Working for a Better Dei

Times Staff Writer

The storied basketball program at Verbum Dei High, the former home of NBA and college stars past and present, is caught in the worst kind of full-court press.

A new corporate work program, designed to help the small Catholic school keep its doors open, seems to be bringing its tradition-rich boys' basketball team to its knees.

Verbum Dei, which plays Huntington Beach Ocean View today in the Nike Extravaganza at the Long Beach Pyramid, has already lost more times -- five -- in 14 games than it did all last season, when the Eagles went 29-4 and won a Southern Section championship.

Coach Ronnie Gipson attributes the team's struggles to the practice and games some of his players are missing because of their participation in an off-campus work program designed to raise money for the financially foundering school.

School officials don't offer any attractive options. They say the work program must take priority or Verbum Dei might shut down.

"What's at stake here is that there might not be a school to have a basketball team," said Jeff Bonino-Britsch, the work program's director.

The program, launched this year, works this way:

Companies pay Verbum Dei $25,000 each school year and, in turn, the school assigns students to do on-site clerical work at 35 companies, including 11 law firms. Typical duties include filing, faxing and answering phones.

Each student is required to work five days a month. In return, their families receive an $1,800 break in the cost of tuition and textbooks, dropping the cost of attending Verbum Dei this year to $2,200, the lowest among high schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The program was introduced to financially brace the struggling all-boys school, located in the heart of Watts and referred to as "a beacon of light" in the community by administrators and alumni.

Verbum Dei opened in 1962 and began to gain national prominence in the 1970s with teams that featured future NBA players David Greenwood and Roy Hamilton. More recent alumni include the Clippers' Andre Miller and promising University of Utah freshman Richard Chaney.

Enrollment, which used to be in the 300s, has gradually sagged the last 10 years. It was 191 last year. It is now about 145.

Some parents relish the tuition break and approve of their children getting a head start on resume-building by working in corporate environments. But not everybody is thrilled with the work program, particularly people involved with the basketball team. They point to a Dec. 17 game between Verbum Dei and Riverside King, last season's state Division II champion, as an example of their frustration.

Verbum Dei played without two starters and lost, 57-54, in the first round of the Chino Hills Ayala tournament. The game was scheduled for 3 p.m. on a Tuesday. The missing starters could not get off work in time. King won by making a three-pointer in the final seconds.

Senior guard Mike Davis was one of the missing starters. He couldn't leave the downtown law office where he was working.

"We got back from work and they said we lost at the buzzer," Davis said. "And that was at the tournament we were supposed to win.

"Some of us are planning on going to college through sports and if we miss games, it's not good."

School officials say that parents and students were informed of the possibility of missing games at an orientation at the start of the school year, but that hasn't curbed the concerns of former alumni such as Greenwood.

"I'm disappointed with a lot of the things that have transpired -- it's embarrassing," Greenwood said. "The inflexible way they're trying to do it is not right. It's like telling [UCLA forward] Jason Kapono, 'You can't play against USC if you don't do your job on campus, working in the sandwich shop.' "

Greenwood graduated from Verbum Dei in 1975, was a two-time All-American at UCLA and had a 12-year NBA career. He returned to Verbum Dei as a coach for three seasons and led the Eagles to the 1998 and 1999 state Division IV championships.

Greenwood is now coaching at Chino Don Lugo. Greenwood's son, Jamil, a 6-foot-4 freshman, is there as well, not at Verbum Dei.

"He needs to have his butt in school five days a week, not working," Greenwood said.

Miller, who led the NBA in assists last year at Cleveland before being acquired by the Clippers during the off-season, was the main reason Verbum Dei went 29-3 and won the Southern Section championship in 1994. Miller then became a two-time All-American at Utah and was selected eighth overall in the 1999 NBA draft.

Miller said he wasn't entirely familiar with Verbum Dei's work program -- "obviously it's something that the school needs in order to stay afloat" -- but he underscored the importance of athletes getting time on the court.

"Some kids might not be able to get into a university with just their education," he said. "If you've got an ability to get into a university you've got to take advantage of it. Maybe that's the only way to get in."

Michael Pagan Jr. is an up-and-coming guard at Verbum Dei, averaging 17 points and seven assists as a junior. His father said the work program is an intriguing idea, but it unfairly penalizes the school's athletes.

"It's a great idea for the kids in that community that don't have a clue to what the inside of a workplace looks like, but I feel it should be at least optional to athletes," said Pagan Sr. "They have a lot more on their plate."

Like other team parents, Pagan Sr. is irritated that players are missing games.

"Here are kids that have potential, but if they have to work on a day where they're supposed to be at the [Long Beach] Pyramid, guess what, they're not going to be seen," Pagan Sr. said. "Reporters are there, college coaches are there. That's going to directly affect his scholarship capabilities."

Parents have called school administrators to try to get their sons out of work on game days. The response: No way. Not this year, anyway.

The program is "not meant to pick on anyone," said Bonino-Britsch, the program's director.

"I want a championship basketball team and I want everybody to play, but how do you set it up so the corporate community sees that the school is serious about the program? We can't say, 'Pay all this money, now we're going to take your guys away.' When we say we're going to provide these young men to earn their tuition, we want to honor that commitment."

Several team parents are angry about a system of fines in place to prevent work truancy.

Students who skip work are fined $100. If they make up the work date, they get back $75. Athletes who miss work on the day of a game are not allowed to play in the game.

Gipson, a second-year coach and a 1987 graduate of Verbum Dei, is adamantly opposed to the work program. He has challenged administrators to find a way to get his players to games on time.

"The last thing I want to see is Verbum Dei close," Gipson said. "If this work program is there to save it, then fine. But I think there should be situations where they go to the work stations and say, 'Is there any way to get around it because of our sports program?' "

Said Verbum Dei Principal Benjamin Callaway: "This is a college preparatory high school, not a basketball training camp. If coaches can work within the parameters of the program, it will work. They have not. That's why the problems are developing."

Gipson's job status has been jeopardized because of his complaints, and Santa Ana Mater Dei assistant coach Walt Simon has been mentioned as a possible replacement.

Meanwhile, none of Verbum Dei's players will miss this morning's game at the Nike Extravaganza.

"All I ask for is one adjustment: Don't have my players miss any games," Gipson said. "If I have to schedule my practice a little later, I can do that. But if you're going to have them miss games, I'm getting the short end of the stick."

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