It is a large gym in which Ernie Carr works, dispensing beneath tired fluorescent lights knowledge about basketball and life to young men in red and gold uniforms. The walls are drab but hold bright championship banners. The air has success in it, and the sound of squeaking shoes.
Carr, who has the lean body of an athlete and the face--adorned with a beard and glasses--of a thinker, is fiercely defensive about this place. And because it is at Dominguez High School, which is in Compton, he frequently has to defend it--and himself.
But Carr is not a militant, just a man in search of fairness, who loves kids and who is one of the area's most successful coaches.
"I think there is some fear of us, but I think it's fear for the wrong reasons," Carr said of the reluctance some teams have about playing at Dominguez.
"I think they should fear our will to win and our mental toughness more than who they think is in the stands or who they think is going to bother their car."
That fear may exist, Carr said, because Dominguez is a black school. That, he said, is as stereotypic as saying that Dominguez, because all the players are black, has the best talent every year.
"At least one school in our league never dresses in our locker room," Carr said. "I guess they think something is going to happen to them. It's insane. Part of being a basketball player in high school and coming to a night game is walking in and looking good with your bag and letting all the people see you when you walk to the locker room to get dressed. Coming in already dressed, to me, is bush."
Cerritos High School is a team that comes to Dominguez dressed in uniforms.
"It's the only place in the league where police meet you at the door," said Cerritos Coach Ian Desborough. "It's kind of hard to get kids to gear it up because of that environment."
Carr, who is also athletic director, said that the San Gabriel Valley League requires that teams visiting Dominguez be met by police because of a disturbance three years ago at a Dons football game.
"We've never had any basketball altercation, not even coming close," Carr said. "I'm very protective of where I work and my players. I believe in being equitable and fair. If that makes me a militant . . . I'm not. I kiss my kids when I go to bed like normal people."
He said attitudes toward Dominguez are often unfair.
"If a (racial) slur is made here by one of our kids, it gets written up," Carr said. "But if we go someplace and a slur is made toward us, it is acceptable. It's not the athletes, it's the student body or members of the community attending the games. Kids are basically innocent until adults put negative things in their heads."
A graduate of Washington High in Los Angeles, Carr played basketball at Pepperdine in the late '60s when there was a strong focus on black identity.
"Growing up in a Church of Christ, it was hard to be militant--my mother wouldn't let me," he said. "I wasn't radical by any stretch of the imagination. I was too scared to be a (Black) Panther or even carry a sign or something like that. But I have my Tommie Smith-John Carlos '68 Olympics poster in my room, and I liked Ali and those guys who did things."
The philosophy he imparts to his players remains non-radical.
"I want them to be aware of social and economic situations in America, but not to be hostile or negative about them," Carr said.
"I want them to use the sport they play to get to college and better themselves. That's probably the most important thing to me . . . getting them into school. What I'm most proud of is our '85 team that went to the CIF finals. Eight guys on that team have Division 1 scholarships."
Carr, 38, is in his 12th year as head coach of the Dons. He has a 173-95 record, four league championships and playoff appearances seven straight years. He came to Dominguez after four seasons as junior varsity coach at Compton High.
"When I first got here," Carr said, "kids would come in class next morning and say, 'Did you lose?' I wanted to change that. I tried to create an atmosphere where winning is important."
The fear of losing is what drives Carr. "It scares the hell out of me," he said.
Carr describes himself as a perfectionist.
"I'm never satisfied," he said. "I never watch a game film when we win, but if we lose, I'll watch it 15 times."
It is a rich well that feeds the talent pool at Dominguez.
"But more important, I've gotten good, cooperative kids who are intelligent," Carr said.
"There are teams in our league from time to time who are physically better than us--no one will back me on that probably, but some years we don't have the best players. We try to combine physical conditioning with being fundamentally strong. We want to be able to win a game scoring 70 points but also win scoring 45."
Carr is always being told how disciplined his team is, but he won't accept that as a compliment.
"That's almost an insult," he said. "That's assuming that a black team cannot be disciplined because they are black."