L.A. riots affected city hoops

L.A. City Section basketball ruled the state in the 1980s and 1990s, but the 1992 L.A. riots are the flash point for its steady 20-year decline. AP Photo/Reed Saxon

LOS ANGELES -- On March 6, 1992, the CIF Los Angeles City Section held its annual basketball championships at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena. With the competing schools involved, longtime Fremont coach Sam Sullivan knew the atmosphere to expect.

Sullivan's Fremont team took on Central League rival South Gate in the 3A title game, with Westchester and Crenshaw in the 4A nightcap.

"You had Crips affiliated with Crenshaw and the Bloods with Fremont, so you knew there would be tension," Sullivan said.

The Crips and the Bloods are notorious Los Angeles street gangs with origins dating to 1969. Both groups operate autonomously, have large African-American male memberships and are made up of smaller gangs known as "sets," some of which feud with one another.

After Fremont defeated South Gate, many of the fans watching the second boys' game were distracted by gang-related altercations in the Sports Arena's upper level. All throughout the final game, many fans in the middle level spent much of their time turned away from the game to check out the latest rhubarb.

"There was a lot of gang activity going on in the Sports Arena," said Rico Laurie, a junior reserve guard for Westchester at the time. "I didn't really notice [any fights], but did see a lot of gang members, either behind our bench or in the stands. It was very active and definitely a lot going on in there. We didn't always know if we were safe or not. It was a surreal environment for teenagers."

The scene was surreal, but at that time, life in inner-city Los Angeles often seemed that way.

A city changed forever

Tension ran high between L.A. residents of different ethnic backgrounds in the early 1990s. An ongoing recession fueled high rates of unemployment in the city, between 8 percent and 10 percent in 1992, according to the Los Angeles Times, and it built resentment about living conditions. Many traditional African-American neighborhoods were seeing an influx of Latino residents, which added to the racial tension.

On March 3, 1991, African-American motorist Rodney King was beaten by four police officers, and the incident was captured on video. During the criminal trial, the city held its collective breath awaiting a verdict against the officers charged with assault and the use of excessive force. As the verdict neared, tensions were higher than usual because of resentment among many South L.A. residents regarding the sentence in the fatal shooting of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year Westchester student gunned down at a local liquor store on March 16, 1991. A jury found Korean store owner Soon Ja Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter with a 16-year prison sentence recommendation on Nov. 15, 1991, but the presiding judge, Joyce Karlin, reduced the sentence to probation, community service and a fine.

Five and half months after that, on April 29, 1992, a Ventura County jury acquitted all four police officers of assault and acquitted three of the four of using excessive force against King. Immediately following the acquittals, thousands of people of different ethnicities rioted throughout Los Angeles over a six-day span.

The Los Angeles riots left 53 dead, thousands injured and property damage estimated at $1 billion. Although two of the four law enforcement officers later were found guilty of violating King's civil rights, the damage was done.

The riots were the flash point of the L.A. City Section's decline in basketball over the next 20 years.

Today the talent level on L.A. City Section teams -- and even some Southern Section schools near South L.A. -- and the sheer amount of players attaining college scholarships has never been lower.

The City game

Since the advent of the modern California state championships in 1981, the road to the highest-level classification title (Division I) has gone through the L.A. City Section, composed of high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. L.A. City Section schools have won 18 of 32 Division I state titles.

Quick, perimeter-oriented teams that defeat opponents with pressure defense and transition offense defined City ball over the years. The L.A. City Section has its share of great individual talent, but top-tier L.A. City squads are usually defined by depth and the ability to wear teams down.

Many qualities that define a City ballplayer from that era were found in Vince "Chico" Langston. A tough 5-foot-9 guard, Langston paid his dues on Crenshaw's junior varsity team in 1987-88, when the program had eight seniors bound for Division I and 14 eventual scholarship players on its roster. The '88 team that eventually rose to No. 1 in national rankings and the reserves off that team made up a majority of Crenshaw's '89 team, the last City team to win a state title before the riots.

