Scrawny kids in baggy Lakers shorts and high-tops file into the Leuzinger High gymnasium--a timeworn building where the lights over one basket were out all last summer, so players learned to shoot in the dark.
There are no personal trainers in sight, no kiddie sports psychologists, no specialists who charge $100 an hour to improve an 8-year-old’s vertical leap. The coach of the 4D Stars basketball academy, the club’s sole employee, makes $12,000 a year.
It is a world away from the affluent mania of elite youth sports.
As the pursuit of athletic excellence grows more frantic in Southern California’s well-heeled neighborhoods, thousands of children try to keep pace in the dingy gymnasiums and trampled fields of communities like tiny, blue-collar Lawndale.
In addition to dribbling a basketball or whacking a baseball, athletes in neighborhoods like this are taught how to read or how to tuck in their shirts so they won’t be mistaken for gang members--not how to shine for college recruiters. Uniforms, trophies and halftime snacks are either donated or forgotten.
And most of the 4D players have already received the only scholarship they’ll ever get: a free ride past the team’s $55 entry fee.
Today, Southern California youth sports operates under a caste system, opening doors for kids with the money to pay for it, and leaving poorer areas behind.
In wealthy neighborhoods, “You’re pretty much buying yourself a chance to get better,” says Nicole Quinn, who coaches volleyball and basketball at Santa Ana Valley High School. “It’s unfair for those kids that can’t afford it. We just can’t compete.”
Even when urban youths get the chance to compete with their suburban counterparts, often they can’t afford to show up for the games.
Last year, the coach of a wealthy Orange County soccer club came to inner-city Los Angeles for a clinic and invited 14-year-old Javier Murillo to join his traveling squad. The coach came with promises of better competition, coaching and exposure to recruiters. Instead of mottled dirt fields, Javier could play on Irvine’s lush, green carpets. To sweeten the pot, the coach offered to cover Javier’s tournament fees, effectively a scholarship worth hundreds of dollars.
But Javier’s family still would have had to pay more than $1,000 in club dues and take the boy to tournaments across Southern California, as well as to weeknight practices in Irvine. That would have been impossible.
“We wish we could take him,” says his father, Antonio Murillo. “He says: ‘How can I get better if I don’t play with better kids?’ ”
That’s a conundrum the Murillos, like thousands of other Southern California families, struggle with each day.
“A lot of these kids will never get a chance, because they made it a business,” says Efren Herrera, a former National Football League place-kicker with the Dallas Cowboys, who in recent years has coached Southern California soccer teams made up of inner-city and poor children. “These young kids have dreams. You take that away from them too, and what do they have? Nothing.”
‘The Playing Field Isn’t Level’
For years, sports has been seen as a ticket out of the inner city.
There are still athletes from poorer urban areas who are “discovered” and ushered by recruiters, scouts or coaches into college or the professional ranks. Programs have been launched to bring baseball back to poorer areas, including Reviving Baseball in the Innercities, a 10-year-old program established in Los Angeles and since expanded nationwide.
And the city of Los Angeles is preparing to launch a $2-million golf academy aimed at inner-city children. Recreation and Parks Commission President Steven L. Soboroff says the free academy, scheduled to open in Griffith Park in three months, could eventually serve 30,000 youngsters. And while they will learn golf, they will also learn business and financial skills--and will be required to bring their homework.
“The playing field isn’t level for poor children, and I want to tip the scale,” Soboroff says. “Golf is a widget. It’s not about playing golf. It’s about building a better life.”
But the reality is that a majority of today’s elite athletes come from mostly affluent suburbs, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Education. Top high school athletes from wealthy families are 3.5 times more likely to play sports in college than top high school athletes from poor households.
Southern California parents spent $1 billion last year on their child-athletes, according to a Times analysis of the burgeoning youth sports industry.
By all accounts, that investment has driven the level of talent and competition in the suburbs to new heights. All nine girls who graduated from the Mission Viejo Soccer Club’s elite under-19 team last year, for example, received at least partial college scholarships, said former coach Abner Rogers. Top club volleyball and softball teams report similar successes.
