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Neville Saner Has Gone From UCLA Bench to a High School Dynasty . . . : THE WIZARD OF POWAY

February 28, 1986|MARC APPLEMAN | Times Staff Writer

POWAY — Neville Saner was one of John Wooden's guys.

Not a Lew Alcindor, who is now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the world champion Los Angeles Lakers. Nor a Mike Warren, a guard converted into a television star on "Hill Street Blues."

Beginning in 1965-66 season, Saner averaged 1.5, 1.4 and 1.5 points in three equally inactive years on the UCLA basketball team. Obviously, he wasn't one of the stars on the Bruin teams that won NCAA championships in 1967 and '68.

Yet Wooden remembers his players, even if their achievements after leaving UCLA take place far from the Forum and Hollywood studios.

On Tuesday, a letter from Wooden to Saner found its way to Poway High School, where Saner is a successful basketball coach. Hours after Wooden's letter arrived, Poway defeated Montgomery, 85-42, in the opening-round game of the Titans' quest for a third consecutive San Diego Section 3-A championship.

In his message, Wooden congratulated Saner on his third straight successful season and wished the Titans luck in the playoffs.

Coming from the coach that Saner has tried to emulate for years, Wooden's words had special meaning. They gave Saner the same feeling of pride he had when he made his lone collegiate start in a game against Duke at the beginning of his junior season.

"Getting the letter was real nice," Saner said. "I'm not real close to him (Wooden) and haven't spoken to him since October 1983. But in the letter, he said he had heard about us."

Wooden is still as organized and well-connected as he was when he molded the team in Westwood.

"I try to get all the information on my former players that I can and I try to stay as close to them," Wooden said. "I'm proud of what my players have done."

In Saner's case, Wooden is not surprised.

"Neville was a very intelligent youngster," Wooden said. "He was not the fluid type of player who would be an outstanding performer, but he was rugged and was a hard worker who made the most of the ability he had. He worked as hard as if he was one of the starters. And he is a delightful type of person.

"I'm not surprised he went into teaching, which is really what coaching is. I rather expected him to."

Wooden has not seen Poway play its high-post offense, but if he did, he would feel as if he was back in Westwood.

"We run everything like UCLA and do exactly what John Wooden did," said Poway center Jud Buechler, who is being recruited by the Bruins.

Saner got a scholarship to UCLA after starring at center for Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach.

"I never quite became the ballplayer I hoped to become at UCLA," he said. "Under Coach Wooden you definitely were in the top eight, or you were on the bench."

Said his father, Neville Saner Sr: "At the time he was at UCLA, he was discouraged because he sat on the bench a great deal. . . . But he stuck it out."

A victim of Wooden's philosophy as a player, Saner now employs it as a coach.

He relied on five starters in his first two years at Poway, and the Titans responded with 21-5 and 24-2 championship seasons. This season, with the loss of center John Colborne, Saner has primarily used six players. Poway is 22-3 going into Saturday night's semifinal game.

While he concentrates playing time on the starters, Saner says he realizes how important it is to go out of his way for the reserves.

He doesn't seem to hold a grudge about his bench-riding days.

"No question that playing for Coach Wooden was an asset," Saner said. "And as I get older, I tend to understand Coach Wooden a little better."

Saner has not followed Wooden's practice of instructing his players on the correct way to put on their sneakers and socks, but the Poway coach is just as concerned about being a perfectionist in terms of appearance, organization and instruction.

"Coach (Saner) knows exactly what he's doing," Poway center Dominick Johnson said. "He expects a lot of us and we expect a lot of him."

Saner does not believe in getting too close to his players or in coddling them because he feels that will not be beneficial in the long run.

"I'm just their coach," Saner said. "They all have families. I try to maintain a positive relationship and try to make it pleasant for people to come out and play basketball. I don't think I've done too badly in that regard.

"I don't have too many rules. I tell the kids to be on time and conduct themselves properly. I make them feel as if they can handle responsibility without me directing them all the time."

Saner, a world history teacher, is soft-spoken and appears almost shy while sitting in a classroom discussing his career and his team. But when the game starts, his jaw tightens and voice booms.

"You think Neville is low key?" asked his wife, Diane. "You wouldn't call him low key if you were behind the bench. Usually you can hear him above the crowd."

Saner's intensity and understanding of his players has earned him the respect of his players.

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