Not too many years ago, the St. Bernard High School boys basketball team didn't exactly strike fear in the hearts of opponents. The parochial school of about 1,300 students nestled in Playa del Rey had a penchant for losing.
And losing often.
In the 1975-76 season, the Vikings managed just 3 wins and lost 20 times.
Enter Glenn Marx. After three seasons as head coach he started a new tradition at St. Bernard--winning.
And winning often.
In 1978-79, St. Bernard finished with a 22-6 record, losing to Long Beach Poly in the semifinals of the CIF playoffs. Although that was Marx's last season, the tradition had been established.
5 League Titles
During the next five years, St. Bernard compiled a 145-24 record (.858 win percentage), won five league titles, was the CIF 3-A champion in 1982 and sent 17 players into college on basketball scholarships.
The list of former St. Bernard players now on the college hardwood reads like a "Who's Who" in the Pacific-10 Conference:
Corey Gaines (UCLA), Rod Keller (USC), Chris Washington (Cal) and Bobby Thompson (Arizona State) all started on the 1982-83 team that lost in triple overtime to Bosco Tech in the CIF semifinals; Keith Ramee (Stanford) and Kevin Vidato (Washington) from the class of 1982, and Eric Knox (Oregon State) and Leonard Taylor (Cal) from the class of 1984.
Others still making an impact on the basketball court include: Reggie Howard (UC Riverside) and Errol Talley (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo), last year's graduates; Bryan Williams (UC Irvine) 1984; Phil James (El Camino), the fifth starter from the 1983 team, and Ronnie Grandison (University of New Orleans) and Robert Howling (Wyoming) from the class of 1982.
A brief stop at the archives reveals names such as 1981 grad Billy Knox (St. Mary's College), Michael Gerren (Santa Monica College and the University of Southern Alabama) and Butch Hayes (Cal) from the class of 1980 and Lance Washington (Utah State) 1979.
Turned Around in '77
Marx and Jim McClune--who has been at St. Bernard for 10 years, the last five as head coach after being an assistant to Marx and then to Donovan Green--attribute the turnaround in the school's basketball program to Lance Washington's arrival in 1977.
"Lance Washington was the first big-name player at St. Bernard," said Marx of the All-CIF point guard. "He was very popular in the community. He was like a folk hero."
Marx said Washington became the school's biggest recruiter.
"The program was kind of dismal at that point," said Washington, who transferred from Loyola. "It was not a basketball power. But because of that, it gave me the opportunity to really shine."
Washington raised the eyebrows of others in the basketball community.
"The word gets around," Washington said. "It's really a small world."
Others Joined Team
Butch Hayes, who is now playing professional basketball in England, and Michael Gerren, joined Washington in 1977 in laying the foundation for the future. And in 1978, another piece of the puzzle, a 6-4 power forward named Billy Knox, arrived.
But no one expected the Vikings to have the kind of season they did.
Marx said that after Pasadena advanced to the quarterfinals of the CIF playoffs, its coach was asked who he thought would win the other quarterfinal game between Marina and St. Bernard. As Marx tells the story, Coach George Terzian said matter-of-factly that Marina would win based on the strength of its "superior tradition."
The Vikings not only beat Marina, but knocked Pasadena, the CIF champions the previous two seasons, out of the playoffs.
"We were the Cinderella team," Washington said. "We played the cream of the crop and won.
"It just overwhelmed me. We weren't expecting that kind of success."
Knox, who plays in a Los Angeles City league with Washington and in a Winter Pro-Am League in hopes of catching the eye of a professional scout, said he, too, was surprised by the rapid turnaround.
"When I walked into the program, the school was finishing with just ungodly records," Knox said. "But our coach had some Thoroughbreds and he knew how to use them."
The Marx philosophy was to run, press, run, play man-to-man defense and then run some more.
"We played an up-tempo game," Knox said. "And there's a lot of guys in L.A. that fit that mold and that draws them to St. Bernard.
"And talent does draw talent."
And Washington, Knox, Hayes and Gerren drew talent like a magnet draws nails.
In 1979, Washington was off for Utah State and Marx was bound for Notre Dame High School, but five highly touted freshmen, Corey Gaines, Bobby Thompson, Chris Washington, Rod Keller and Phil James, and a new coach, Donovan Green, more than adequately filled the void.
The Vikings improved to 24-3 in the 1979-80 season, winning their first league title since 1971. They continued their new winning tradition, capturing league championships in each of the next four years.