LONG BEACH — Two dozen cheerleaders whipped up excitement in the packed gym but Poly High School still struggled toward a half-time tie with Compton, and the glorious past seemed much further removed than a year.
The stars were gone, as was the school's latest version of John Wooden, and fans who had stomached six losses in 14 games were wondering if tradition was on the verge of leaving too.
Chris Sandle . . . Terry Stallworth . . . Morlon Wiley, the standouts of last season's nearly invincible state champions, and Ron Palmer, the coach who left after 11 years and a 271-50 record, were memories.
Now the job of carrying on longtime basketball excellence belonged to mostly untested players and a new coach, Chris Kinder, who used to be a shortstop, not a point guard.
Kinder didn't look much older than his players, and he was a lot shorter. He dressed like a coach, though, with a blazer he wore until he got down to business in the second half. Then he was on them, pressing them to squelch the rumors that this could be the season of poor, poor pitiful Poly.
Suddenly, in the third quarter, the Jackrabbits sidestepped the doubters. The defense was aggressive and intimidating, the shooting sharp, the rebounding ferocious.
Senior center Vincent Camper drove around a Compton defender and jammed the ball through the basket, sending the crowd into ecstasy, a state it stayed in when Camper raced back down the court, leaped to block a shot and whipped a pass to set up another basket.
Forward Chris Roscoe then dove to the floor for the ball and bounced up to score.
"What an athlete," blurted Kinder, his face red and his voice seemingly headed for hoarseness.
In moments, the Jackrabbits had forged a 38-25 lead and demonstrated that they are still a force in high school basketball.
With 36 seconds left in the 58-42 Moore League victory, Kinder walked the length of the bench, shaking hands with each of his players.
His team, he said afterward, is just where he wants it to be.
"Well, it's got some history in it," Kinder said as he sat in his office the afternoon after the Compton game. Photos of champion Poly teams adorned the brick walls.
No stranger to the Poly tradition, Kinder was Palmer's assistant and the junior varsity coach for three years.
Kinder, 32, grew up as a baseball player. He played shortstop at Millikan High, Long Beach City College, UCLA and for a season in the minor leagues.
"Then I decided a lot of guys could hit .280 and field ground balls, so I went to Long Beach State and got my teaching credential in '75," he said.
He went to Avalon High on Catalina Island to coach baseball and basketball.
His background in basketball had been minimal--he played in junior high and one year in high school.
'I Had to Learn a Lot' "I was familiar with the basics," Kinder said. "Like, I knew what a zone defense was, but I had to learn a lot on my own."
After five years at Avalon, he took the JV job at Poly, where he realized his first priority would be to learn how to evaluate talent.
"At a small school, it was easy to pick the five best guys," he said. "At Poly, it's a little tougher."
When Palmer decided last spring to move to Cal State Long Beach, Kinder didn't immediately think about being the head man.
"I wanted to leave here and go with him," said Kinder. "He was my mentor, the man who opened my eyes to what goes on on a basketball court. But I realized I had to prove myself as a head coach."
On the endorsement of the players, he was quickly named to succeed Palmer, and the coaching transition from legend to neophyte began at 1600 Atlantic Avenue.
"I put pressure on myself early in the season," said Kinder, who evaluates his own performance as well as that of his players after each game. "When the kids didn't play up to their ability, I took it personally."
Camper, the center who had found a comfort zone with Palmer, remembered this season's uncomfortable beginning.
"You could see the fear in the coach," Camper said. "He was wondering what would happen next."
Usually, it would be another loss.
"We expected to lose a few, but not six," said Camper, who had contributed as a reserve in last year's 31-2 season. The preseason defeats were to Serra, Ocean View, Cleveland, Dominguez, Mater Dei and Glendale.
"All those teams are in a top 10," Kinder said. "But when we lose, people start to talk a bit."
They were talking about him.
"At the beginning, people on the team and people in the neighborhood were second-guessing him," said senior Andre Purry, who has close ties to Palmer.
Search for Top Players Kinder, still developing as a talent evaluator, played most of his players while searching for the main seven or eight.
"Because players were competing for spots, we were arguing among ourselves," said guard Demond Cooper. "Now we're more like a family."
Purry said Kinder installed strict rules the players didn't like. "Now we realize he was trying to get us closer together," he said.