As reclamation projects go, restoring the image of the scandal-ridden Lakewood Artesia boys' basketball program ranked up there with the prospect of raising the Titanic.
Artesia had just been stripped of two Southern Section titles and two seasons' worth of victories when Scott Pera replaced Wayne Merino as the Pioneers' coach before the 2000-01 season.
Under Merino, Artesia was alleged to have allowed a player from the Dominican Republic and another from Iceland to enroll using falsified student visas. One of the athletes supposedly had played high school basketball for five years, a violation of California Interscholastic Federation rules. Financial improprieties were also found to have taken place within the program.
"Artesia was perceived as the bad boy," Pera said. "And that was something we wanted to change."
Nearly three years later, the Artesia program features a shiny new veneer, but it has little to do with the Pioneers' sterling record or newly remodeled gymnasium.
Pera has Artesia right where he wants it, stocked with players cultivated from within the program who are winning by playing by the rules.
"Coach Pera is outstanding," said Artesia Principal Laura Rogers, who, like Pera, was brought in after the scandal to handle damage control. "He has been dedicated and committed to making sure that the boys are doing the right thing. Not only has he done it the right way, he's been continually improving the team."
After posting 20-win seasons his first two years, Pera has the Pioneers (14-2, 4-0 Suburban League) in excellent position to make a run at the Division III-AA championship, which would be their first section title since winning the Division II-A crown in 2000. They are No. 12 in The Times' rankings.
Four of Artesia's five senior starters, guards Kejuan Johnson and Jibri Taylor, and forwards Kalaen Daniels and Reggie Brown, have been on the varsity since their sophomore years.
Johnson, a shooting guard who is averaging 19.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists, said his mother wanted him to transfer to Long Beach Poly in the wake of the scandal. But Pera's arrival prompted Johnson, and several other freshmen who considered transferring, to stick around.
"We all talked ourselves into staying together and starting a new team," Johnson said. "Coach Pera just told us it was our time to shine."
Pera knew how to build a winner, having guided Annville Cleona (Pa.) High to a Class AA state title during his five seasons with the team.
His girlfriend, Alyssa, an aspiring screenwriter, prompted his move to Southern California. The couple is now married.
Upon his arrival, Pera met with his only friend in the area, former Artesia assistant coach Neil Olshey, who left the school before the scandal hit. After learning about the coaching vacancy created by Merino's dismissal, Pera applied.
One of his first actions as coach was to tell his players they had to help repair the program's tarnished image.
"They didn't understand that what had happened changed the perception of people looking at Artesia," Pera said. "I told them if you want something, you have to earn it. They could have really gone south on me, but they stuck with me."
Pera showed he was serious about more than basketball by instituting grade checks and mandatory study sessions during trips.
Said Johnson: "One of his main goals is our education. He's done a lot more for us than just basketball."
The Artesia scandal still resonates in some corners.
Long Beach Poly Coach Ron Palmer, who is retiring after this season, said one of the things that "really bothered" him during his 25-year career as a high school coach was losing to Artesia teams composed partly of ineligible players in the 1998 and 1999 section playoffs.
Palmer said that experience contributed to his belief that the purity of high school basketball has vastly deteriorated.
"High school basketball isn't about high school basketball anymore," Palmer said. "It's about all-star teams, bringing people in from other countries to play.... It's about money, and there are people out there who will win at all costs."
Palmer gets a chance at a little bit of revenge at 8 tonight, when No. 25 Poly plays Artesia in the Long Beach Challenge at Long Beach Cabrillo High.
A Jackrabbit victory would give Palmer his 600th career win.
The Long Beach Challenge's day session features three games: Lakewood vs. Downey at 11:30 a.m.; No. 20 Bellflower St. John Bosco vs. Long Beach Wilson at 1 p.m., and Long Beach Millikan vs. Sylmar at 2:30 p.m.
In addition to the Poly-Artesia game, the evening session features Long Beach Jordan vs. Santa Margarita at 5 p.m. and Long Beach Cabrillo vs. Lynwood at 6:30 p.m.
One of the benefits of having John Wooden's great-grandson on your team is the time it allows you to spend with the legendary former UCLA coach.
Huntington Beach Ocean View Coach Jim Harris is reaping that benefit thanks to the presence of junior swingman John Impelman.
Harris has visited with Wooden at his condominium on several occasions to talk basketball, five to six hours at a time.
Impelman embodies many of the aspects that Wooden liked to see in his players, Harris said.
"He is the all-out hustle guy," Harris said of the 6-foot-2 reserve. "He is tenacious and he always has a great attitude."