A child whose parents can afford private trainers for footwork, nutrition, fast-twitch muscle development--not to mention elite traveling clubs that can cost $5,000 a year--often develops skills that are superior to those of children who can’t afford similar training. And the elite suburban teams often employ professional coaches, some of whom earn more than college coaches.
To be sure, there are youth soccer teams in the suburbs still coached by parents who are more devoted to fun and fundamentals than winning percentages and exposure to recruiters.
In poorer areas, even the best teams--with players that could rival the best of suburbia--are usually coached by volunteers, parents who rush to practice, just like in the old days, from their jobs or their dinner tables.
Players enlisted by high-priced, elite traveling clubs receive more “looks” from college recruiters and pro scouts. Today, a low-income athlete, even if he or she is talented, has little access to the unofficial college tracking system that thrives in the suburbs.
Umberto Jara, who runs the Inter-America Soccer League of mostly Latino players in the San Gabriel Valley, has tried to change that. Since 1995, he has negotiated lower fees for a few Latino teams to join the California Youth Soccer Assn., suburbia’s club soccer umbrella. When his kids can get in, he says, they can compete. Two years ago, his under-18 boys, who pay $10 to $13 a year to play, beat the national champions in the Disney Cup.
“Nobody’s going to come and watch them play in Whittier Narrows,” Jara says. Once these kids graduate, they “end up playing for a six-pack of beer when they could be playing in college or in the pros.”
Providing a ‘Safe Haven’
Back in Lawndale at Leuzinger High, freckled, 9-year-old Tommy Tebbs Jr. nails 18 consecutive shots as his father rebounds for him. Soon the other players arrive, 15 in all--two of them white and the rest black, Latino or Asian.
The players are a ragtag bunch, and the smallest ones have been known to slip through gaps in the dilapidated bleachers. Most players who can’t afford to pay the club dues either keep score when they aren’t playing or run the clock to earn their keep.
They are a reflection of Lawndale itself--a small, working-class community where dozens of steel “rocking horse” oil wells failed to produce riches, leaving a diverse city today of small businesses and tightknit neighborhoods.
Reinaldo “Rey” Henry, the 4D coach, herds the kids into a dizzying choreography of drills, shouting “Defense!” and “Ball!” They respond with a precision that belies their age--some haven’t reached middle school yet.
Jason Pruitt--all 4 feet, 10 inches and 90 pounds of him--calmly zigs and zags past players twice his size and flicks a ball off the backboard with just enough spin that it banks sharply into the basket.
His father, George Pruitt, sits proudly in the bleachers. Pruitt, with his wife, is raising five children in South-Central Los Angeles. He says crack addicts roam aimlessly in front of the family home, and he fears that gangs beckon young boys each day.
Pruitt’s sons play for free because they couldn’t play at all otherwise--though, at about $1,000 a year including lessons, travel and tournament fees, the club is one of the cheapest around.
Pruitt says basketball is the boys’ only avenue to college. But even if a scholarship doesn’t come, Pruitt says he will know that he did what he could to keep them on the court and off the street.
“This is my high,” he says. “I know this keeps them out of the neighborhood. This is a safe place and a safe time. I don’t let them too far out of my sight. So basketball is a blessing.”
Says Henry: “The kids we have here are in it for the right reasons. They are here because they need a safe haven. And we provide that for them.”
Biggest Obstacle Can Be Hunger
Under the flight path of jets approaching Los Angeles International Airport, two soccer games are being played on the nicest field available to the North Central American Youth League, a South-Central-based organization of 110 teams made up of mostly Latino players ages 4 to 18.
The patch isn’t big enough for both games, so one field is truncated. In some places, grass grows wild and unchecked. In other places, the grass has been trampled, leaving pocked dirt patches. But players there take what they can get.
“This is the only one that has grass,” says Cesar Molino, 23, coach of the LA Kings, one of the teams in the American Youth League.
Last year, Major League Soccer, the nation’s premier professional soccer league, held a weeklong camp for 75 youth soccer players in South-Central Los Angeles. The kids who got first dibs weren’t the hottest forwards who scored the most goals for their team, or the ones with money. They were the ones who helped paint 12 homes for low-income families in the neighborhood.
