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State Crown Signals Verbum Dei's Return to Glory : In the 1970s, the Eagles Soared With Some of the Greatest Squads Ever to Compete in the Southern Section

March 26, 1995|SEAN WATERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While Santa Ana Mater Dei High dominates Southern Section opponents in the 1980s and '90s, a different Dei was a nationally renowned powerhouse during the '70s.

Verbum Dei--an all-boys parochial school with an enrollment of less than 300 students in Watts--won seven Southern Section championships from 1969-79.

This was an impressive feat considering the Eagles won most of their championships when there were four divisions. The Southern Section initiated a small-schools division in its playoff format in 1977.

In 1995, the Eagles were one of 10 boys' champions crowned, their ninth sectional title and second in a row.

"They had only 300 students, but all of them played basketball," said Katella Coach Tom Danley, whose Knights lost to Verbum Dei, 90-87, in the 1969 2-A Division championship game at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. "In terms of talent, championship teams run in cycles. It comes down to which coaches 'attract' the best players. . . . 1969 was the beginning of the Verbum Dei era."

While Crenshaw was the team to beat in the City Section, the Eagles fielded some of the greatest squads ever to compete in the Southern Section during the '70s.

The Eagles won six consecutive championships beginning with a 2-A Division title in 1969, a 3-A in '70 and ending with four 4-A crowns from 1970-73. The Eagles, however, never won a state championship during that period. State playoffs were not conducted between 1929 and 1980.

The 1971 and 1974 squads were the most famous.

The 1971 team featured prolific scorer Raymond Lewis, sophomore center Lewis Brown, forward Adrian Chivers and defensive stalwart Randy Echols. The Eagles beat Crescenta Valley, 51-42, in front of 11,151 fans at the Sports Arena.

"Raymond Lewis was easily the best player ever to compete in the state of California," said former Verbum Dei Coach George McQuarn.

The 1974 championship team had 6-foot-10 junior center David Greenwood and 6-2 junior guard Roy Hamilton. Both later starred at UCLA. That team won 39 games in a row (28 in 1975) before losing to Palos Verdes in the 4-A semifinals in 1975. Palos Verdes' best player was Bill Laimbeer.

"Laimbeer will never let me forget how his team beat us in high school," said Greenwood, who was Laimbeer's teammate on the Detroit Pistons' 1990 NBA championship team. "We used to drive to (Piston) practices and games together and we must have had 15 arguments about who had a better team."

Although they had exchanged elbows as opposing centers at UCLA and Notre Dame and in the pros before becoming Piston teammates, Greenwood admits he suffered his biggest bruise in that high school semifinal game.

"Bill and I are friends," Greenwood said, "but he still uses that little victory to get under my skin."

While Laimbeer played for a well-equipped school in an affluent area, Greenwood and his predecessors had to settle for substandard conditions at the Watts school. When McQuarn began coaching the team in 1969, he brought success to a school that did not have its own gymnasium. Instead, Verbum Dei played its home games at Locke High and at Compton College, and practiced in the school's multipurpose room.

Said Greenwood: "Verbum Dei was a no-win situation from a basketball standpoint. Our legs used to get sore running on those tile floors. It was like concrete. The auditorium had wooden baskets, not fiberglass. And home games felt like road games."

But it didn't seem to matter whether the Eagles wore their home or away jerseys. They played the best teams, and rarely lost.

Greenwood won the Southern Section player of the year award in 1975. Other Eagle winners during that era were Keith Batiste (1969), Raymond Lewis (1970, 1971), Lewis Brown (1972, 1973) and Cliff Pruitt (1979).

"To win a championship, we had to play schools with 3,000 or 4,000 students," Greenwood said. "Verbum Dei today doesn't have to play a Mater Dei or Inglewood to win a championship."

Former UCLA standout Kenny Fields was another member of a very talented 1979 squad.

And Hamilton, who graduated from Willowbrook Junior High in Compton before attending Verbum Dei during his sophomore year, summed it up succinctly: "We were the UCLA team of high school championships."

VERBUM DEI'S SOUTHERN SECTION CHAMPIONSHIP TEAMS

YEAR DIVISION HEAD COACH SCORE OPPONENT 1969 2-A George McQuarn 90-87 Katella 1970 3-A Caldwell Black 77-69 Lausen 1971 4-A George McQuarn 51-42 Crescenta Valley 1972 4-A Ken Booker 58-48 Pasadena 1973 4-A George McQuarn 60-45 Pasadena 1974 4-A John Sneed 70-60 Millikan 1979 4-A Eli Hawthorne 67-54 Long Beach Poly 1994 IV-A Mike Kearney 70-60 Millikan 1995 IV-A Mike Kearney 71-65 Santa Clara

YEAR STAR PLAYERS 1969 Keith Batiste Raymond Lewis Michael Blackshire 1970 Raymond Lewis Michael Blackshire 1971 Raymond Lewis Lewis Brown Dwight Slaughter 1972 Lewis Brown Dwight Slaughter Ricky Hawthorne 1973 Lewis Brown Michael Pyles Roy Hamilton David Greenwood 1974 David Greenwood Roy Hamilton Keith Anderson 1979 Cliff Pruitt Kenny Fields Rickie Hawthorne 1994 Andre Miller Jamal Cobbs 1995 Deon Williams Andre Larry Ivory Burris

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