While playing for Crenshaw, Langston was a full-fledged member of the Westside Rolling 60s, a well-known set of the Crips.

"I was a member since seventh grade, and you never get out of being in a gang," Langston said. "I was always on point. Whenever I played in Slam-In-Jam, in Watts or other neighborhoods, I had homies on deck at the game. I always had my gun with me in my bag. Everybody knew I was from the 60s, but most guys gave me a pass."

Other members of the Rolling 60s looked out for Langston when he played basketball in rival neighborhoods. Langston and Danny Griffin, another member of Crenshaw's '89 team, said gang members were often some of the team's biggest supporters.

"They didn't want me to be around all the time; they encouraged me to go ball," said Langston, who played at two junior colleges and Morgan State University. "Pretty much now, if you're not going to school [for athletics or academics], but you ain't from the hood, [gangs] are not going for that anymore. There is no in between.

"Guys don't have that support from the neighborhood, from the guys who are supposed to push you. I think kids feel like they aren't going to make it."

With the changing attitudes toward gang-affiliated athletes, some never make it to the point of catching the eye of college recruiters the way Langston was able to.

Leaving the city

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of South Los Angeles was approximately 47.5 percent African-American and 49.8 percent Latino in 2000. Ten years later, the African-American population stood at 37.5 percent and the Latino population at 59.7 percent. Although there are no available U.S. Census statistics broken down by community within the city of Los Angeles for earlier decades, South L.A. lost 17 percent of its African-American population between 1980 and 1990, according to the Los Angeles Times.

There has been a large population shift of African-American families, accentuated by the riots, from the inner city to other areas of Southern California. Some families simply left the state.

Mark Tennis, Cal-Hi Sports co-founder and current ESPNHS deputy editor, missed only one of those 32 state finals and can't recall more than a handful of starters on those 18 L.A. City title teams who were not African-American. The dwindling of African-American enrollment at South L.A. schools that previously competed for CIF state titles -- Crenshaw, Manual Arts, Fremont -- is most vivid at Manual Arts and Fremont.

According to enrollment figures released by the Los Angeles Times, Manual Arts' student body was 72 percent African-American in 1980, with a 55 percent decrease in the percentage of students from the same background today. Fremont was 96 percent African-American in 1980, but is now 90 percent Latino. Many Latino students choose baseball and soccer as their primary sports, and this is evident in the makeup of the current teams at these inner-city schools.

To illustrate the exodus of the basketball talent pool, Reggie Morris Sr., the varsity coach at Manual Arts for 11 seasons who guided the Toilers to the '88 state title in his last season there, says he doesn't believe any of his former players have sons who played basketball at the school.

"With the riots, things began to escalate," Morris Sr. said. "You had whole sets of families moving out, even if it wasn't all at the same time. Then you began to see Crips and Bloods out in the Inland Empire. Parents moved out to gets their kids away from gangs, but in many instances kids were already in the gang."

Langston is raising his 12-year old son and 9-year old daughter far from his old stomping grounds off 59th Street and Crenshaw Boulevard. He lives 110 miles away in the desert resort town of Palm Springs.

"When I go back to the block now, only one person from my era still lives there," Langston said. "Everyone else either got killed or moved."

Quality education: Fallacy or reality?

At the 2011 Torrey Pines Holiday Classic in Del Mar, a public school coach in the Compton Unified School District was trying to sell the virtues of his program to parents or anyone who would listen. A few parents and coaches could only shake their head in bewilderment.

"How can you compare the educational and athletic opportunities at a school like Orange Lutheran to a pubic school?" one coach who asked to remain anonymous asked rhetorically. "Gabe is experiencing things he never would have at a public school."

