Although he makes his living as an accountant, Joe Perry's life is basketball and the street children who play it. To them, this Christian man in shorts and T-shirt is both coach and guiding light, instilling character and respect along with the man-to-man defense.
"He's like the father I never had," said Stais Boseman of Inglewood, a 6-foot-2 eighth-grader on Perry's champion 14-and-under Long Beach Lakers. "He does a lot for us. You don't have money, he buys you stuff to eat. He teaches basketball and sportsmanship."
The Lakers were in their purple shorts in the First Baptist Church gym in downtown Long Beach. Beneath dim lights, breakaway rims snapped down and back in place as the taller youngsters, already under the influence of Michael Jordan, attempted dunk shots.
"I put in more time at this than I do at my actual job," said Perry, 31, who works for a Santa Fe Springs manufacturing firm. He was quietly overseeing the practice.
"He overflows with basketball," said Perry's wife, Charlotte, watching from a small set of bleachers. "Each year I ask him, 'How many teams are you going to coach?' so I can get myself mentally prepared."
Perry, who was a guard at Harbor City Christian High School but continued his playing career only in recreation leagues because he thought his 5-9 height was against him, also coaches two youth teams in Cerritos. He was assistant varsity coach at Leffingwell Christian High in Norwalk from 1980 to 1986. He first coached when he was 13 and does not foresee stopping. Due to the satisfaction he gets from working with younger players, he says he has no desire to return to coaching at a high school.
A year ago he formed the Lakers, finding the eighth- and ninth-graders by corresponding with junior high schools and visiting parks and playgrounds.
The Lakers, 42-7 since last October, won the championship of the spring junior varsity division of the American Roundball Corp.'s Future Stars League at Artesia High School, and are in the ARC Summer League at North Hollywood High. They are among the elite of privately supported traveling teams, which consist of better grade-school and junior-high players. They play almost year-round, usually in tournaments, sometimes in other states. There are several traveling team leagues, ARC and Slam-n-Jam being the biggest. The leagues are not associated with schools.
"They are very unselfish players," Perry said of his Lakers. "They brag about points after a game, but during a game they think about winning. I tell them it's not good if you score 30 points and we lose. They never give up, each player has the desire to win."
The leaders on the team include Boseman, averaging 22 points a game; Rudy Washington Jr., who averages 24 points a game and is the son of University of Iowa assistant coach Rudy Washington; and Marmet Williams, a 3-point specialist who will attend Mater Dei High School in the fall.
The majority of the Lakers are from South-Central Los Angeles and Inglewood, although Long Beach, Lynwood, Cerritos and Fountain Valley are also represented.
Perry is dedicated to helping inner-city youngsters. He normally picks up one group in Los Angeles and drives them to Long Beach for practice at the church gym that he rents for a minimal fee, while Charlotte, a sales secretary, picks up another group.
Big Brother Image
"Every one of them has the possibility of turning to gangs and drugs," said Perry, who sees himself as their big brother. "I think this will keep them out of trouble, off the streets. They have their own little spats, but I have not had any problems as far as their discipline with me. They fully respect me and all the adults involved. They are extremely disciplined. People are impressed; they expect them to be wild."
Because of gangs and drugs, Perry said, fearful inner-city children are staying away from parks. "Outside their area they feel more comfortable," he said. "Stais was extremely quiet with me at first, but now has become very open and relaxed."
On the court, a Laker missed a layup. "Got to make the basket, baby," Perry said, without raising his voice.
It is Perry's intention to get the youngsters out of their environment and give them exposure that they've never had. "People I grew up with," he said, "are still on the same street, at the same house, living with their parents. These kids have the potential to end up like that."
The Lakers have become seasoned travelers. They have gone in rented vans to San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Las Vegas, staying in hotels and motels, usually at Perry's expense. "The kids call it the pro life," he said. Even short trips to Trabuco Hills and Huntington Beach have been big events for the players, who had never seen gyms unmarred by graffiti.
Boseman said he and another player missed curfew one night and Perry "made us run 15 laps around the (motel) parking lot."