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Local Hero : 2-on-2 Fund-Raisers Are Just Part of John Rambo's Drive to Keep Neighborhood Youths in Game of Life, Off Drugs

October 02, 1986|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Jazz flowed from speakers, a softer beat than the basketball bouncing on cement. But for John Rambo, these sounds of the city blended beautifully.

Rambo was holding a two-on-two tournament to make money (each player contributed $20) to help youngsters in the neighborhood. He put aside his cigar and played too, a tall, slender man who wore glasses and a red headband.

On Rambo's brother's bright driveway court on Orange Avenue, Mike Touhey, huge, sweaty and the only white player in the tournament, threw his 280 pounds around. Rambo tried to go to the basket and Touhey sent him crashing into the faded red garage doors.

"Big man is strong," a sidewalk spectator said.

Rambo then wisely decided to shoot 20-footers. He swished most of them, the touch at age 42 as soft as it was two decades ago when he made 14 of 17 outside shots in a game for Cal State Long Beach. The 10th leading scorer in the university's history, Rambo played in preseason games with the NBA'S San Diego Rockets but gained his greatest fame when he won a bronze medal in the 1964 Olympics in the high jump.

At 6 feet 8 inches, Rambo was the tallest of the driveway players. But it has never been his height that has made him a tower in the neighborhood.

The desperation of this area--bounded by Atlantic and Cherry avenues and Anaheim and 23rd streets--has made Rambo strive desperately to teach and save its children.

Rambo has lived all his life on Myrtle Street, just a few blocks away, where later on this Sunday afternoon police cars would arrive and kids would again be in trouble, which would tear out a piece of his heart.

"You could talk to him about anything," said Michael Bradley, who graduated from Poly, the neighborhood high school, in 1977, and was on one of the six two-man teams. "He'd talk about education, respect for your parents. He was the male influence for a lot of guys."

The sound of saxophones drifted over the driveway and reminded Rambo why he chose his life's mission.

"Earl Satcher . . . that's why I do it," Rambo said between games.

Satcher lived on Myrtle Street in the late 1950s with Rambo and Gene Washington and Earl McCullouch and Ollie Brown, all of whom went on to athletic fame.

Learned Sax in Soledad

Satcher became a jazz musician, but no thanks to the community. He learned to play sax at Soledad Prison.

"He'd take money from kids, he was real poor," Rambo said. "He never had a chance. The elementary school principal told him he'd be nothing. He always wanted to play an instrument, but the counselors at Franklin Junior High wouldn't let him. They said he was a crazy guy."

Rambo remembered how he'd see Satcher--who went on to help ex-convicts before he was murdered in Oakland--without a decent jacket and think, " 'This is crazy, it shouldn't be like this. I'm going to put something together to help this kind of stuff.' "

In 1972 he started his Southern California Operation Outreach for Youth, a nonprofit organization that raises $100,000 a year, much of it in contributions from McDonnell Douglas, Purex, Coca-Cola and Miller beer, said Rambo. The basketball tournament raised $350.

The group's volunteers tutor and counsel Long Beach boys and girls, coach them in sports, take them to museums and parks, and provide for them what they need. "If a kid says he can't afford a musical instrument, we'll get it for him," Rambo said. "We won't give them an excuse not to be somebody."

Now, so he can devote even more time to youth, Rambo has quit his job of 17 years as public relations specialist at General Telephone Co.

'Get a Job'

Reaching the kids is tougher than getting by that big guy out on the court.

"Third-graders say, 'I don't need to read, I'm going to be a football player or a basketball player,' " Rambo said.

But he wishes their goal was to be a doctor or dentist, even a plumber or machinist.

"I tell them there are all kinds of great players, that you've got to get a job. They say, 'You tellin' me I'm not gonna make it. What's wrong with you?' "

Rambo always avoided trouble. "My mother was always reading me poetry or the Bible," he said. "Now you see kids out playing Pac-Man at 11 at night. I was dreaming at 11."

He watched "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" on television and longed for the day when he, like Ozzie, would come home and eat in a tie.

When Rambo, who recently tried unsuccessfully to get elected to the City Council, was growing up, his idols were Ralph Bunche, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, and Jackie Robinson.

But the kids don't see any heroes now, Rambo said, although he is one to many of them. Mostly because of his athletic achievements but also because he cares.

Athletes Don't Come Back

"He ain't never left the neighborhood," said Harry Lowe, a 1976 Poly graduate who was watching the tournament.

But to Rambo's distress, the other athletes who left and found glory haven't come back.

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