Poly High School is driving for another CIF Southern Section basketball title under Coach Ron Palmer, just as the Jackrabbits did in 1984 when they were 31-2 and also tacked on a state championship.
Morlon Wiley, Terry Stallworth and Chris Sandle were the main players then, and Palmer was winding up a highly successful 11-year career. He would soon leave for Cal State Long Beach, making the almost unheard-of jump from high school to college Division I, a jump that would turn out to be disastrous.
Now, the stars are Willie McGinest, Roderick Hannibal, Melvin Jones and Tyus Edney, who have the talent for which Poly has always been known. They looked sharp Tuesday night in a 74-59 victory over Simi Valley in a quarterfinal playoff game at Lakewood High.
And Palmer is back, still wearing his dark green sports coat, sitting hunched over with elbows on knees, holding up signs that read "time out" or "1-3-1" and offering sharp advice to his players and the officials.
"Hey, ref, what did he do? This is a contact sport," he complained when a foul was called on a Poly player.
"Three seconds? Oh, come on," he said in disbelief, shaking his head and breaking into his familiar smile when an official ruled that a Jackrabbit was in the free-throw lane too long.
"Why is that so hard to remember?" he asked his team sternly after someone missed an assignment.
During his first tenure at Poly, Palmer's record was 270-51. He won nine Moore League titles and was in seven CIF championship games, winning three. He went out with the state crown in 1984.
"I kind of remember that team, I remember coming to the games," said McGinest, a preteen then but now an imposing 6-foot-7 center, after he scored 20 points and 11 rebounds against Simi Valley.
McGinest is also a football linebacker who is going to USC. Some think he might be the next Lawrence Taylor.
"I just remember how good they were," McGinest went on. "And I remember Palmer. I had heard a lot about him. He was like a legend, a famous coach. But I never met him until he came back this season."
Palmer, after three seasons and a 23-64 record at Cal State Long Beach, was out of basketball the last two seasons. He returned to Poly last May to replace Chris Kinder, who was forced out.
Kinder was 79-52 in five seasons, but his sin was not winning the CIF championship, something not easily forgiven at Poly, a school that has a basketball reputation as a junior UCLA.
"It's been an exceptional year," Palmer said Tuesday morning at the storefront school near downtown Long Beach where he teaches junior high students who have had discipline problems.
He looked fresh and relaxed, unlike the day three years ago when he resigned under pressure at the university. Beaten down by the losing, he was tired and thin, and his stomach hurt.
"That was an aging experience," he said. "This is a totally different world than the college world. I felt my age, I don't feel it now. I'm 52 and I feel like I'm 30 something, doing what I've always done, coaching."
Poly is 24-2 this season and has won 17 consecutive games. The Jackrabbits' only losses have been to Artesia and, in a December tournament in Texas, to Denton (Tex.) High.
Palmer was 4-23 and 7-22 his first two seasons at Cal State Long Beach before improving to 12-19.
The losses came with such regularity at the university that they eventually numbed Palmer. "In high school losing hurts more because you're always in the game, especially at Poly," he said.
With the 49ers, Palmer was at first plagued with mediocre talent. When he did get some athletes, they had a difficult time scoring, just as the good athletes do at Cal State Long Beach today.
"People out-jumped us and out-quicked us (at Cal State Long Beach)," he said. "Here, we can jump over your heads and put it in the basket.
Palmer believes that the big, talented players who can do everything on the court continue to go to schools such as North Carolina, Nevada Las Vegas and Georgetown.
"At Long Beach State you get some athletes, but guys who can do it all, including shoot, are at other schools.
"I found out there was a vast difference in ability across the country. On the East Coast you have guys 6-7 and 6-8 dribbling the ball like a guard. They have more skills. And they play a more physical style that helps players adjust from high school to college. Here (in high school) a player gets touched and it's a foul."
Palmer points to several reasons for his failure at Cal State Long Beach.
"I always thought we probably tried to achieve too much too soon, playing Georgetown and other nationally ranked teams," he said.
He also complained about having had to play the first 13 games on the road his second season and not being able to hold full-team practices because a gym renovation forced night practices, which some of the players could not attend because of classes.
And he was distressed because he said he could never guarantee decent-paying summer jobs for his players.