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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / BILL PLASCHKE

It's Gardner's Parents Who Should Be Grounded

September 08, 1996|Bill Plaschke

Another coach is fired in disgrace. Another college program is headed for purgatory. Another Southland basketball star is pitched into controversy deep beyond his years.

Another set of parents escape.

Linda and Tom Gardner of West Covina, mom and dad of talented guard Jelani Gardner, will survive this latest ugliness with the University of California and former coach Todd Bozeman.

So what if they accepted a promise of at least $15,000 from Bozeman during the recruiting of their son two years ago?

So what if they recently ratted on Bozeman when, coincidentally, their son's playing time was decreasing?

So what if that snitching led to his firing last week?

So what if the NCAA's case against Cal will now be based on a secretly taped conversation between Ma and Pa Gardner and Bozeman over nonpayment of the money? A conversation taped by Linda herself?

So what? They are parents, and everybody understands parents. They are only doing what is best for their son.

We should be ashamed.

Instead of wondering whether Bozeman should be allowed to leave the school without punishment . . . or how many scholarships Cal should lose . . . we should be asking this:

Who disciplines the parents?

What sanctions can be put on the Gardners for teaching their son about the lure of money, the power of ego, the rewards of deceit?

Every sort of coach, advisor and teacher in amateur sports today is under institutional control. Everybody except those charged with teaching the athletes about character.

Say this for Tom Gardner.

He sounds ashamed.

"I wish I'd never slept with the devil," he said Saturday. "We all make mistakes. And we all will continue to make mistakes."

Todd Bozeman may be not exactly be the devil, but in 3 1/2 years at Cal he showed a disturbing sense of opportunism that cost him credibility with his team. He treated players not like people, but parts. His recruiting tactics were questionable. After being named head coach at age 29, he never matured into the job and deserved to be fired.

But Linda and Tom Gardner should have known better than to engineer it.

"Everybody wants it now, everybody wants it today," said Brian Breslin, Gardner's high school coach at Bellflower St. John Bosco.

Breslin said he "loves" Gardner and enjoys a good relationship with his parents. But he has seen enough parents during his six years at the high-profile program to understand.

Parents have called him at 5 a.m. to scream about their son deserving more playing time.

Parents have confronted him on the court after a game to challenge his coaching of their offspring.

"Don't even let me get out of bounds before they come after me," he said.

In the world of college basketball, this increased pressure started with the increased popularity of the NCAA tournament. More TV money meant bigger championship purses, which meant more pressure for big schools to recruit.

With dozens of teenagers entering the NBA draft annually, the general public now views good young players as nothing more than investments.

How sad when their own parents begin viewing them the same way.

When Gardner's playing time was reduced at Cal last season--Bozeman said the kid was uncoachable because of parental influence, a charge the Gardners deny--Tom Gardner made his move.

"My whole thing is, it's sad because it has to come to this," Tom said.

But it didn't. They didn't have to accept the money two years ago. They didn't have to cause a stir when Jelani became unhappy.

He wanted to play for respected Lorenzo Romar at Pepperdine? Let him quietly transfer like any other student unhappy in his curriculum.

And like every other basketball player who transfers, let him sit out a year.

He is going to sit out a year, isn't he? Surely Tom Gardner isn't singing in hopes of putting Cal on probation so his son would be eligible at Pepperdine immediately.

Flash back to the spring of 1994, a news conference at St. John Bosco during which Gardner announced which college he would attend.

"I told Jelani, I'm not so sure a press conference is the way to go," Breslin said.

The Gardners should have listened.

Instead, they set Jelani up at a table with three different college caps in front of him: from UCLA, Arkansas and Cal.

On cue, with the cameras rolling, Gardner slowly reached down and . . . picked up the Cal cap.

This wasn't the consummation of the most important decision of a young man's life. This was a game show.

And the host that day was James Casey, a former agent standing by Gardner's side and answering some of his questions.

James Casey, a man whose recent payment of $1,800 to forward Tremaine Fowlkes for a car forced Fowlkes to serve a 14-game suspension last season.

James Casey, husband of Linda Gardner's first cousin.

"James Casey was family," Breslin said.

And family knows best.

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