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Slam 'N Jam: A Chance to Taste Success : Cagers Hustle to Catch the Eye of Big-Time College Coaches, Recruiters From All Over Country.

July 17, 1986|GARY KLEIN | Times Staff Writer

Bernie Fine sits down, crosses his arms and settles back for a full day of sightseeing.

Wearing a bright orange shirt and blue shorts, he blends right in with the other out-of-towners decked out in colored polo shirts with college logos across the breast pockets.

Fine is not on vacation. If he was, he would be someplace like Palm Springs, relaxing on a chaise lounge with an umbrella over his head and a pina colada in his hand.

Instead, he is in Compton, sitting in the bleachers of a hot gymnasium watching jersey-clad young men race up and down the basketball court and settling for a Coke and hot dog.

An assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University for 11 years, Fine includes Compton College on his summer itinerary for one reason: "I'm here today because everyone else is here."

Goal: Recruit Best

The gang--about 100 college coaches and recruiters--is all here to see and be seen by the best high school basketball players in Southern California in the best known of the West Coast's basketball leagues--Slam 'N Jam.

"A lot of kids play Slam 'N Jam because they know college recruiters are going to be watching them," said Issy Washington, founder and director of the league. "I get 10 or 12 calls a day from coaches wanting to know who is playing."

During the spring and summer, representatives from almost every Division I basketball power and many Division II, NAIA and junior colleges take a weekend outing to watch and evaluate the players.

The recruiters are back again this week, hanging out at Pauley Pavilion where 28 teams from all over the country are competing in the Slam 'N Invitational High School Basketball Tournament, which runs through Sunday.

"There isn't a better situation for the players and college coaches," said Frank Burlison, a sportswriter for the Long Beach Press-Telegram whose annual Best in the West scouting report is filled with Slam 'N Jam participants. "The kids come out and improve their game because the competition is of such a high caliber. The coaches like it because they can see a kid they're interested in perform in a situation where all the players are competitive."

Bluest of Blues

All areas of Southern California are represented. The competition, coupled with the opportunity to perform before college recruiters, draws the bluest of the blue-chip players, making it one of the best high school developmental leagues in the country.

Sean Higgins and Chris Mills of Fairfax, David Whitmore of St. Bernard, Tank Collins of Pomona, Ricky Butler of Ocean View and Don MacLean of Simi Valley and just about every other top player next season will have honed his skills in the Slam 'N Jam league.

"In our high school league you get good competition, but in the Slam 'N Jam you get the best," said Don Brotz, a senior at Long Beach Wilson. "I go back for the regular season and feel like I can play with anyone.

"Playing in the league prepares you for the college game because these are the people you're probably going to end up playing against at the next level."

Slam 'N Jam wasn't always thought of that way.

When Washington, who lives in Carson, began an eight-team league in 1979 with the help of current UCLA coaches Walt Hazzard and Jack Hirsch, it was just another league .

Needed Spring League

The L. A.-based Olympic (USA) Development League, which no longer exists, was the premier summer basketball league in the country, the place where all of Southern California's basketball standouts wanted to play.

But there was nothing special available for high school basketball players during the spring, and it wasn't long before Slam 'N Jam filled that void.

"We started the league for inner-city kids who couldn't afford to get around," said Washington, a retired Air Force finance officer and former player at the University of Puget Sound. "It grew because the good ballplayers from the outlying areas wanted to play against the kids from the inner city."

Slam 'N Jam has grown to 37 teams and includes junior varsity and college leagues.

Players try out for teams and pay $120 in the spring and $65 in the summer to participate. Those fees entitle players to a pair of shoes and a uniform.

Some Can't Afford Fee

Players from the suburbs help subsidize the league, according to Washington, because half of those from the inner city cannot pay the full amount and one-third cannot afford to pay at all. Those unable to pay sweep the floor and work the clock and concession stand.

The league, which last year turned away almost 200 players, is broken into two divisions: the National Division, for "franchise" or club teams that play together year-round, and the American Division, for unaffiliated teams composed of players divided up by Washington.

There are other high school basketball leagues in Southern California--the American Roundball Corp. has 15 playing sites throughout the state--but no other league has such a concentration of talent in one location.

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