"Gabe" is Gabe York, Lutheran's high-scoring guard ranked No. 65 in the ESPN 100. He lives 30 miles from the school in West Covina, and earned a scholarship to the University of Arizona. York's situation, and those similar, doesn't go unnoticed by parents striving for better opportunities for their children than they themselves had.

"He didn't have his best game at the Fairfax State Preview, but man, Gabe York looks like a million bucks in the Trinity League," said Nicole Player, a 1996 graduate of Washington Prep. "Prep schools and private schools, that's where the college coaches are looking for players [to award scholarships]."

Player has a son, 6-3 seventh-grader Billy Preston, whom plenty of high school coaches would love to have on their roster in two or three years. Preston has a reputation as a talented middle school player, but there is only one certainty about his high school career -- it won't be spent at Washington Prep or any other nearby South L.A. school.

"No, my son would never go to an inner-city high school," Player said. "The main reason is the atmosphere and potential for violence. Many times, athletes can get away from it on campus, but my fear is the out-of-school activity. As the mother of an athlete, I want my kid prepared to go to the next level [academically], and college coaches have concerns that inner-city athletes are not prepared."

Morris and Kim Bly, Washington Prep's athletic director and a former multisport athlete at Cal State Los Angeles, say they believe the notion of inner-city students being at an academic disadvantage is overstated. Both say they believe preparation, a strong academic work ethic and an educated support system can help inner-city students overcome existing challenges.

"We have many qualifiers (kids eligible for scholarships), but you have to have educators to push them to be qualifiers," Bly said. "Everyone from parents to the school administration has to be involved and everyone has to be on the same page.

"I ask kids, 'Why are you going to school out of the area?' They always say 'better environment.' I ask them 'How do you know it's better?' We want kids to know we have a lot of programs to offer. It's what you put into it."

Morris Sr. points to his son, Reggie Morris Jr., currently the coach at St. Bernard, a private school in Playa Del Rey, as evidence that a good education is attainable at an inner-city public school. Morris Jr. played for Ed Azzam at Westchester, then finished high school playing for his father at Locke in 1996.

"My son went to public schools, got a decent score on the SAT and got into UC Santa Barbara," Morris Sr. said. "I know there are good teachers in public schools. If you want an education, you can get an education."

Despite his beliefs, the former Manual Arts and Locke coach is empathetic toward parents such as Player whose concerns about safety make their decision to leave inner-city public schools behind easier.

"Society has changed," Morris Sr. says. "You can't blame parents for wanting to keep their kids safe."

Private-school dominance

If there is any doubt how the exodus of African-Americans from South L.A. or how fears about the safety and educational opportunities at the region's schools are affecting its basketball programs, one only has to look at the last two CIF state championship events for validation.

Including all five divisions, boys and girls, private schools won all 10 state championships both years.

Wesley Saunders led L.A. Windward, a school located in Mar Vista on the city's Westside, to the 2011 Division IV state title before moving on to Harvard. Saunders would have graduated from Los Angeles High or Dorsey, another traditionally strong basketball school in South L.A., had he attended the public school in his neighborhood.

The hero for Bishop Alemany, one of two San Fernando Valley boys' programs to win a state title in 2012, was Marqueze Coleman. This year's Cal-Hi Sports Division III State Player of the Year and his brother Michael Coleman transferred two years ago from Dorsey.

"Fremont and the others schools just don't have the players," said Mychal Lynch, the coach at L.A. Price, a private school on Vermont Avenue in South L.A. Lynch was also an LAPD detective for the 77th Division at the time of the '92 riots. "The landscape has changed drastically. The thinking is it's safer and there is better education on the outskirts. It's caused some black families to move out of the area."

Lynch, whose program has won six lower-level state titles, also points to coaching instability as another factor.

"Coach [Sam] Sullivan is the only one who's been there [a long time]," Lynch said. "Stability is key in the community. Fifteen, 20 years ago, you knew with Willie West at Crenshaw, they were never going to have a down year. With Reggie Morris and Randolph Simpson, Manual Arts was really able to compete" for the state title.

