This year's Times South Bay high school basketball player of the year, Eric Cooper of Banning, joins an illustrious list of South Bay products stretching from Leonard Taylor, last year's top player, to Mark Acres to Byron Scott to Paul Westphal, and back to Willie Naulls in the early 1950s.
Veteran coaches around the South Bay were contacted recently to name the best players they had seen and the best teams the South Bay has produced.
Generally, the same names rolled out of the memories: the North Torrance teams in the mid- and late 1960s ... El Segundo in the late 1960s ... Inglewood in 1980 ... Carson in 1982 ... Morningside in the mid-1970s.
And always, Palos Verdes. It was 10 years ago that Palos Verdes knocked off one of Verbum Dei's most powerful teams on the way to the CIF 4-A title, a feat many area coaches still talk about with awe. The star of that P.V. team--the only player who went on to Division I and pro success--was 6-11 center Bill Laimbeer, now an all-star with the Detroit Pistons. Verbum Dei, which had won four straight CIF titles, had future pros David Greenwood and Roy Hamilton.
The real star of P.V. may have been Coach John Mihaljevich, who molded that team. The upset, he recalled, "king of put a focus on how good we were--Verbum Dei was 30-0. Laimbeer was the only Division I prospect."
The best South Bay team ever? Well, at least for Palos Verdes, which has had several other fine teams under Mihaljevich, it might be the '75 team. "I'd be partial to them," he said.
That '75 team featured Tom Spillane and Sam White at guard and Rick Dillon at forward along with Laimbeer. Mihaljevich's 1969-70 team may have had even more talent physically, with future pro Jan van Breda Kolff at 6-7, two other players who went on to Division I colleges and a front line of 6-9, 6-7, 6-5.
The best may be yet to come. Acres, the CIF 4-A player of the year in 1981, recently finished his college career at Oral Roberts and is projected as a high pro draft choice. Several coaches said the 6-11 Acres may turn out to be the best player ever to come out of the area. He teamed with older brother Jeff, 6-9, to lead a team that in many years might have challenged for a CIF title. But in 1980 the Sea Kings had to face undefeated Inglewood in the same league.
Mihaljevich said, "It remains to be seen what (Acres) can do professionally ... (but) he was 6-10 and could play all the positions on the court."
At the other end of the spectrum, little Jim Spillane drew a lot of support. Mira Costa Coach Jim Nielsen, himself a member of the powerful North Torrance teams in the 1960s, said he felt the 6-11 P.V. guard "was as good a high school guard as I ever saw in the South Bay, including Westphal."
Most coaches wouldn't go that far, but Mihaljevich called Spillane "the prototype point guard, when that philosophy of guard was just beginning--one guard to be your ball handler, break presses, run the team and also score. He was 5-11 and he could stuff the ball, which was a novelty in those days."
Spillane played for UCLA from 1974 to 1977.
How about a Palos Verdes all-star team? Mihaljevich says he would take his chances against most opponents with Laimbeer, Acres, 6-8 Brian Jackson--a college and European pro star--Van Breda Kolff and Spillane, with Jeff Acres and Woody Jones as backup.
The challengers step forward. Nielsen, a 6-7 center forward who went on to play for the University of Washington, points out North had 7-footer Ron Taylor, later a USC star, all-CIF guard Jesse Jacobs and a strong supporting cast in 1964-65 on a team that made it to CIF finals, and an even stronger team in 1968 with him at center, 6-10 Bill Taylor at forward and Dan Anderson, a future pro, at guard.
Anderson, now in the construction business in Portland, where he played briefly as a pro, is generally ranked with Westphal, Spillane and Byron Scott as the best guards to come out of the South Bay.
El Segundo didn't have the height of those P.V. or North High teams but the Eagles had a nice run in the late 1960s under Cliff Warren, who was recently named the Rolling Stones coach.
Warren's 1967 team, featuring CIF player of the year Dana Pagett and John Pleick, a future Notre Dame and European pro star, won 34 games in a row before losing the CIF title game in overtime to Monrovia. Pagett went on to USC. The team also sent Ed Hora to Brigham Young, Alan Christianson to Stanford and Mike McCreedy to pro baseball. Pleick still ranks third in CIF annals in rebounding for career (1,130) and single game (38).
"That was as good a (South Bay) team as any I've seen, perhaps not as good as Verbum Dei," Warren said.
Acres was 'Best' Warren, who went on to coach collegiately and didn't see Westphal's senior year, tabbed Acres "the best player I've seen."