Although he had to replace a few key parts, Crenshaw High Coach Willie West managed to reassemble "The Big Bus" and turn it into a championship team once again.
The Cougars didn't quite reach the pinnacle they had hoped for--a seventh State championship--as Clovis West put up an unexpected roadblock Thursday night eliminating the Cougars, 67-62, in a Southern Regional semifinal game. The loss kept Crenshaw from a renewal of their classic rivalry with Mater Dei in yesterday's regional finals.
But for most of the season, Crenshaw was the "Big Bus" that Crenshaw forward Ronnie Arch had dubbed them last season, when the Cougars ran over the competition to capture the 1994 City Section and after that the State title.
Despite losing the Big Three--Kristaan Johnson, Tremaine Fowlkes and Tommie Davis--to graduation, West managed to rebuild the Big Bus.
"He keeps plugging kids in and they keep winning," Manual Arts Coach Randolph Simpson said. "How many titles is that? Eighteen or 19?"
He surprised his colleagues by winning his 14th City Section 4-A Division title with a 78-76 win over Fairfax on March 4. West set a state record for sectional championships, bettering the previous mark of 13 that he shared with Lou Cvijanovich of Oxnard Santa Clara.
Considering that Arch, a part-time starter, was the only returning regular, many area coaches believed the Cougars would be dethroned.
Said Simpson: "To be honest, I thought this was the year to beat them. He had no starters back. He had other returning players with very little playing experience. If anyone was going to beat Crenshaw, this was the year to do it."
So how was West able to put together the components of another championship team?
THE FACTORY THEORY
While most high school basketball programs are lucky to have 20 quality players trying out for the team, Crenshaw attracted more than 150 players to its tryouts.
"They have the same prototype players," Dorsey Coach Kevin Gibson said. "They have the same size, the same build, the same attitude, the same everything. They might not have the same level of talent. But they learn to play well in his system."
With open enrollment, basketball players come to Crenshaw the way musical prodigies attend Juilliard School. Crenshaw stands for success in high school basketball--six state championships in six appearances in the last 13 years--and potential scholarships to Division I schools.
It starts with basketball programs such as the K&E; Bulls, where former Crenshaw junior varsity coach Edmond (Tiny) Flournoy teaches youths basketball fundamentals and conditioning at the Willie West Memorial Gym. The Cougars championship banners hang high above the diminutive basketball apprentices.
By the time inner-city youths reach high school playing age, they have been indoctrinated by the West system. Among the current team, 10 of the 15 players competed for the K&E; Bulls.
Gibson developed his own system to beat Crenshaw and it worked twice during their two Southern Pacific Conference meetings. The Dons became only the second team to sweep two games from Crenshaw.
"No one questioned my gameplan against Crenshaw," Gibson said of his players. "They followed it to the ultimate." But when the Dons played and lost to Palisades in the first round of City 4-A playoffs, the players had strayed to follow their own game plan. That doesn't happen at Crenshaw.
"West's biggest assest is that he gets his players to listen," Gibson said. "They listen to every word. Other programs--mine included--have players who question what you say. And when they do their own thing in the game, you're in trouble."
THE 'ME VS. WE' THEORY
Since Crenshaw draws such large numbers, West can afford to bench a star player or two until he plays to form. Such was the case with Arch, who stayed home when the Cougars left for a tournament in Texas. Arch had personal problems both on and off the court. When the team returned, Arch had to fight his way back into the starting lineup. He proved to be a pivotal player when the Cougars beat Westchester in the semifinals and Fairfax in the championship game.
"We are in a 'me' and 'I' generation," Manual Arts' Simpson said. "Guys play selfish basketball. I call it TV basketball because they emulate what they see on TV . . . the shoes, the glitz, the glamour.
"At Crenshaw, West is able to contain that. You look at Crenshaw and it's 'we' and 'us.' They play as a team and that's why they win."
THE SYSTEM THEORY
It's been well-documented that Crenshaw wins with its defense. The Cougars play a 1-2-2 or 1-2-1-1 trapping press that makes opposing teams rush the ball upcourt and out of their patterned offense. When a team breaks the press--like Washington and Dorsey did during their victories against Crenshaw--they can score easy layups. When they don't, they rush their shots or, worse, commit turnovers.
But no matter what happens, Crenshaw controls the tempo, and very few teams can maintain the frantic pace for 32 minutes.
"Basically, he puts his big men up front and forces you to throw a long lob pass or a short bounce pass. He puts his quickest players on the wing and they either intercept the pass or trap the dribbler. He has a whole slew of players who know how to press, so they are never tired."
On offense, the Cougars run a high post passing game. They have one player who cuts through the key and either drives to the basket or makes a pass to the outlet. The Cougars are a better outside-shooting team this season, with players such as the 6-foot-6 Arch and 6-7 Raymond Palmer making more shots from three-point range.
"They also attack the boards," Westchester Coach Ed Azzam said. "They score a lot of their points off second and third shots."
The Cougars even run special plays when they line up for a free throw. Gibson calls it a game or stunt.
"Whenever they shoot a free throw, the players at the top fake like they are going into the middle and then go around the backside," Gibson said. "The middle men step into the key and draw the defense. The next thing you know, they grab a rebound.
"He has a system. He works on it and perfects it. It's hard to beat."
PRESSING THE RIGHT BUTTONS THEORY
Critics say it is easy to coach the Cougars because they have so many talented players. Keeping them happy is another story. Last season, Tremaine Fowlkes grew frustrated by college recruiters who questioned whether he could shoot from outside. Fowlkes had three-point shooting range, but played with his back to the basket because West needed an inside player. He also benched City Section player of the year Kristaan Johnson when he became too outspoken during the Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
West, however, demonstrated he is a better coach when he has less than proven talent.
Among the former role players who turned into overnight stars this season included Antonio Simpson, Robert Parker, Damian Willis and Palmer.
All four could have been stars at other schools, but waited until their senior season to move into the Crenshaw starting lineup.
"I think Willie does his best coaching when he has to develop talent," said former Crenshaw and National Basketball Assn. star Marques Johnson. "That's when people find out how good of a coach he can be."
West's dilemma was finding a position to match their talents.
During the season, Arch went from a shooting guard to small forward. Simpson moved from point to shooting guard and Parker split time at both guard positions.
Palmer was allowed to shoot threes after spending most of the season scoring inside the key.
It took a loss to Washington in the Pacific Open Championship and two defeats to Dorsey in league play before West got the combination right. Simpson made the most improvement and developed into the team's best scoring threat.
While all these theories factored into Crenshaw's winning season, the bottom line--all coaches agree--is that the Cougars believe they are going to win every game.
"Willie gets kids--year in and year out--to believe in themselves," Manual Arts' Simpson said. "It doesn't matter how much talent they have. They see the championship banners and they believe in the system. They think they can win no matter what."