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Otis Says Return ‘Unbelievable’

Times Staff Writer

The coach who turned Compton Dominguez High into a boys’ basketball powerhouse returned to familiar grounds Wednesday afternoon, and it was just like old times. Hugs, handshakes, smiles all around.

Russell Otis was enjoying the first day of his second chance. Less than 14 hours after the Compton Unified School District board approved his hiring in a hotly contested 4-3 vote, he briefly addressed his players, including three holdovers from the Dons’ 1999-2000 national champions -- his national champions.

“It’s just good to be back, to see the red and gold and black,” Otis said, standing courtside. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. The faces have changed, but this is still Dominguez.”

He received a warm welcome from the players, who know the legend if not the man.

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“I’m happy to be here and have him as a coach,” said David Nichols, a senior forward who greeted Otis with a wide smile. “I’m going to work my hardest and play my heart out for him.”

Added Travon Free, the team’s best player: “He said everything is going to change back to the way it was. If you don’t come out and play hard, you won’t be here or be starting.”

If only it were that easy.

With Otis as coach for 13 seasons, from 1987-2000, the Dons won seven Southern Section titles, four state championships and became the toast of a much-maligned town.

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Sponsored by sports apparel king Nike, they wore top-of-the-line shoes, warmups and uniforms, traveled the country to the best tournaments and competed straight-up with the nation’s best teams.

Dominguez was a magnet for top players, including 7-foot Tyson Chandler, the centerpiece of that national champion, who transferred in because it was among the best basketball schools in Southern California.

Chandler made the jump from Dominguez directly to the Chicago Bulls. But before he left, he and the rest of the Dons celebrated their end-of-the-season No. 1-in-the-nation ranking like professionals, riding around Compton in stretch limousines and receiving championship rings engraved with their names and uniform numbers.

That was in April 2000. Seven months later, the cheering suddenly stopped when Otis was arrested and charged with sexually molesting a former player.

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The allegations were made public in November 2000, and Otis was placed on administrative leave just as the Dons were ready to start defense of their national championship. By February, Otis was officially gone -- ousted by the state-appointed leader of the Compton schools before his trial had even started. The given reason: He lacked a permanent teaching credential -- a detail that had never before been an issue.

Otis, 40, was acquitted of all charges, but that didn’t get him his job back. His request for reinstatement was denied. Last year, he was a teacher at Gardena High; he didn’t coach.

And although he is back at Dominguez and has completed coursework to get a teaching credential, still looming is a civil trial brought by the same family who accused him in the criminal case.

Last week, Randy McMurray, that family’s attorney, seemed dumbfounded that Otis might be allowed to return to coaching. “I would think the people in Compton would think protection of their children is just as important as a winning basketball team,” he said.

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Without Otis, Dominguez’s basketball program quickly unraveled.

Mack Calvin, who had college and NBA experience, was brought in as coach before last season, but even he was unable to stem the tide of defections among players loyal to Otis.

The Dons made the playoffs but sputtered to a 15-12 finish, losing more games than they had the previous three seasons combined.

Calvin, citing other personal priorities, resigned in October, about a month before the Dons were scheduled to open this season. The father-son team of Horace and Joey Aubrey -- both former Dominguez players -- took over the team on an interim basis, guiding the Dons to a 2-2 start.

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Late Tuesday night, shortly after learning the Compton school board had decided to bring him back, Otis was visibly relieved.

“I think this is one step toward getting back on track and getting [my] life back in line,” he said. “It’s still kind of numbing because it’s been so long and you had to fight so hard for a job that’s yours.”

Basil Kimbrew, a longtime school board member with loyalties to Otis, said the coach’s return was possible because control of the district was recently returned to the local board. For a time, the decisions had been made by a state administrator given the assignment of steadying a district beset by poor test scores and a $20-million budget deficit.

“We should have hired him a long time ago,” said Kimbrew, who came to the board meeting sporting a black warm-up jacket with “Dominguez: #1 in the nation” printed in red across the back. “The minute he was exonerated, he should have been here, period.”

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In most Compton circles, Otis maintained his popularity, even before his acquittal. But his support is far from unanimous.

Board members Cloria L. Patillo, Emma Sharif and Erica P. Quijada-Barrera voted against Otis’ return. Patillo and Sharif declined to comment on the vote and Quijada-Barrera left before the meeting adjourned and did not return a phone message Wednesday.

Randolph E. Ward, who was the state administrator in charge, is now a trustee with veto power over school board decisions. He also declined to comment, but he issued a statement following the vote noting, in part, that “both the board and the state trustee will closely monitor” Otis’ work. Ward has the authority to overrule the board’s decision to rehire Otis at any time.

Said Otis: “He can come to practice every day. I have nothing to hide.”

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Looming just as large over Otis is the civil suit, which includes charges similar to those brought in the criminal complaint. The Compton district is named as a co-defendant, accused of negligence. A jury trial is scheduled to begin in early February.

Attorney McMurray said school district officials made a mistake by allowing Otis’ return. “It would probably behoove the [school district] to wait until a case like that is resolved before moving forward,” he said. “If he is found civilly liable, they would be in a precarious position.”

Otis has filed a cross-complaint against the player and his family, alleging they made “false police reports, lying and perjuring themselves in the proceedings leading up to the said criminal jury trial, and in the course of their testimony at the criminal jury trial.”

In the criminal case, Otis was said to have lured the player to his Carson townhouse where an alleged sexual encounter took place. Another former player testified during the trial that Otis performed oral sex on him and fondled him.

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But several jurors said the prosecution failed to prove that the accuser was molested.

Otis knows some people may never believe he is innocent. “I don’t try to justify or convince people,” he said. "[But the school board decision] goes a long way to show people I was innocent from Day 1.”

Otis has two weeks to prepare the Dons for their next game, Dec. 26 in the Torrey Pines National Prep Classic. Dominguez will play Fairfax, No. 2 in The Times’ rankings, in the kind of matchup that made Otis famous.

“All I want our kids to do is to be players,” Otis said. “Work to improve every single day. Their ego is kind of wounded right now. No one’s giving them a chance this season, and rightfully so. They really haven’t had a lot of time together playing.

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“I think we’ll be all right, though.”


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