Net gain for harmony

Times Staff Writer

The gym in the Nickerson Gardens housing project can be an unfriendly place for anyone who dares to enter without a tough, competitive game of basketball.

Just ask the Latino players from East Wilmington who, in May, for the first time, drove 15 miles to Watts to join the project’s Moonlight basketball league. When they walked on the court, they were greeted with a chorus of taunts, and someone in the crowd issued a blunt warning: “You better not bring any weak stuff in here!”

The 12 young men didn’t flinch; they knew they would have to prove themselves if they wanted respect in a tournament dominated by African Americans.


They were shorter than the players on the other top teams, and not quite as fast. Still, they were every bit as tenacious, and at times a little cocky. They had grown up together, were confident in one another’s games and knew that when all else failed, they could rely on their star player: Joey Saavedra, a 24-year-old sharpshooter and former Banning High School superstar who dropped out of sight four years ago after being convicted of attempted armed robbery.

Joey was back and ready to make a difference.

With the 6-footer leading the way, East Wilmington, one of four Latino teams participating in the 12-team tournament, began winning games and gaining the respect of the players and admiration of the fans.

“This is good for the community,” said Donny Joubert, who runs the Moonlight league, an offshoot of midnight basketball programs established in the early ‘90s to reduce gang violence. “This is not just an African American gym.”


From the first tip-off of the tournament, all eyes were on Saavedra.

“He is a one-man show,” said Coach Manuel Panduro. “But he also makes everybody else on his team play better.”

Those in the stands noted Saavedra’s cross-over dribble, his moves and his shooting accuracy.

“He plays with a lot of soul,” said Hank Henderson, a recreation assistant at Nickerson Gardens. “Joey is gifted. He can shake and bake, drop back and hit a three-pointer or make a move like Michael Jordan.”


In one dramatic finish, Saavedra knocked a ball out of the hands of an opposing player, ran down the court to catch a pass and laid the ball in the basket as the buzzer went off ending the game.

The stands emptied and a celebration broke out on the court. But then the referees denied the basket, declaring that the shot came too late, just after the buzzer. Saavedra’s team won in overtime.

It was that way at Banning High, where the young player rose to fame, averaging just under 32 points a game. Once, after a 44-point burst, including 10 three-pointers, an opposing coach compared Saavedra’s offensive talents to Inglewood High School graduate Paul Pierce, who, as a professional this year, led the Boston Celtics to the NBA championship.

Sam Turks, a 32-year-old point guard on the Compton squad who played high school ball with Pierce, agreed. He said he was aware of Saavedra’s reputation by the time he had to cover him.

“I was told he could shoot and not to leave him open,” Turks said. “They didn’t tell me that I could have two hands in his face and he could still knock it down.”

At Los Angeles Harbor College, Coach Tony Carter-Loza had high expectations for Saavedra when he started playing for the team in 2003. The Seahawks were off to a better start than in previous seasons, but then Carter-Loza received a call during the winter break. Saavedra had been arrested in a car with two other men and charged with attempted robbery.


“He doesn’t seem to want to leave the guys he grew up with,” Carter-Loza said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But as time goes on everyone, sooner or later, moves in different directions.”

Saavedra sees that chapter in his life as a big mistake. “It was a dumb thing to do,” he said. “We didn’t need the money.”

At the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, where he finished his 18-month sentence, Saavedra recalls serving his time in a holding cell. “There was nothing to do,” he recalled. “I keep it in my past. There was time to wash clothes, take baths and try to keep busy. It was all a sign from God. It opened my eyes.”

In August 2005, to celebrate his release from prison -- and to keep him closer to home -- Saavedra’s family paved over the backyard and built a basketball court. He returned to the sport he loved.

At Nickerson Gardens, Joubert said he has heard similar stories.

“We have a lot of kids who get caught up in the life,” he said. “The goal is to get them back on track, go to work, go back to school and do something positive in their lives.”


East Wilmington wasn’t an obvious entry in the Nickerson Gardens tournament. Some of the players were reluctant to face teams that bore some familiar names: the Compton All-Stars, Fremont, Imperial Courts, Nickerson Gardens.


“Are you serious?” Freddie Lopez, East Wilmington’s 6-foot-3 center, asked his coach. “We’re not going to play in Nickerson Gardens. That’s in the middle of Watts.”

But Joubert said the tournament established a “safe zone” around the recreation center, bringing in community members as a private security team -- the same force recently enlisted to provide help at the 109th Street Pool, which was shut down one Sunday last month after a band of young men took it over.

In addition, Joubert arranged to have an L.A. Police Department patrol car stationed outside the center.

After a few games, Joubert received a call from one of the coaches of the Latino teams.

“They felt so comfortable with the tournament that they wanted to know if it was OK to bring their families to the games,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Sure, bring them!’ Then, suddenly, the mothers and the little kids were here.”

Saavedra said the tournament helped his self-confidence.

“You have a lot of guys who say, ‘If you can play here, you can play anywhere,’ ” Saavedra said. “To hear that can only make me better. I want to play against the best. I’m 24. I don’t want to look back at my life and have any regrets. I want to say at least I gave it a shot.”

The East Wilmington players made it to the semifinals but failed to make it to the finals of the tournament. They were beaten by Compton, which lost to Fremont.


But the men from East Wilmington made their mark. At tonight’s awards banquet at the Nickerson Gardens recreation center they will all be recognized.

And Joey Saavedra will get the award for Most Valuable Player.