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Coaches Fight Recruiting War of Different Nature : Once Students Become Involved With Gangs, It's Nearly Impossible to Get Them Into Athletics

Sports vs. Gangs: Third in a Series

June 25, 1987|ELLIOTT TEAFORD and ROBERT YOUNT | Times Staff Writers

The 11th-grader caught Ernie Carr's eye one day last fall in Carr's physical education class.

Students 6 feet 4 inches tall tend to stand out in general P.E.

Carr, the basketball coach and athletic director at Dominguez High School in Compton, persuaded the young man to attend an off-season varsity practice after school.

The youth arrived in jeans. He had no basketball attire except for his shoes. He didn't have a gym bag. Still, he showed promise. He picked up the fundamentals quickly. His movements were graceful. He dunked the basketball effortlessly. Carr thought he had found a diamond in the rough.

Then the problems began.

Carr saw the player only about once a week. He was "habitually absent" from school. Carr noticed the student hanging around with the "wrong people" at school.

"You want to indulge the effort," Carr said. "But you don't see him for a week. If you try too hard on them, spend all your time, you'll lose the kids you already have in the fold. The overtures you make toward them aren't going to be heard."

Carr said that twice in the past school year he approached students he thought might be gang members because he also thought they could be basketball players.

He was 0 for 2.

Coaches in areas of high gang activity are waging a bitter fight to entice potential athletes away from the gangs.

Some are mildly successful. Ed Woody, former L.A. Jordan High football coach, said he was able to bring as many as nine gang members a year into the major sports.

But for others, such as Reggie Morris, Manual Arts basketball coach, the numbers don't exist. They just aren't able to interest gang members in athletics for any extended period of time.

Apparently, once students get involved with gangs it's nearly impossible to get them out.

Said Byron Scott, the Laker guard who graduated from Morningside High in Inglewood in 1979: "A lot of kids in the community got involved because they thought it was something cool, but in a lot of gangs in L.A. there's no way out. The only way out is death. That's the way it goes."

Kenneth Williams, a former Locke High football player and also a former gang member, said: "There was pressure (to join the gang). But I also thought it was something that was cool, something that would make you be cool. The gangs were everywhere. You couldn't miss it."

Willie Allen, Pomona basketball coach, said: "Once (students) get involved (with gangs), they tend to stay away from athletics. I guess the gang becomes the family. Athletics is a family, too. Maybe they can't be in two families at once. Maybe they can't break away. There's a lot of pressure from the gang to stay."

Indeed, most coaches have stories of gang members who managed to break free of the gangs, only to falter and fall back.

Woody said that frequently, there are large numbers of gang members out for football at the start of the season.

How many stick it out?

"Maybe six or seven," Woody said. "We usually lose them to eligibility. That's when he gets back with his friends, kind of slips back into that old mold."

Sometimes, though, an incidence of gang violence will push some over the line to athletics for good.

Last year, Howard Robinson, a tailback and nose guard on the 1981 Jordan team, was shot and killed.

"It forced the kids participating in sports to realize, to open their eyes," Woody said. "Some told me they didn't want to get involved with gangs because of this, that they wanted to stick with sports."

For the most part, though, the coaches say, there is steady traffic away from sports.

Experience tells E. C. Robinson, the football coach at Locke in Watts, that he shouldn't bother with prospects he believes are gang members. They usually are trouble and rarely complete the season. Despite past failures, however, Robinson remains hopeful.

"I had a kid (transfer) from Carson about two years ago now," Robinson said. "He was about 6-3 and about 285. He played linebacker. And the reason he left Carson was because he was in a gang. He was out for a while, but it got so bad. He was a Blood and around here it's the Crips. He wasn't working out."

Robinson said he wins over only 50% of the players who are also gang members. His is one of the higher ratios.

Morris, basketball coach at Manual Arts, has also become frustrated in his efforts to sway the gang members. Unlike Robinson, Morris has stopped approaching prospects he suspects are gang members.

"In all honesty, I don't do it as much as I used to because if I see a guy who is 6-7 with the hat, with the dress, with the look , he's not going to want to conform," Morris said.

"Ten years ago, we could approach everybody. There are guys here, right now, that are in gangs and drugs that are 6-6, 6-7. Real prospects."

Rare though they may be, there are some lasting successes. Some students have shed their gang ties and played in high school. Some have even gone on to play in college.

Those victories encourage some coaches to keep trying with gang members who show potential as athletes.

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