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A Rebuilding Season Ends : Crenshaw's Retooled 'Bus' Took 14th City Title Before the Wheels Came Off

March 12, 1995|SEAN WATERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Although he had to replace a few key parts, Crenshaw High Coach Willie West managed to reassemble "The Big Bus" and turn it into a championship team once again.

The Cougars didn't quite reach the pinnacle they had hoped for--a seventh State championship--as Clovis West put up an unexpected roadblock Thursday night eliminating the Cougars, 67-62, in a Southern Regional semifinal game. The loss kept Crenshaw from a renewal of their classic rivalry with Mater Dei in yesterday's regional finals.

But for most of the season, Crenshaw was the "Big Bus" that Crenshaw forward Ronnie Arch had dubbed them last season, when the Cougars ran over the competition to capture the 1994 City Section and after that the State title.

Despite losing the Big Three--Kristaan Johnson, Tremaine Fowlkes and Tommie Davis--to graduation, West managed to rebuild the Big Bus.

"He keeps plugging kids in and they keep winning," Manual Arts Coach Randolph Simpson said. "How many titles is that? Eighteen or 19?"

He surprised his colleagues by winning his 14th City Section 4-A Division title with a 78-76 win over Fairfax on March 4. West set a state record for sectional championships, bettering the previous mark of 13 that he shared with Lou Cvijanovich of Oxnard Santa Clara.

Considering that Arch, a part-time starter, was the only returning regular, many area coaches believed the Cougars would be dethroned.

Said Simpson: "To be honest, I thought this was the year to beat them. He had no starters back. He had other returning players with very little playing experience. If anyone was going to beat Crenshaw, this was the year to do it."

So how was West able to put together the components of another championship team?

THE FACTORY THEORY

While most high school basketball programs are lucky to have 20 quality players trying out for the team, Crenshaw attracted more than 150 players to its tryouts.

"They have the same prototype players," Dorsey Coach Kevin Gibson said. "They have the same size, the same build, the same attitude, the same everything. They might not have the same level of talent. But they learn to play well in his system."

With open enrollment, basketball players come to Crenshaw the way musical prodigies attend Juilliard School. Crenshaw stands for success in high school basketball--six state championships in six appearances in the last 13 years--and potential scholarships to Division I schools.

It starts with basketball programs such as the K&E Bulls, where former Crenshaw junior varsity coach Edmond (Tiny) Flournoy teaches youths basketball fundamentals and conditioning at the Willie West Memorial Gym. The Cougars championship banners hang high above the diminutive basketball apprentices.

By the time inner-city youths reach high school playing age, they have been indoctrinated by the West system. Among the current team, 10 of the 15 players competed for the K&E Bulls.

Gibson developed his own system to beat Crenshaw and it worked twice during their two Southern Pacific Conference meetings. The Dons became only the second team to sweep two games from Crenshaw.

"No one questioned my gameplan against Crenshaw," Gibson said of his players. "They followed it to the ultimate." But when the Dons played and lost to Palisades in the first round of City 4-A playoffs, the players had strayed to follow their own game plan. That doesn't happen at Crenshaw.

"West's biggest assest is that he gets his players to listen," Gibson said. "They listen to every word. Other programs--mine included--have players who question what you say. And when they do their own thing in the game, you're in trouble."

THE 'ME VS. WE' THEORY

Since Crenshaw draws such large numbers, West can afford to bench a star player or two until he plays to form. Such was the case with Arch, who stayed home when the Cougars left for a tournament in Texas. Arch had personal problems both on and off the court. When the team returned, Arch had to fight his way back into the starting lineup. He proved to be a pivotal player when the Cougars beat Westchester in the semifinals and Fairfax in the championship game.

"We are in a 'me' and 'I' generation," Manual Arts' Simpson said. "Guys play selfish basketball. I call it TV basketball because they emulate what they see on TV . . . the shoes, the glitz, the glamour.

"At Crenshaw, West is able to contain that. You look at Crenshaw and it's 'we' and 'us.' They play as a team and that's why they win."

THE SYSTEM THEORY

It's been well-documented that Crenshaw wins with its defense. The Cougars play a 1-2-2 or 1-2-1-1 trapping press that makes opposing teams rush the ball upcourt and out of their patterned offense. When a team breaks the press--like Washington and Dorsey did during their victories against Crenshaw--they can score easy layups. When they don't, they rush their shots or, worse, commit turnovers.

But no matter what happens, Crenshaw controls the tempo, and very few teams can maintain the frantic pace for 32 minutes.

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