On a fall Saturday, Cleve Freeman, a community activist who helped start youth soccer programs in South-Central after the 1992 riots, picked up a brown grocery bag and dumped a dozen pair of youth cleats onto the turf.
“Pick one that fits,” he said to a young player.
A third of Freeman’s players can’t afford the $10 league fee. Outfitted in uniforms subsidized by flush suburban club teams that kick in for extra jerseys when they buy their own, they “have no clue about the possibility for scholarships.” The biggest obstacle some of his kids face to playing, he says, is hunger.
“We’re a child development program first, soccer second,” Freeman says. “They’re playing strictly for the love and passion of the game.”
Some aspects of city sports would seem alien in the suburbs, such as Henry’s campaign to resuscitate his struggling literacy program.
“We have had some great athletes come through our program,” he says. “But they cannot get a scholarship because they don’t know how to read.”
Henry once held literacy and SAT preparation courses for his players, but four months ago he had to shut the program down because he could no longer afford to pay for classrooms and teachers.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, children from wealthy backgrounds are 31% more likely to meet the academic eligibility requirements of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. than those from poor backgrounds. Just 42.3% of college-bound high school seniors from poor backgrounds meet the qualifications, the department says.
And, while more than 67% of whites and Asian Americans meet the eligibility standards, only 54.1% of Latinos and 46.4% of blacks qualify.
Henry’s decision to cancel the classes reflects the frustration of coaches and players in less affluent regions.
“It’s always about the dollar, no matter which way you turn it,” Henry says.
“Right now all we are doing is paying for the league. That’s all we can afford. Other clubs, the ones that can afford it, they offer the kids the sky. We can’t do that. We have carwashes. We have raffles. I used to get frustrated by it, but that’s just the way it is. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
The Divide Gets Deeper
Because of Southern California’s patchwork of cities and neighborhoods, the divide often exists between teams, leagues or communities that are just a few miles apart.
In November, for example--while Latino kids gathered in Santa Ana for impromptu scrimmages on scrubby fields--a top Orange County club team a few freeway exits away was swept off to a playoff game in a stretch limousine, a surprise from one of the players’ parents.
“All the more economically sound school districts have better teams,” says Quinn, who played and coached basketball at Woodbridge High School in Irvine before taking over at less affluent Santa Ana Valley High--another world, just five miles away.
“They can pay for the club volleyball. They can pay for the travel basketball. . . . It’s hard for me and the other coaches at this school to respect that. It’s hard to accept that we’re going to lose to other schools because their kids play year-round.”
Even when college coaches do scout the inner city, they often find that the players have not been prepared to step up academically to college.
Cal State Northridge softball Coach Janet Sherman said she once tried to recruit a talented teenager from a high school in a lower-income area. The girl’s school counselor was caught by surprise.
“She said, ‘You mean, you really are interested?’ ” Sherman recalls. “The counselor never thought she would go to a four-year school, so she advised her to take courses just to graduate.”
Deepening the divide between the suburbs and the poorer areas, some richer soccer teams routinely poach players from urban teams for select tournaments--allowed by the rules--then dump them back in the city when the weekend is over.
“They come by every so often and watch our players,” Cesar Molino says. “They say, ‘I like kid No. 13, No. 5.’ They end up taking our better players for their tournaments.”
In poorer areas, coaches have a hard time accepting that players with more money have a better chance at receiving a college athletic scholarship than players without money.
“The [college] coaches can’t make it to the high school games, because they’re coaching,” Quinn says. “They go to the club games instead. What kind of people are in the club? The people who can afford to go to college anyway.”
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About This Series
* Sunday: The sports that children once played purely for fun have turned into a high-pressure, big-money pursuit, spawning a $1-billion-per-year industry in Southern California.
* Monday: While the youth sports phenomenon has produced a generation of highly skilled athletes, injuries and early burnout are among its side effects.
* Today: Young athletes from poorer areas miss out on the intense coaching and competition, and end up relegated to separate--and unequal--sports programs.
* On the Web: For a look at the complete series, go to http/www.latimes.com/youthsports
Times staff writer Bill Shaikin contributed to this story.