Palmer's Gift to Poly Is Legacy of Caring

Times Staff Writer

Many accomplished men look back on their careers and base their success strictly on their achievements.

Ron Palmer reflects on 25 seasons as boys' basketball coach at Long Beach Poly High and derives more pride in the achievements of those he has mentored than any state or Southern Section title banner that hangs in the Jackrabbits' gymnasium.

The horde of college and pro standouts who played for Palmer includes future Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn, New England defensive end Willie McGinest and former UCLA guard Tyus Edney, the only Poly alumnus from Palmer's era to win a national college basketball championship.

Palmer's achievements -- a state title and eight section titles to go with 596 victories, and counting -- mean little to the 65-year-old when compared to the heady success of his charges.

"The winning, that will soon be forgotten," Palmer said earlier this week, standing near the end of a second-floor hallway at Poly overlooking Atlantic Avenue. "Not many coaches will be remembered for victories, but they will be remembered for the success of the young men they had an opportunity to coach."

Palmer, who is retiring after this season, will be remembered for more than producing an all-star lineup of alumni. He will be cherished for the way he has taught basic life skills, such as showing up to practice on time, keeping a level head and representing yourself in the best possible manner because, as senior guard Isaiah Freeman put it, "you never know who's watching."

He also will be treasured for his straightforward approach and contrasting personality, which includes a quiet charm off the court and a heated demeanor on it.

"He can get fired up, now," said McGinest, who lives in Santa Monica during the off-season and stays in regular contact with his former coach. "He took us to a different level altogether with discipline and drive. He taught us when to turn on the switch and for us to give everything we had and to pay attention to detail."

Palmer decided to turn in the keys to the gymnasium -- which will soon be named Palmer Pavilion in his honor -- two years ago after a discussion with his wife, Marietta.

She was preparing to leave for Washington, D.C., to work for a nonprofit organization that evaluates school districts and didn't want to be separated from her husband for more than a couple of years.

Palmer was on the brink of qualifying for full retirement benefits and realized that the inner flame that had pushed him as a teacher and coach over the years was flickering.

That affliction has infected several elder basketball coaches in Southern California. Legendary Crenshaw Coach Willie West, who recently recorded his 700th victory, also has acknowledged that he is losing the drive to compete.

"Like Willie, it's become harder to focus," Palmer said. "When you feel yourself not putting in the amount of energy you're capable of, it's time to go. I feel I've reached that point."

Even Palmer's coaching rivals say they don't want him to leave because they will miss the challenge of preparing for one of his teams.

"He could take tremendously athletic teams and discipline them into fine-tuned machines," said Santa Ana Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight, whose Monarchs waged several memorable battles with Palmer's Jackrabbits. "His style was difficult to coach against."

In 1990, Mater Dei needed Jason Quinn's off-balance baseline three-pointer in the final seconds to beat Poly in the Southern California Division I title game -- a defeat that stings Palmer to this day.

More often than not, it was Palmer's teams who were inflicting the heartache.

Said Huntington Beach Ocean View Coach Jim Harris: "During his tenure, Long Beach Poly was like the Los Angeles Jefferson of old -- they had the great athletic teams that were really disciplined. It made it near-impossible to beat them."

Harris, who finished 6-7 against Palmer in head-to-head competition, said he took pride in that losing mark because Poly was typically the class of the section.

At the height of Palmer's success, 14 Poly alumni were playing Division I college basketball at the same time. In 1984, Palmer guided Poly to a state championship. Long Beach State athletic officials took note and offered Palmer the coaching reigns to their men's basketball program. He accepted.

But the honeymoon was short-lived. Despite increasing his win total every year -- from four victories in his first season to seven in his second to 12 in his third -- Palmer resigned in March 1987 after compiling a three-season record of 23-64. The stress of the job caused Palmer to lose weight and sometimes become sick before games.

So he returned to the familiar surroundings at Poly and the winning ways resumed. In Palmer's first season back, 1989-90, Poly won a section title with a roster that included McGinest and Edney.

Shawn Ashley, Poly's co-principal, said Palmer's impact at the high school was fully realized when he was at Long Beach State.

"In those three years, our program started to plummet," Ashley said. "When he came back, it picked right back up."

For all his success, Palmer was more concerned with his players' contributions to society than their contributions to basketball. Once, when a player missed class during the off-season, Ashley recalled, Palmer tracked him down and let him know that education was going to be his ticket to a college education, not athletics.

"There's no way you're going to be playing for him and not doing what you're supposed to be doing," McGinest said. "I saw him not play guys because they were messing around."

Palmer insists the inconsistencies of this season's team -- the Jackrabbits are 8-6 after weekend victories over Long Beach Jordan and Concord De La Salle -- did not factor into his decision to retire. The coach said he knew it would be a rebuilding season following the graduation of Division I college players Marcedes Lewis (UCLA), Bobby Jones (Washington) and Reggie Butler (Fresno State).

"We're struggling because of a lack of experience," said Palmer, whose high school teams have never finished below .500. "This is not the usual mold for us. But this is where you do your best coaching. When you have a team like this, there's so much [for them] to learn."

With four more victories, Palmer will join West and McKnight as the only active coaches in the Southland with at least 600 victories.

Palmer said he intends to spend a year or two with his wife in Washington, then return to their Cypress home upon her retirement. Sharrief Metoyer, a Poly assistant coach who played for Palmer, will replace his mentor as Jackrabbit coach, Ashley said.

No doubt Palmer will be rooting for Metoyer to be an immediate success.

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