When Otis Livingston was barely a teen-ager, he learned to play basketball, proficiently and with flair. On park courts he learned to do Magic Johnson no-look passes and herky-jerky shake-and-bake moves that got him cleanly to the basket.
Once he got to the basket he learned to dunk like the big guys, though he is barely six feet tall ("Say six, that sounds good," he says with a bright smile.)
At San Pedro High School he learned to be a star. He led the underdog Pirates to league championships. He put the nickname "Mr. Hollywood" on his warm-ups. He cut his hair like Carl Lewis. He flashed a movie star smile.
Then came El Camino College, and some different lessons were in store. Livingston learned that Mark Wade, the point guard he was replacing, was no easy act to follow. Wade had led El Camino to the state title and is now the point guard at the top-rated University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
Livingston learned that at El Camino, the players do things Coach Paul Landreaux's way. He learned the responsibilities Landreaux placed on his point guard.
Now a seasoned sophomore, Livingston leads a mostly freshman team into the state playoffs starting at 7:30 p.m. Friday when El Camino (24-2) plays at home against Hancock College. Livingston led the Warriors to another league title, this time in the newly aligned South Coast Conference, where their 12-2 record tied Cerritos for the championship.
Livingston is being recruited by four-year schools from many of the top conferences in the country. Landreaux calls him one of the top junior college point guards in the nation.
And Otis Livingston is still learning. "At times I haven't lived up to fit the role of team leader. But I'm pretty satisfied with the way I've played," he said.
Livingston was a 20-point-per-game scorer in high school, where his free-wheeling approach wobbled on the edge of control. Though El Camino won its perennial Metropolitan Conference title last year, Livingston's first season there was a transitional one, much of it spent being barked at by Landreaux, from whom expectations are high and compliments are rare.
"In the beginning I had a feeling he was doing it just to hurt me," Livingston said. "One day I just realized it's because he has high expectations of me and expects more of me. He's not really trying to hurt me."
After a recent game Landreaux said, "He's such a competitor, sometimes it just gets him upset when things don't go exactly how they're supposed to go. Overall you can't ask for a better point guard than Otis.
"Under the circumstances he's doing a good job for us--he's doing a better job than I thought he would do after last year. He's leading the league in assists. I'm excited about the way he's playing. He's accepted the challenge. To be able to get 11 freshmen together--I'm extremely pleased."
Despite his star status in high school, Livingston was not recruited seriously by any Division I schools. When he turned to El Camino, he consulted the departing Wade.
"He told me Coach is going to demand a lot from me, practices are going to be hard, games are going to be tough. I had to have the right attitude to be able to play. It was real true. Mentally you have to be tough."
When Livingston arrived, the education of a point guard began. There was more to learn about defenses than he knew existed--not only Landreaux's sophisticated defenses but opponents', which the point guard was expected to read on the run and set up the team for accordingly. Livingston was aware of Wade's shadow.
"The mental approach was the hardest thing for me to understand--what the coach really wanted from me. Coach Landreaux tried to show me how he wanted things run here," Livingston said. "A lot of the pressure I put on myself because Mark went to a big school, so I felt I had to do something immediately. What he really wanted me to do was play to the best of my abilities and not try to be someone else."
Last year the Warriors were a veteran group and were Southern California's top-rated team going into playoffs--where they were quickly upset in the first round. Several all-stars graduated including Metro co-player of the year Roland H'Orvath.
Livingston returned to a team of newcomers. His job is not only to get the ball at the right time to shooters Kirkland Howling and Zlatko Josic and inside men Charles White and David Lee but to control the flow, impress his personality on the game.
Landreaux impressed on him the importance of being a team leader. "Everybody expected we'd finish lower and not be as competitive as we have been," Livingston said.
"Last year we had Roland H'Orvath. This year I've had to assume the leadership role: making sure everybody knows what offense we're in, making sure everybody's in place, keeping everything organized. I try to be an extension of Coach Landreaux on the floor."
It can be a heavy burden. "It's really challenging to remember every play, every situation we're going to be in," Livingston admitted.