The blacktop basketball courts at Whitney High School in Cerritos are unforgiving. With their rusty fan backboards, metal nets and bent rims, the outdoor courts are far from the reality of prep basketball competition.
There are no glass backboards. Leather balls are out of the question. And that swoosh a shot makes when it draws nothing but net has been replaced by a clank .
Against this backdrop, the Whitney boys basketball team strives to succeed. This is home to the CIF Southern Section's defending Small Schools Division champion, at 183rd Street and Shoemaker Avenue.
It's a peaceful place. Classrooms look out on tree-shrouded sidewalks and the shake roofs of a residential neighborhood. The surroundings look more like a park playground than a high school campus.
But this is not a typical high school. As part of the ABC Unified School District, Whitney, opened in 1975, is a college preparatory campus. It was named the top scholastic public school in the state in 1985.
To attend, a student has to pass an extensive achievement test, and that doesn't ensure acceptance. About 1,200 students were turned away last year.
To participate in athletics, students are required to maintain a 3.0 (B) grade-point average. Last year's basketball team maintained a 3.5 average GPA while marching to a 23-6 record and the championship game of the state Division III finals (which it lost to Crossroads of Santa Monica).
"It's like having five additional coaches on the court," said Wildcat Coach Bruce Carlisle.
If only Whitney could have its own court.
An agreement between the school district and the city to build a sports complex at the site fell through recently.
When weekly practices began last month, Carlisle secured three hours a day in a gymnasium at closed Excelsior High School in Norwalk. But that court is deteriorating and dimly lighted.
There are other inconveniences that Carlisle and his players deal with daily.
Next to the 10-by-10-foot modular mess Carlisle calls an office is an equally dingy, two-stall restroom that serves as a dressing room. No showers, no towels, just a couple of sinks.
"If you're a senior you're really lucky . . . you get the executive dressing room--your car," Carlisle joked.
The team's first home game will be Jan. 9, a month before the regular season ends.
"We can't get the gym when we need it," Carlisle said.
Still, the basketball team keeps winning. In the last four seasons Whitney has averaged 16 wins. (And Small Schools play fewer games than upper-division teams because of budget restraints.)
The Wildcats have advanced to the playoffs three times. In its first season, Whitney's John Brown led all section schools in scoring average.
Brown, now a volunteer assistant coach, thinks he knows the secret to Whitney's success.
"It's Bruce," he said. "He never expects more than one's ability from you. All he asks is that you work hard for him."
That Carlisle, 33, would even be in a position to discuss basketball strategy seemed unrealistic 11 years ago when he was hired by the district fresh out of Cal State Dominguez Hills as a drama instructor for Cerritos High.
This is a guy who fancies a career as a stand-up comic: "I haven't seen a practice drill yet that I didn't steal."
He hates whistles, loves to play golf and, according to senior forward James Justice, "makes us listen to bad jokes and we can't do
anything about it."
The diminutive Carlisle's cadence is a wisecrack a minute.
But a basketball coach? His only experience came as a smart-mouthed, 5-foot-8 reserve guard at Fountain Valley High School in 1971.
"And I was terrible ," he admits.
In high school about the only thing he liked to do besides hustle duffers on the golf course was watch UCLA basketball games on television. He became engrossed in the teaching philosophies of Coach John Wooden in the Bruins' decade of dominance. Since then, Carlisle has devoured everything Wooden has written and has seen every UCLA highlight film of the Wooden years at least a dozen times.
Last year he met Wooden and they spent 30 minutes discussing basketball. Carlisle says it was the thrill of his life.
He admires Wooden for the positive attitude he instilled in his UCLA teams, and he has applied that philosophy at Whitney.
"Wooden never took the credit," he said. "Get the stupid ego out of the way and let the kids play. Coaches usually screw things up. The players deserve the credit."
According to Justice, a 6-2 forward, that means "he doesn't just kick us . . . for doing something wrong."
Boards, banks and dedication.
Loosely translated, that is Carlisle's playing strategy--strong rebounding, take only bank shots and have fun succeeding--and it has earned him the nickname of "The Wizard of Whitney." He's the only coach the school has had.
"I get the players to accomplish their goals," he said. "I don't want to steal their glory. . . .