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New moves Taking a Backseat to Tattoos as a Form of Expression for High School Athletes

January 22, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER and GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They are on display at many high school basketball games in Southern California this season, providing a very '90s meaning to what used to be known as on-court marksmanship.

Newfangled shooting styles or post moves?

Hardly.

In the tradition of pierced ears and bleached hair, tattoos are now all the rage for many high school athletes. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the basketball court, where sleeveless jerseys and shorts reveal the simple or sometimes extravagant body art.

Most trace the fad to NBA players such as Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O'Neal and other high-profile pro and college stars.

"It's a sign of the times," said Dean Crowley, commissioner of the Southern Section. "It started at the top and moved down to high school. And it's not only boys. It's girls too. I saw girls at the state basketball tournament last year with tattoos."

Section 653 of the California State Penal Code prohibits the tattooing of anyone under the age of 18. It's a misdemeanor for the person doing the tattoo. But the tattoos keep appearing.

Not everyone is thrilled with the trend.

"A lot of high school coaches are very concerned because the pro stuff is definitely filtering down, and with that comes the attitudes," Washington basketball Coach Andy Davis said. "Everyone wants to be an individual and have a certain style rather than fitting in with a team mode. It's getting tougher and tougher in terms of discipline."

Others coaches are more accepting.

"For some reason, the tattoos don't bother me," Fairfax Coach Harvey Kitani said. "The earrings did. And at first, we didn't allow our kids to wear them. But we changed up on that about three or four years ago. Rather than fighting that type of issue, it's just not that important anymore."

Athletes contend that tattoos are a simple means of self-expression. And usually, it's the reaction of parents--rather than coaches--that they fear most.

Michael Page of San Fernando said he got a tattoo of a player dunking because, "I'm a 100% basketball player."

And what did his parents think?

"They got mad at first, then they got over it," he said.

Only one of Mike Bartee's players at Riverside North has a tattoo. And Bartee, who has been coaching at the school for 16 years, considers himself lucky because the tattoo is of Disney character Goofy throwing down a dunk.

"I let that go because forcing a player to put tape over it or something just calls more attention to it," Bartee said. "But I told the other kids that I would prefer that if they didn't have one now, that they let it go.

Some coaches, such as Chatsworth's Fluke Fluker, find themselves caught in a "Do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do" situation. Fluker was 19 and a sergeant in the Marine Corps when he had a rose tattooed on his right arm.

"I felt if I'm going to put my life on the line, I'm mature enough to decide about a tattoo," he said.

That doesn't mean he recommends tattoos for his players.

"I think they should think long and hard before they put something on their body for the rest of their life," he said.

Once a player is tattooed, coaches have little recourse.

"What do you want me to do--scratch it off?" Grant Coach Howard Levine said when asked about the tattoo on the arm of sophomore guard Mike Yildiz.

Regardless of whether they like tattoos, most coaches are beginning to accept them.

Take, for example, Birmingham Coach Al Bennett.

Two seasons ago, Bennett made national news when he refused to let one of his players, Adam Kopulsky, participate on the basketball team because he dyed his hair pink. Now Kopulsky is a team captain. Has Bennett softened?

"I draw the line at the Constitution of the United States," he said. "I think you just have to go with [tattoos]. It's the fad now."

Still, there are traditionalists, coaches who invariably preface their remarks about tattoos with, "I guess I'm from the old school, but . . . "

Glendora Coach Mike LeDuc is unashamedly one of them. Though he has never addressed the subject with his team, none of Glendora's players has a tattoo. Only one in LeDuc's tenure even dared to enter the gym with an earring.

LeDuc isn't sure what he would do if a player showed up with a tattoo.

"With the earring, I just said, 'The earring goes outside the gym,' " LeDuc recalled. " 'I don't care what you do outside the gym, but the earring doesn't come in.' I guess you can't take a tattoo out like an earring, though."

Most coaches agree that the popularity of tattoos, like other fads, will eventually fade. The tattoos themselves, however, will remain.

With that thought in mind, Fluker suggests that young people wear some kind of drawing for several months before pursuing a permanent tattoo.

"It's a fashion statement in the '90s," Fluker said. "But it's a fashion statement that will last them a lifetime."

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