Dominic Ellison, who earned a scholarship to Washington State in 1993 and helped Inglewood Morningside to the '92 Division III state title, feels a generation of more informed parents, not just educational and safety concerns, is a big factor driving kids to private schools.

"I think it's a societal trend," Ellison said. "Parents are more protective and aware of the educational and athletic opportunities for their kids. I went to Morningside basically because it was five minutes away from my home. I had to get to school the best way I could. It was either walk or ride the RTD (public bus)."

While Ellison says he feels a younger generation of parents is more involved and prepared in decision-making that helps kids maximize scholarship opportunities, Sullivan says he sees some negative from that change.

"Having a false sense of entitlement is a big problem with kids now," said Sullivan, the head coach at Fremont since 1978. "Nowadays, parents give more to their kids instead of making them earn it. Parents used to say, 'When he's with you, he's yours.' Now they want to point out what you're doing wrong."

Many of the remaining African-American families in South L.A. are thinking long and hard before sending their sons to neighborhood schools, and private schools are welcoming student-athletes with open arms.

The fallout

In the 2012 L.A. City Division I playoff semifinal doubleheader at Cal State Dominguez Hills, Woodland Hills Taft took on Crenshaw and Dorsey squared off against Westchester. Griffin, Laurie, and plenty of other ex-L.A. City players were in attendance to watch.

The action was fast-paced and the crowd was boisterous at times, but the talent level was a far cry from what it was 20 years ago. ESPN Recruiting's Joel Francisco said he has never seen it so low in more than 25 years of watching L.A. City basketball.

When West ruled at Crenshaw, winning eight state championships between 1983 and '97, the Cougars' tryouts were nearly as legendary as their fourth quarter full-court press. Upward of 80 to 100 hopefuls would try out, hoping to wear the famous blue and gold 'Shaw jersey.

During tryouts for a spot on that ultra-talented '88 team, a sophomore named Marcell Capers hoped to crack the varsity roster. He ended up backing up Langston on the junior varsity and left for Manual Arts. Two years later, Capers scored 26 points to help Manual Arts beat Crenshaw in the City 4A title game and later earned a scholarship to Arizona State. As the urban legend goes, 1993 ESPNHS All-American Jacque Vaughn, a four-year starter at Pasadena Muir who played at Kansas and 12 years in the NBA, didn't attend Crenshaw because of the uncertainty of cracking the lineup.

When Griffin (UNLV) and Langston (who later gained a small measure of fame in the hip-hop group Chico & Coolwadda) helped Crenshaw to the '89 state title, it was actually Westchester, with point guard Sam Crawford (New Mexico State) and forward Zan Mason (UCLA), which opened up the preseason ranked No. 1 in the state. Reseda Cleveland, with future NBA players Lucious Harris and Adonis Jordan, plus six other eventual Division I recruits, spent most of the season ranked No. 2 in the state. Both Westchester and Cleveland lost in the section playoff quarterfinals.

In the final Cal-Hi Sports Top 20 rankings that season, five LAUSD programs (of a section with 49 schools) finished ranked among the state's top nine. In 2012, only city champion Taft at No. 15 finished in the Top 20 out of 94 LAUSD schools.

Next season, the prospects to produce state-ranked teams don't appear much better. Westchester's 2012 junior varsity team was talented. Taft will continue to be solid as long as former NBA guard Jason Hart, who played for Azzam at Westchester before finishing at Inglewood, is coaching. Beyond those two, the outlook is rather bleak.

"It used to be prestigious to play basketball at Crenshaw," Griffin said. "The city used to be the place to be."

The new generation

No longer are future Pac-12 players getting cut from L.A. City varsity teams or tryouts so daunting that talented players look elsewhere. Today, playing basketball at Crenshaw or another traditional inner-city power is similar to playing at a public school in the San Fernando Valley, Orange County or the Inland Empire -- coaches are optimistic to compete with the state's best teams and players hope to -- not expect to -- catch the attention of a college recruiter.

