Bret Fleming roots for Gonzaga in college basketball, and this surprises no one.
It’s not just that Fleming, the longtime Laguna Beach High boys’ basketball coach, is from the Pacific Northwest.
“They’re a little like us,” Fleming said of the Zags. “They’re the small school that’s always trying to accomplish things against bigger programs. And I think that they play basketball the right way.”
Fleming’s teams have always been known for their scrappy nature, too, as he pushes them to get every ounce of talent out of their often undersized and less-athletic bodies. He’s maybe a little like Norman Dale from “Hoosiers” — if Norman Dale had long blond hair and tried to make time to surf at Oak Street Beach every day.
That hard work has really paid off over the years for Fleming, who was coach from 1990-2000 before returning in 2005. His primary concern is the kids and their progression, but he has built up some pretty big numbers for himself as well. Fleming’s teams have won five league titles overall — really six, but the Breakers lost their 2000 title after a player was found ineligible.
Fleming, 50, has a 219-178 career record. It’s the most wins in program history — and it’s not close. In second place is Ed Bowen (158 wins), the man who preceded Fleming and also coached Laguna in the 1960s.
The prognosis lately has been even more impressive, as the Breakers won their fourth straight outright Orange Coast League title last week. Even in Wednesday’s CIF playoff loss to a much-taller JSerra team, the Breakers battled to the end.
Again, no one in attendance was surprised.
“I think it’s really his commitment to the program that sets him apart from everyone else,” said Chris Sirianni, the former Breakers point guard who graduated in 1998. Last summer, Sirianni helped lead his team to a third straight victory at the Breakers/Artists alumni tournament, which is more like a family reunion than anything.
“I was on varsity for three years and he taught me more life lessons than anyone else except my parents,” Sirianni said. “He used to give it to us pretty good back in the day. When he wants to be, he can be as tough as can be, but there’s almost like an old Fleming and a new Fleming.”
He can still bring the fire, like when he questioned his team following an embarrassing 47-16 loss to Irvine in January. Sixteen points was the lowest total for the Breakers in at least 50 years. Fleming said he called out his players for “a lack of enthusiasm for the game.”
“[Fleming] just said, ‘Do you guys want to be here, and if you don’t, leave,” senior guard Adam Selevan remembered. “And everyone just changed their attitudes toward the whole game. We started to have really good practices, which helped us improve. I know that for me, I had to be more vocal and just step up. He guided me in a way that we really needed.”
But maybe Fleming has mellowed out. After leaving the program in 2000, he took up surfing, mostly to spend time with his son Ty, now a junior at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. He gets to spend more time with his daughter Katy — a junior at the high school — because she’s the team’s designated videographer.
When he came back to coaching, he also had the full support of his wife of 21 years, Kelly.
“It wasn’t an easy decision at the time, but he had always missed it,” Kelly Fleming said. “I think he knew in his heart that he wanted to do it again. I was totally supportive because that’s what he loves to do.
“And,” she added with a laugh, “when he wasn’t doing it he got a little grumpy.”
Ryan Lawler, who graduated in 2009 and now plays at Chaminade University in Hawaii, said he was a little surprised the Breakers could win another league title this year with all the talent the team lost. Then again, maybe he shouldn’t have been.
“You have to give everything you got,” said Lawler, the 2009 Orange Coast League co-MVP with teammate Dylan Roley. “We all bought in. We sacrificed a lot, because he sacrifices a ton.”
Josh Borella, who graduated from the program in 1991 before playing at Saddleback, was the team’s only senior during Bret Fleming’s first season as head coach, averaging 31 points a contest. He paid his former coach perhaps the ultimate compliment.
“I have two boys, one is 2 years old and one is 4,” Borella said. “I hope he’s still coaching there when they get into high school. I think he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever encountered. Nobody prepares like Bret. His teams, I think, reflect him in a lot of ways.”
And, at this stage in his career, Fleming is appreciative of the relationships he’s made.
“I’m just really blessed to be where I’m at,” he said. “I walk to work, I walk to church, I surf here in town. Everything I do is within about 1 square mile. I’m just kind of rooted in the community. I just feel really blessed, really fortunate to be in this circumstance.
“I never planned to be here for 23 years, or whatever it is. But I’m glad I’m here.”