Chris Taylor would stand at one end of dusty church gyms, or sit in the top row of dimly lit recreation department facilities and watch the youth of Ventura develop into basketball players.
His eyes would ultimately fall on a blond passer and a dark-haired, lanky shooter. They were best pals who flashed quick smiles and quicker understanding of the game--as grade schoolers.
"I always envied the guys who had them on their youth teams," Taylor said. "Then I had them and knew why."
For three years Taylor had Joe Paul and Chris Hantgin, the passer and the shooter.
But now, once again, they will be somebody else's.
"I'm going to follow them all the way through their playing," said Taylor, who resigned recently after three years as basketball coach at Ventura High. "Both of those kids have been very special to me."
After Friday's Ventura County all-star basketball game, for which Taylor is a co-coach with Buena's Glen Hannah, Paul will belong to Phil Mathews and his highly successful Ventura College program. Hantgin, one of the finest pure shooters in the county, will belong to Gonzaga of the West Coast Athletic Conference.
The passer--Paul averaged 7.9 assists a game in his senior season--was a three-year starter at Ventura. Taylor, then a rookie coach, took some heat when he made the decision to start Paul as a sophomore, but it was Taylor who ultimately muttered the "I told you so's."
"Joe hasn't gotten the kind of spotlight that Chris has," Taylor said, "but Joe's probably the kid with the best court vision and passing ability of any high school kid I've seen in a long time."
The shooter--Hantgin was fifth in the county in scoring at 19 points a game, including 43 points in Ventura's second-round playoff loss to Nogales--was Taylor's sixth man as a sophomore.
"Chris will be a big scorer in college," Taylor predicted. "He's got all the tools."
The break-up of Paul, Hantgin and Jeff Hereford, another Cougar who will play in the all-star game, will be difficult.
The Cougars won their first 15 games last season and achieved a No. 2 ranking in the Southern Section 4-A Division poll. Then they lost a game to Channel League and cross-town rival Buena before winning three more in a row.
But Ventura finished its league schedule with losses in four of five games, then fell to Nogales, 82-81, in the second round of the playoffs. Nogales lost to Simi Valley in the next round, 110-61. Taylor resigned soon after.
"That was a devastating experience," Paul said of the loss to Nogales. "I won't forget that for a long time."
For Taylor, the season began to crumble with the 95-80 loss to Buena after the 15-game win streak. The streak included three tournament championships.
"I really think that was a real blow we didn't handle too well, myself included," he said. "We got to the point where we thought we were invincible. Here we were 15-1 and we were pouting and crying and whining about it.
"I liked the kids and I wanted to see them do well. And the peaks and valleys of the season were tremendous. I didn't like to see the kids go through that. I hated for them to have to do that."
With time, however, the Cougars have been able to accept the season for what it was: a record of 21-6, a third-place league finish a playoff berth, and those three tournament titles.
The tenuous relationships grew strong. The strong relationships grew stronger. Friday's game, which pits top seniors from the north half of the county against top seniors from the south, marks the end of an era, however.
Buena also had three players named to the North squad: 6-10 center Shawn Kirkeby and guards Mike Sandoval and Craig Rasmussen. Victor Caro and Andy Beltowski will represent Channel Islands. St. Bonaventure shot-blocker and rebounder Andy Wagoner and Hueneme's Percy Davis also will play.
Kirkeby averaged 18.8 points and 10.5 rebounds to lead the Bulldogs to the league title. Wagoner scored 15 points and grabbed 9.8 rebounds a game, Caro averaged 13.9 points and Beltowski 13.7. Davis averaged 8.6 rebounds.
Sandoval led the county in assists with 10.3 a game.
The boys' game is scheduled for 8 p.m. at Ventura High and follows the girls' 6:30 p.m. game.
The South brings with it Simi Valley All-American Don MacLean. The 6-10 center, who will attend UCLA in the fall, led the county in scoring (31.5 avg) and rebounding (12.3). He was the Southern Section 4-A Player of the Year.
MacLean will be the focus.
"We've got some real good athletes and real good shooters," Taylor said, "but MacLean's a great player. It's hard to keep him from taking over the game and beating you."
The passer and the shooter, Paul and Hantgin, have their edge, too. They've spent plenty of time on the court together.
"It's a real comfortable feeling," Hantgin said. "I know what he's going to do, and he knows what I'm going to do. It makes it that much easier and lends itself to better continuity."
And continuity is something on which the passer and the shooter have always been able to rely.
"Throughout high school there are a lot of memories I can reflect on," Hantgin said. "The friendship is built."
Paul, however, is looking ahead.
"I'm looking toward the future more than looking back," he said. "I think the best is still to come. You need a change now and then."