In 2012, inner-city coaches no longer have the difficult task of cutting talented players that would run through a brick wall to be part of the team. Today coaches spend just as much time teaching the game as they do trying to get their smaller talent pool to come out for the team and stay motivated to play.

"It's been hard for me to get kids that live around Fremont to come to Fremont," Sullivan said. "Sometimes other coaches or the kids' AAU coach use fear tactics. With Fremont, it's always the Blood gangs -- fear of that gang element.

"It used to be four or five kids on every team affiliated with some group. Twenty-five years ago, I had plenty of kids that couldn't stand each other and we had to pull them apart in practice. The ones that stuck it out eventually gained respect for each other. They even looked out for each other with things that were going to go down over the weekend or at a party."

Sullivan says he doesn't believe coaches have to deal with players with a background similar to Langston's as much today. A player of Langston's caliber who felt it normal to carry a gun would stick out like a sore thumb in this day and age of iPhones, Facebook and Twitter because of the decreased number of gang members on teams.

Before the riots, inner-city youth were pushed toward sports as a way to steer clear of street activity. Because of technology, kids have more options these days to steer clear of trouble. Other activities, such as skateboarding, have gained popularity with African-American youth. Combine the other factors with the decreased emphasis toward outdoor physical activity, and you have the lack of motivation Sullivan and other coaches are experiencing.

Price's Lynch takes it even a step further.

"Nowadays in many cases kids don't have to leave the house for entertainment over the course of a weekend," Lynch said. "When I was coming up, not only did you have to go outside, but you had to stay outside and play and not come back in the house."

Sullivan, 61, mentioned how today's parenting often creates kids less street-wise than their counterparts 20 years ago. Many parents such as Player are OK with it as long as their kids engage in positive activities.

A long road back

In the fall of 2011 at Westchester's gym, Azzam was having a conversation with his former player Morris Jr. about the state of the city game. "It's never coming back," Azzam said in his trademark matter-of-fact tone.

The six-time state champion coach referred to the state of L.A. City basketball at the time of the riots when his program ended the Crenshaw and Manual Arts stranglehold and won back-to-back 4A titles. It was a time when the city was so tough Fremont advanced from the lower 3A Division to the state title game in '91. This winter, all you had to see was a mildly talented Crenshaw team nearly knock off the city champions -- despite talented brothers Isaac and Daniel Hamilton having transferred to private school Bellflower St. John Bosco before the season -- to believe Azzam's words.

Will the trends of African-American exodus, private-school domination, and the de-emphasis of sports participation continue? There are just too many examples similar to the plights of Langston, York, Saunders, Coleman or Preston to believe they will.

One who does see some change is Lynch, the former LAPD detective whose police station was assigned to cover the flash point of the '92 riots -- the now-infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues.

Lynch believes the trend is "turning around." The coach of the defending SoCal Division IV champions used to live in Upland, but grew weary of the long commute into the city and moved back. He now lives in Inglewood, and he knows of instances where other African-American families have returned to the inner city.

If Lynch's prognostication is indeed correct, the only thing coaches and others with a vested interest in the lives of South Los Angeles kids hope is that it doesn't take another incident of civil unrest to accelerate the shift.

"I was at Ventura College, and we usually left for L.A. on the weekends, but it was getting ugly and coach [Phil] Matthews didn't let any of us leave," Langston said about that fateful day in 1992. "I don't understand how you mess up your own home. In that sense, the riots were kind of stupid. I don't see how it helped or how anything good would come from it."

L.A. City basketball coaches, especially those in South Los Angeles, would call Langston's assessment of what happened 20 years ago today a true understatement.

Ronnie Flores is an editor for ESPNHS, co-authored the seventh edition of the Cal-Hi Sports State Record Book and has covered basketball in California for 10 years. He can be reached at ronnie.flores@espn.com
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