Letting Their Guard Down


This isn’t what Ruben Douglas had in mind.

Standing along the baseline, arms halfheartedly raised in a defensive position, Douglas looks bored as he works through a fundamental drill during basketball practice at Bell-Jeff High.

Douglas, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard who has signed with defending NCAA champion Arizona, used to have visions of rings and trophies dancing in his head.

This would be the year, he used to think.

This isn’t what Eli Essa had in mind, either.

Essa, Bell-Jeff’s coach, dribbles the ball into the middle of a 2-3 zone and catches an elbow in the mouth from freshman Chris Jones , causing a bloody lip.


“The last time I got one of these I was coaching a youth league,” Essa says, patting his mouth with a paper towel.

For Bell-Jeff, the bleeding hasn’t stopped.

Three years ago, the Guards were loaded with talented young players. But an exodus of six players in the last 2 1/2 years has left Bell-Jeff mired in mediocrity in this, the season it was expected to haul in the hardware.

“This was supposed to be the year that I just rolled the balls out onto the court,” Essa said. “Then I would sit cross-legged and hold a rolled-up program in my hand and watch us win.”

After Bell-Jeff’s 8-8 start, 1-2 in the Santa Fe League, Essa is doing anything but relaxing.

With many key players leaving, Essa was forced to call up players to the varsity before they were ready.

Practices are filled with basics--dribbling drills, the weave and 2-3 zone defenses.

“I had to pull out some old files from when I used to coach in youth leagues,” Essa said. “I had forgotten how to teach some of this stuff. It was almost like I had to hold up a ball and say, ‘This is a ball.’ ”


Douglas, who leads the region with a 35.1 scoring average, doesn’t hide his frustration over the turn of events.

“I thought I was going to be going after that ring this year,” he said. “Southern Section [title] at least. But now we’re back to practicing basic fundamentals on defense. It’s a little bit of a struggle.”

The Bell-Jeff powerhouse never materialized. The tale begins in the 1995-96 season.

Douglas was ranked among the top 40 sophomores in the nation by several publications. Freshman Kent Dennis, also ranked in the top 40 of his class, was another starter. Elihu Cobb, a 6-5 sophomore with soft hands, played the post.

Bell-Jeff finished 21-6 and easily won the league title and advanced to the Division IV-A quarterfinals.

With a talented lineup that featured two sophomores and a freshman, it appeared to be the beginning of something good.

Watch out in two years, they said.

Mike West, a 6-6 junior center, and 6-5 sophomore forward Kenny Esteves transferred to Bell-Jeff before the 1996-97 season, driving Bell-Jeff stock through the roof.


Skilled players such as Tyrone Barton, David Starling and Gaither Powell--any one a starter at most schools--came off the bench for the Guards.

Then everything started going wrong.

Cobb was expelled from school for a non-basketball disciplinary violation.

Starling moved to Las Vegas.

“Things started to crumble when Elihu was dismissed from school,” Essa said. “He was the core of our team. Losing him caused us to fragment.”

Still, Bell-Jeff persevered. The Guards, led by Douglas, Dennis, West and Esteves, tore through the league last season and finished 21-7.

All was not rosy, however, in the Bell-Jeff camp.

Dennis grew increasingly unhappy with his backup role to Douglas. When the Guards lost in the quarterfinals again, Dennis decided to transfer to Cleveland, citing too much talent as the reason for Bell-Jeff’s inability to advance farther in the playoffs.

“I look at how they are now and I feel bad for them,” Dennis said. “We could have been such a better team, but that’s what was missing, the whole concept of the team.

“Me and a couple of other guys felt like we weren’t getting the attention we deserved. It’s not about getting the ball, either.


“It just felt like everything was focused on Ruben. When we lost again, it was like the same year as before. The same results and everything.”

The Guards’ roster grew thinner when Powell and Barton moved out of the area. And two weeks before practice started this season, Esteves moved to Seattle to live with his mother, leaving Douglas and West to carry the team.

“This was going to be just a stacked team,” said West, who transferred from North Hollywood. “We would’ve been great. Now we’re barely keeping our heads out of the water.”

After a few practices, Essa contacted organizers of the Martin Luther King shootout at Pauley Pavilion. Bell-Jeff had been invited based on past success.

“Not that we wanted out,” Essa said. “But I’m not fooling myself.

“I told them I didn’t know how competitive we would be and that if they wanted to take another team, I would not be upset.”

Bell-Jeff will play Glendora in that game Monday. Essa hopes his team can stay within 20 points.


A more pressing concern for the Guards is the Santa Fe game tonight against St. Genevieve.

The Valiants have won only two league games in the past two seasons. Bell-Jeff, though, is no longer considered an overwhelming favorite.

“I can’t believe St. Gens is a big game,” Douglas said, shaking his head and looking at the ground. “The last time it was a big game for me was freshman year.”