Bounced Out

Times Staff Writer

Tiny Calvary Christian had visions of becoming a prestigious college preparatory in the mold of five-year private high schools popular on the East Coast, and part of its strategy came from a time-tested blueprint:

Ramp up a juggernaut boys’ basketball program, earn some headlines -- a blue-chip player or two can have a major and immediate impact in the win-loss column -- and more students will come.

But the premise that worked for others left Calvary with a black eye, and thankful that it pulled off the path before it became known as the type of “diploma mill” that has recently drawn the ire of watchdogs from the NCAA to the NBA.


“I didn’t realize the ramifications,” said Aaron Jackson, principal of the kindergarten through 12th grade school of less than 120 in San Fernando.

Jackson and others say the trouble started last fall, after Ron Slater was hired to put together a team. The principal said he knew Slater had been the coach at nearby Stoneridge Prep when that school’s team went 23-1 in the 2002-03 season. What he didn’t know was that Stoneridge had been removed from Southern Section playoff consideration for using ineligible players.

Slater brought to Calvary eight players -- seven of them Stoneridge transfers -- none who initially paid fees or the $3,500 tuition for high school students. Jackson said each was supposed to have a sponsor, but the only money the school received was a $5,000 cashier’s check that arrived by courier.

Of the eight, four attended classes at Calvary for all or nearly all of the school year. Two who stuck it out -- Taj Gibson and Jonathan Gibson (no relation) -- made up the entire 2006 graduating class at Calvary. Both leave with basketball scholarships, Taj, a 6-foot-8 post player, to USC; Jonathan, a 6-2 guard, to New Mexico State.

Also staying were underclassmen Daniel Barros and Darrington Hobson, who moved to Texas this month.

The other half of the team left school after the basketball season, which was really only one outing, the Prep Stars of North America tournament, Dec. 9-11 in London, Canada, where Calvary won the consolation championship.

Slater said in a telephone interview that Calvary’s season was cut short because “there wasn’t going to be any basketball because Mr. Jackson didn’t want it.” The reason was that more than a couple of players were failing as students, failing to turn in assignments or even attend class, according to George Wrighster, Calvary’s athletic director at the time.

Jackson said there was no money for travel for the team.

Taj Gibson said more than one issue led to the demise of the team. He said Slater had “family issues” and that Jackson “looked at our grades and told us we had to take care of our grades first.”

Slater also left Calvary soon after the tournament in Canada. He says he hopes to coach in North Carolina this fall.

Basketball and Calvary were something of an odd match right from the start. The school, on the grounds of Calvary Baptist Church, doesn’t have a gymnasium, so the team practiced off campus. And there were concerns almost immediately when the new players declined to wear the required school uniform on campus and the 18- and 19-year-old recruits seemed to have difficulty mixing in with the school’s younger students.

Some of the players had been in academic trouble before. A Stoneridge official said three had missed so many classes the previous year that they were refused transcripts on their grades, and three others received a total of six incompletes that became Fs.

“It’s a whole, big mess,” said Wrighster, who resigned his post in January. “The kids actually said they thought they were just going to come there and play basketball and be given the grades.”

Jackson and Wrighster now acknowledge that Calvary was headed down a slippery slope. Academic fraud is currently under the microscope, with the NCAA recently announcing a list of 15 high schools whose transcripts would no longer be accepted by its initial-eligibility clearinghouse.

The NCAA has been examining so-called “diploma mills” since early in the spring and its investigation gained momentum after the New York Times and Washington Post uncovered examples of schools with no classrooms or educational accreditation offering correspondence and online courses in which students could earn a diploma within weeks.

The fallout reached the top echelon of the NBA, with Commissioner David Stern telling reporters before Game 1 of the NBA Finals that the league might offer its help to clean up a system in which “world-class athletes get exploited and exposed all the way up.”

Stern didn’t mention any specific plans, but he said the league might attempt to identify potential players earlier and try to make sure they are prepared for a life inside and outside of basketball. “How do you expect to take a kid and drop him into a caldron if he hasn’t been prepared for boiling?” he asked.

Dozens of other schools are still under NCAA review and more might be added to the disqualified list.

Stoneridge Prep, whose roster transferred en masse to Calvary after the 2005 season, was visited by NCAA representatives last month and was on a preliminary banned list until it turned in some late paperwork.

Mike Mahoney, the Simi Valley school’s managing director, said he believes Stoneridge will pass the inspection and added, “We applaud what the NCAA is doing. We have nothing to hide.”

After the controversial end of its 2003 basketball season, Stoneridge Prep left the Southern Section and joined a circuit of nontraditional schools that follow few sports guidelines and are allowed to recruit anyone and travel anywhere in pursuit of games.

Mahoney, 53, a retired venture capitalist who resides in Manhattan Beach, arrived at the school of 50 students in October, brought in a new basketball program from Florida -- coach and players -- and invested $150,000 to expand Stoneridge into a boarding school.

“I grew up on the East Coast where the very best schools all have post graduates and boarding school capabilities, and they’re not just for athletes,” he said.

Last basketball season, nearly the entire Stoneridge team was made up of a coach and players who had suited up for Florida Prep in Port Charlotte, Fla., the season before. New Coach Babacar Sy brought eight Florida players with him when he took over for Slater.

Those players told the Washington Post that they rarely attended classes at Florida Prep, which is not accredited, but Stoneridge officials say they performed well academically this last school year even while missing significant class time while on the road for tournaments.

Mahoney is convinced that a five-year high school -- with a high-profile basketball team as a centerpiece -- can succeed on the West Coast. “Our model says, through sports, you get the publicity to help you grow your business,” he said.

Los Angeles Price, Westlake Village Oaks Christian and San Juan Capistrano Serra are examples of local schools that, in the early stages of their development, invested heavily in sports programs to gain exposure and recognition.

But those schools run four-year programs and subscribe to the rules of the Southern Section, which encompasses hundreds of high schools across Southern California. Fifth-year prep schools aren’t sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation and there is substantial cost in traveling to play similar programs.

Mahoney and Stoneridge are undeterred, but Calvary learned a hard lesson in its one season on the prep school circuit. Nowadays, the only hint of basketball at the campus is a portable hoop on a blacktop lot. The fifth-year experiment is over, Jackson said, and Calvary won’t be playing high school boys’ basketball at any sanctioned level this fall.

What did the principal learn from the experience?

“Not to do it again,” he said.