David Robertson never played high school or college basketball, but he studied, read and learned from some of the college game’s most successful teachers.
While boyhood friend Marques Johnson starred for UCLA in the early 1970s, Robertson watched and took notes at practices run by the legendary John Wooden. He talked frequently with Wooden’s successor, Gene Bartow. And he freely quotes Indiana Coach Bobby Knight.
“Knight once said that the worst thing you can do as a coach is show a player how to do something,” said Robertson, boys’ basketball coach at Mid-City Magnet School in Los Angeles. “You explain it to them. Believe me, I can explain things quite well.”
Robertson could not demonstrate post moves, man-to-man defense or the cross-over dribble even if he wanted to. He is a quadriplegic.
But that has not stopped him from building a competitive program at Mid-City, a K-12 school that has only 102 high school students, the smallest enrollment in the City Section.
“When I was in college, I watched a lot of high school basketball games and it looked like it would be easy to be a high school coach,” Robertson said. “I found out different. It’s tough. But it’s great to work with kids and see them improve.”
Mid-City began the week 14-1. The Raiders won the Arroyo tournament over the winter break by defeating Burbank Bellarmine-Jefferson, which features Arizona-bound guard Ruben Douglas. They also won the Bravo tournament and the consolation championship of the La Salle-Temple City tournament. Their only loss was to two-time defending Division III state champion Harvard- Westlake.
“Teams we play against have never heard of us,” said junior forward Robert Turnbull, who averages 23 points a game. “The refs always ask us where our school is located. As long we win, we’ll start to get known. We want people to say, ‘Oh, that’s Mid-City. Watch out for them.’ ”
Mid-City, located at Adams Boulevard and Arlington Avenue, is one of 13 independent magnet schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The magnets offer special emphasis in a particular subject area, or, in Mid-City’s case, teaching approach. Mid-City began as an alternative school in 1972. Classes are small, there are no bells and students address teachers by their first names.
Almost all the players on this year’s team have attended Mid-City since elementary school. Turnbull enrolled in the sixth grade. Junior guard Remesh Graham, who averages 17 points a game, has been on campus since kindergarten. His family moved to Granada Hills in the San Fernando Valley several years ago, but he commutes into Los Angeles to attend classes.
“People out there [in the Valley] have said, ‘Why don’t you go to Alemany or Kennedy or Granada Hills and not travel all that way?’ ” Graham said. “But Mid-City is my family. You know everybody and everybody knows you. The classes are small, you get tutoring if you need it and you get to know your teachers personally.
“And when it comes to basketball, it’s the same way. When we’re in a game, it just feels like we’re playing together outside.”
Mid-City players have gotten used to the outdoors. The school does not have a gym, so the Raiders practice on an asphalt court that gives literal meaning to the terms upcourt and downcourt.
“It’s not level,” Graham said, laughing. “If you’re running upcourt, you’re really going up and you’ll get tired fast. So everyone usually wants to go downcourt.
“But most of us have been here so long and we’re so used to it, it’s like a gym. And besides, Doc wouldn’t let us let something like that hold us back.”
Robertson, 42, and known to just about everyone as “Doc,” knows something about overcoming adversity.
In 1972, during the first week of his senior year at Crenshaw High, Robertson was playing defensive back for the Cougar football team. While making a tackle during practice, he suffered a spinal cord injury that left him a quadriplegic. He spent the next 11 months in the hospital, most of it at Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center in Downey, where he learned to adapt to life in a wheelchair.
He also completed his course work to graduate from high school and took the college admission test. One month after leaving the hospital, he began classes at UCLA. He graduated in 1978 with a degree in English. He also has a master’s degree in journalism from USC and has been a teacher since 1984.
“I want to show my players that it doesn’t take athletic ability to be successful in life,” said Robertson, a Spanish and English teacher who became varsity coach at Mid-City in 1989. “I’m just not the type of person to give up in anything and I hope I instill that in them as well.”
Mid-City’s success this season has been in the making for at least six years, when the present group of juniors was in the sixth grade. During nutrition breaks and lunch breaks, they played with and against the varsity players.
“Back in those days, we were pretty scrawny and we were just getting bumped out of the way a lot,” said Turnbull, now 6 feet 3. “They used to make fun of us and tell us we were sorry. But they made us play hard. That made all of us better.”
So did Robertson.
“Doc knows the game and he’s fair, that’s what I like about him,” Graham said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. He gets mad sometimes, but he lets you know it’s not personal. He just wants us to improve.”
Mid-City is considered a front-runner for the Magnet League championship. Magnet League schools have been eligible for the City 3-A playoffs since 1995 and the Raiders are intent on making their first playoff appearance. Mid-City, however, will not be eligible for the state playoffs in a small-schools division because the City Section awards state tournament berths only to the top two-teams from the larger 4-A division.
The players are undeterred. They want to win a City 3-A title for themselves, for their school and for their coach.
“Doc is a big example for us,” Turnbull said. “He’s shown us that even though you’re hurt or you get put down for some reason, you still can come back and be at the top. We keep that with us in games and at school.”