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1995-96 BOYS’ BASKETBALL PREVIEW : Santa Ana Valley’s Star Guard Knows He Still Has a Lot to Prove

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is Olujimi Mann.

He’s a doe-eyed, 6-foot-4 point guard at Santa Ana Valley. The kid with the dopey smile. Couldn’t you just imagine him standing for hours trying to guess what shell the pea was under? A kid so naive that he said to his high school counselor: “You’re coming to UCLA with me, right?”

No, wait, that’s not him.

This is Mann.

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He’s a shifty-eyed operator. The kid with the I’m-up-to-something grin. Couldn’t you just imagine him shouting, “Hurry, hurry, step right up. Find the pea and win a buck.” A kid so slick that after an interview with a national magazine writer, he said to his coach: “That guy thought I was stupid and would fall for anything.”

No, wait . . .

So, who is Mann?

For two years, few high school players have been scrutinized, lionized and criticized more. From the moment he transferred from Mater Dei, everyone, it seems, thinks they know Mann. Now, with his senior season upon him, Mann has some set-in-stone goals for an answer.

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“Basically, I want to get a championship,” Mann said. “I want to show everybody how hard I’ve worked. All those who said things about me, I want to basically shove that in their face, like, ‘There you go.’ There’s a whole lot to prove.”

It’s easy to see how one can form an instant profile. Then again, it’s not so easy.

Mann’s athletic ability is abundant, as a passer, scorer and defender. College coaches have thought him the ideal point guard for two years. So the biggest thing Mann has to prove comes off the court.

UCLA has been on his mind since he was an eighth grader. Mann orally committed to UCLA last spring, but found it’s not quite that easy.

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Mann has yet to score the 820 points he said he needs on the Scholastic Aptitude Test to qualify. He has taken the test twice, scoring 720 and 740, and will try again in December. He also needs to pass geometry.

The early signing period came and went this month and Mann didn’t get to sign with the Bruins. For now, that letter of intent remains at UCLA, as the school will not make an official offer to Mann until he qualifies academically.

Mann has said he will now listen to other schools, but . . .

“If UCLA would give me the letter of intent today, I’d sign it,” Mann said.

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Mann’s academic struggles have not been a secret. People, some publicly, have predicted for more than a year that he wouldn’t qualify. A local youth league coach praised Mann’s ability in an article last year, but couched it with: “He hasn’t done a very good job academically.”

Such comments sting. But Mann, who said he doesn’t know that coach well, knows there’s only one way to stop them. He has to meet the requirements.

Two years ago, that seemed impossible. Even Mann wasn’t sure he would meet requirements to be eligible for a scholarship under NCAA rules. Then Santa Ana Valley counselor Lynn Kramer stepped in. She has become Mann’s confidant at school, not only helping him choose the proper classes, but listening to his problems and offering advice.

“People tease him about their mom-and-son relationship,” Santa Ana Valley Coach Kevin Stipp said.

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Which isn’t too far from the truth. Mann, whose parents are divorced, said he sees his mother, Juanita, four times a year. She lives in New Mexico.

“Miss Kramer makes sure I do right, and she’s there to stick up for me when some one says something bad about me,” Mann said.

Not an easy task since comments have gone from a drizzle to a hail storm.

In part, Mann’s appearance brings on criticism. He is a self-admitted clothes-horse, which, combined with his giddy personality, does make for a certain panache. But the baggy pants, earrings and tattoos also make it easy for strangers to stereotype him.

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Even more controversial has been Mann’s demeanor on the court. His behind-the-back, between-the-legs, ballhandling style got him tagged as a hot dog early on.

“I was talking to someone yesterday and they said [this one] coach hates me,” Mann said. “I said some stuff to him during a summer league game, but those were fun games. Every time I hit a three-pointer, I’d say, ‘There’s another one.’ I think the cockiness and arrogance does hurt me.”

In the last year, Mann has heard them all, but rarely to his face. One story circulated that he was taking drugs. Another had him selling drugs. Still another claimed he was buying clothes with a stolen credit card. Some, he said, make him laugh. All, he said, are untrue.

“Everyone talks about him, yet it seems like no one has anything good to say,” said Ike Harmon, Mann’s friend and teammate. “And it’s all by people who don’t know him.”

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Said Stipp: “If they don’t know the kid, they should keep their mouth shut until they do get to know him. That’s all he’s asking.”

Mann and Stipp said a parent yelled a racial slur at Mann during a game at El Modena last season. Mann’s reaction was to tell his father, who confronted the parent. No punches were thrown, but it was a tense scene.

“I went against what I’ve always told him about sticks and stones,” said Richard Mann, his father. “But this was an adult, not a kid. But I think Olujimi knows the words aren’t going to hurt him.”

Yet, they do.

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“ ‘Luj may let things go, but he’ll catalogue what is said,” Stipp said. “It’s one of those things where he’ll say, ‘OK, I’m going to show this guy.’ ”

Mann said he left Mater Dei after his freshman year because he wasn’t going to fit in, no matter how well the championship rings fit.

Mann’s impact at Santa Ana Valley was immediate. He averaged 22 points, seven assists and six rebounds in leading the Falcons to the Southern Section Division I-AA semifinals.

There were times last season, according to Stipp, when the criticism caused Mann to sulk on the court. He averaged 17 points and five assists. They were good numbers, yet they weren’t.

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Mann chipped a bone in his ankle in October and said he wasn’t 100% all season. It also didn’t help that Falcon Coach Rich Prospero resigned at midseason. Prospero has since been charged with having sex with a 16-year old student and embezzling nearly $8,000 from a sports booster club. He has pleaded not guilty.

Mann admits easing off after his sophomore season. He cut back on gym time and weight lifting and paid for it.

The season ended with a 92-78 loss to Los Alamitos in the first round of the playoffs. Mann scored 26 points but made only eight of 21 shots and had two key turnovers in the fourth quarter.

Mann said he thought about transferring for three weeks, then decided to stay.

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And he changed.

The big difference this year isn’t so much on the court. Mann is closer to his teammates, not to mention classmates. He is in the Golf Club, the Academy Club and the Partners Club. He has attended almost every football game and is pondering a run for prom king. Normal stuff, but things that he wouldn’t have considered a year ago.

“I think basketball did become too much,” Mann said. “I would go to school, go to practice, then go home and watch basketball. I don’t want basketball to become a business. I want it to be fun.”


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