Bob Braswell was wearing his go-to-bed-without-any-supper scowl at a practice last season, an expression that can darken the day of an entire basketball team.
Every Cleveland High player was lined up across the baseline, and Braswell, the youngest coach in the City Section, proceeded to tear into the team.
"You're going through the motions," he said. "All I ask is that you work hard when you're on the court. It isn't happening today."
A couple of players broke into smiles. "What are you smiling at?" Braswell demanded. "What the hell's so funny?"
The entire team was smiling by now. Braswell turned around and noticed a large box at center court. A bow was tied to the top.
It was a wedding present--a food processor--paid for by the players. Braswell's wedding was two days later.
"Boy, did I feel like an ass," he says. "They planned the whole thing. They knew if I got mad enough I'd have them on the baseline like I always do."
As the players circled around the coach, he read a card signed by the team and opened the gift. Tears streamed down Braswell's face.
"He was too choked up to say anything," guard Michael Gray says. "We wanted to show how much we cared about him. This year we bought him a birthday cake and a card."
Bob Braswell, 25, is pal and poppa, motivator and mother, boss and brother to his players, who insist their fondest memories of high school won't be the tall stack of Valley League victories or the back-to-back trips to the City Section 4-A final.
"I'll remember the love we shared," senior guard Andre Anderson says, "the togetherness and the friendships. It begins and ends with Coach Braswell."
After Cleveland beat Crenshaw, 87-75, last Friday in the semifinals, a landmark victory for the Cavalier program, the team bunched together in the locker room, preparing to yell, " 'Land," on Braswell's command. Forward Damon Charlot, a usually reticent young man, spoke up: "You know why we won? Because we're a family, that's why."
The team goes bowling, to movies, to Dodger games, like a family.
The team has barbecues at Braswell's house on weekends, like a family.
Five or six players end up staying the night, sit up, tell jokes and plan the future, like a family.
The man leading Cleveland into tonight's City final against Fairfax at the Sports Arena is clearly more than a coach.
"We have become so familiar," Anderson says. "Braz will always be my friend."
Braswell has found fulfillment in familiarity all his life.
He met his wife, Penny, in elementary school. "She used to call me in the third grade and hang up the phone when I answered," Braswell says.
He is the youngest of Doris and James Braswell's seven children. James spent 25 years in the Army and Bob describes his father as a disciplinarian. The family meets every Sunday for Bible study and dinner. "We have a mini-reunion every week," Bob says.
Bob attended Cleveland High, where he was student body president, center on the basketball team, a member of the band and was voted most likely to succeed.
"Bob was a leader from the day he came to Cleveland," says Greg Herrick, who coached the Cavaliers for seven years before Braswell took over last season.
Herrick decribes Braswell as an average but highly motivated player. "He was slow but very intelligent," Herrick says. "He liked to mix it up in the paint."
Braswell coached the Cleveland junior varsity team for six years before taking over the varsity last season. He knows that his youth makes developing special relationships with his players easy. He wonders how long it will last.
"Sometimes other coaches look at me like I'm crazy for spending so much time with the guys," Braswell says. "I think, 'God, am I going to change as I get older?' The minute I stop caring and don't have the time to do it right, it'll be time to get out."
He never really got out of high school. The year after he graduated, Braswell coached the junior varsity at Herrick's request.
"I let Bob have complete control of the JV program from day one," Herrick says. "Little did I know what it would lead to. He was very inquisitive, always going to clinics and reading about coaching. People would have never guessed his age."
Some still have trouble believing that the 6-3 Braswell, a brawny man with a trim beard, is only two years out of college.
"I had no idea Bob was so young," Taft Coach Jim Woodard says. "I didn't know until I read his age in the newspaper."
Braswell might have felt considerably older after his first game as junior varsity coach. Crenshaw walked all over Cleveland, 96-38.
"A Crenshaw guy dunked on the first play and it just blew my guys away," Braswell recalls. "It was the most humiliating experience of my life. I was ready to get out of coaching."
Last week's win over Crenshaw was redemption in Braswell's mind.
"It meant so much," he says. "Crenshaw has always been the benchmark for City basketball, the program we've strived to equal."