That's why recruiting is so difficult to prove," she said. "You almost have to have a video or a tape recording of a coach talking to a parent or kid."
Some coaches, though, question the ethics involved when a school gains a high-profile player because of an outside influence.
"Of course, I don't like that. It's not fair," Grant's Levine said.
Miller said he has never had an illegal contact with a player or parent.
Lee's father, also named Arthur, said he met with Miller before he decided to enroll his son at North Hollywood. He said he was he was concerned about Miller's style of coaching.
"Before Art, Miller had a tendency of slowing his point guards down," the elder Lee said. "After we met and (Miller) decided he didn't want to change Arthur's game, we made that decision to send him to North Hollywood."
Miller said Lee already had applied for and been accepted into the school's zoo magnet program when he met with the father.
THE ZOO MAGNET
The way that Lee, Jones, Jamal Johnson and many other standout basketball players from Los Angeles have been able to attend North Hollywood is through the school's zoo magnet. Magnet programs are specialized academic curricula set up through a high school. Any student in the L.A. Unified School District may apply for enrollment in any magnet at any school, regardless of where they live.
The fact that North Hollywood has had a large number of basketball players in the zoo magnet--there are four on the varsity team this season--has not gone unnoticed by magnet faculty and the City Section.
A magnet staff member said insiders jokingly refer to North Hollywood as "the zoo magnet basketball team."
Jeff Halpern, dean of students and former basketball coach at Reseda, said he became aware of how the magnet programs were being used when he was on the City Section's Interscholastic Athletics Committee.
"Everybody admitted that was one of the situations that opened up the door for these kids to get in these (athletic) programs," Halpern said. "It's not illegal.
"I think it has gotten worse, because there are more magnet programs now," he said. "There are more programs out competing for kids. The magnet program is supposed to be monitored from Downtown, but because the district is as large as it is, it's hard to monitor these things. The coaches know that."
Fiege said she is monitoring the number of athletes enrolled in magnets to see if abuses are occurring at certain schools. But, she added, proving it is next to impossible.
"Can I accuse them of abusing the magnet program? No," Fiege said. "The fact is, most students who apply to magnets are accepted."
What makes the zoo magnet unique is its location, adjacent to the Los Angeles Zoo. Linda Gill, coordinator of the zoo magnet, said it is the only magnet in the district not on the campus of a high school. A full curriculum is offered, with emphasis on biological sciences.
Because the magnet is a short drive from Downtown, it has become a desirable alternative for parents who don't want their children attending a neighborhood school. Lee's father said he decided to send his son to North Hollywood largely because of the zoo magnet.
"If you're not going to (attend) a private school, an ideal school is the North Hollywood zoo magnet," he said. "There's not more than 250 to 300 students, in a controlled environment."
Gill said students attend most of their classes at the zoo magnet. Certain classes, such as physical education and extracurricular activities, are offered at North Hollywood. Those students are bused to the high school.
Gill was aware that many basketball players have come through the zoo magnet, but she said Miller is not abusing the system.
"Steve Miller has not been illegally recruiting," she said. "He has been using the system legally. Frankly, students get an excellent education here. They take a curriculum that is more difficult than any non-magnet program."
However, not everyone succeeds.
Lee is an honor student who will receive one of three academic awards given by Bank of America to the top scholars at the zoo magnet.
But Damon Ollie, who went through the zoo magnet program and was a two-time All-City basketball player at North Hollywood, scored below 700, the minimum score required by the NCAA for freshman eligibility, in four tries on the Scholastic Assessment Test. Ollie, the half-brother of Jones, is a freshman at Santa Monica College, where he is one of the leading scorers on the basketball team.
Ollie doesn't blame the magnet school for his troubles with the SAT.
"I had a lot of SAT classes, but I didn't do any work at home on my own," he said.
Miller says many students who happened to be basketball players have elected to attend the zoo magnet because of the excellent academics, not because it afforded them the opportunity to play for North Hollywood. One of several examples Miller cited was Doc Hazzard, a former North Hollywood player who attended the zoo magnet because he wanted to become a doctor. Hazzard, the son of former UCLA basketball All-American and Coach Walt Hazzard, now attends Morehouse College in Atlanta as a premed student, Miller said.
"If you look at why kids come to the zoo magnet, I think you'll find that they come for academics first and to play basketball second," Miller said. "They get the best of both worlds."
Aside from Lee, North Hollywood varsity players in the zoo magnet are Cotton, Carpenter and Goodman. Teammates Jason Fisher and Damon Francis attend the school through the highly gifted magnet offered at North Hollywood. That gives the Huskies six more players in magnet programs, more than any of the other seven teams in the Valley Pac-8 Conference, according to eligibility records.
THE YUGOSLAV CONNECTION
As far as anyone knows, North Hollywood also has the most native-born Yugoslavian players in the league. That would be one: Nikola Batzkovich, whose arrival after Christmas vacation caused quite a stir among local coaches.
Kevin Kanemura, first-year coach at Van Nuys, said playing against North Hollywood in the East Valley League this season was an eye-opening experience after having little contact with the Huskies during seven years as an assistant at Kennedy.
"I really never paid any attention to them," Kanemura said. "Then all of a sudden, this year, I'm minding my own business and Miller hits everyone with this kid from Yugoslavia. That's the big one. It makes you wonder, 'What's going on here?' "
Batzkovich's father, Chad, says he chose North Hollywood to be his son's first American school after calling the L.A. Unified School District. Chad, a lawyer who has lived in the United States for several years, wanted to know which high school had the best basketball team. When a woman told him it was Crenshaw, two-time defending state Division I champion, he explained he was interested in a school in the Valley because he was planning to move from Long Beach after moving his law practice from the mid-Wilshire area to Van Nuys. She told him North Hollywood had a good team.
From there, Chad says, he checked out North Hollywood, met Miller and made the arrangements to enroll his son when he arrived from Belgrade. He secured a three-bedroom apartment in North Hollywood so there would be enough room for him, his girlfriend and his son.
Chad said he knows Milstein, who had invited him and his son to the UCLA-Washington basketball game. Before that, Chad said he was told by Miller that Milstein would be working with Nikola in the off-season on his game and educational requirements, despite Team Avia not holding tryouts until March.
When Milstein was asked why he would take North Hollywood players to a UCLA game, he answered, "I don't know what you guys are trying to prove, and I don't like it. UCLA brought (Nikola) in. . . . I take all kinds of kids to ballgames. There's nothing wrong with taking a kid to a ballgame."
Milstein said he didn't meet Chad Batzkovich until after Nikola came to the country.
"I didn't know the father from a hole in the ground," Milstein said. "I know him because North Hollywood is one of the schools I work with, because I know Steve Miller and Steve Miller wants to get them in a quality (off-season) program."
Miller said it is important for his players to compete in off-season programs because that is when most of the college recruiting takes place. He says Nikola Batzkovich, despite a slow start at North Hollywood, has a good chance of earning a place on the more-competitive Team Avia.
"I think he has tremendous potential to make that team," Miller said. "Roger (Milstein) does not necessarily take the best players. He likes kids who are more focused and willing to listen, rather than the best players in the world."
With Batzkovich and Shannon Johnson returning next season, North Hollywood figures to have one of the Valley's most imposing front lines. But the graduation of Lee could make the Huskies vulnerable at point guard.
Not to worry, one rival coach says: "Miller will come up with someone."
* Contributing: Dana Haddad.