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Into the Light

Chatsworth's Dawn Patrol Teaches Basketball Players a Lesson

October 25, 1998|ERIC SONDHEIMER

CHATSWORTH — Scott Johnston wonders if he's having a bad dream as he carries a flashlight around a darkened Chatsworth High track.

It's 5 a.m. on a school day, and he has joined eight other Chatsworth basketball players running on the track.

"I've never been up this early in my life," he said.

Four have flashlights to illuminate their path. The rest wear orange vests to prevent collisions as they run in total darkness.

Seven players slept overnight at Coach Fluke Fluker's house with his wife and son. Another player, Humberto Haro, got up at 4:15 a.m. to ride his bike from Northridge. Johnston was dropped off by his father.

Fluker's minivan is parked on the track, engine running, lights on. The players go round and round until they complete 20 laps--five miles.

The players are running because they failed to concentrate in the classroom.

Their punishment is 15 miles for every unsatisfactory mark, 10 miles for an F and five miles for a D.

"Either they're going to have good grades or become marathon runners," Fluker said. "They run so many laps all they can do is make left-hand turns the rest of the day.

"I'll write a note [to their teachers], 'Please let one of one my basketball players sit in front of the room because he's eager to learn today.' "

The incentive to avoid any more 4:15 a.m. wake-up calls is already having an effect.

"For the next five weeks, I'll be straight," Haro said. "I'm feeling the pain.

"I'm going to think twice before I talk in class."

Another player, freshman Joe Northcutt, said, "This is the last time I'm going to do this."

Northcutt has to run 100 miles.

"My mother says I should be doing 200 miles," he said.

Johnston, a sophomore who plays on the junior varsity and is a top golfer, had to run because he received a U for unsatisfactory behavior in his Italian class.

Asked what he learned from his running experience, Johnston said, "Don't get U's."

This is the fourth year for Fluker's boot camp. He's a former Marine sergeant who's determined to make sure his players graduate.

"These are good kids who slipped up in one or two classes," he said.

Fluker says only one parent has objected to letting her child rise at 5 a.m. to run laps for grade lapses.

"She said it was ridiculous," Fluker said. "I also believe it's ridiculous one out of every four black men are in jail, on probation or awaiting trial. She ended the conversation by saying, 'He'll be there in the morning.' "

Last season, Fluker's basketball team had the highest grade-point average of any team at Chatsworth.

"This is discipline with tough love," he said. "We're in constant war with ourselves to do the right thing spiritually, physically and mentally. And if I can use basketball as a formula to win these daily battles, so be it."

The fact Fluker is risking the wrath of his players in an era when any of them can simply transfer under open enrollment is a story itself.

So many coaches today are afraid to challenge their players for fear of retribution. Not Fluker.

"Some of them are mumbling bad words as they go around the track but they'll shed a tear, as well as me, when they graduate."

Not every coach could pull off what Fluker did this week. It shows a strong commitment to what he believes in, which is helping his players focus on obtaining a quality education.

"When I was in high school, I'd be doing the same thing," he said. "I was not the best-disciplined teenager. I want to get to that before it becomes a habit, before it becomes a way of life."

Last week, a pay phone outside Chatsworth's gym started ringing. It was Jumaane Robinson, who played for the Chancellors last season, calling to speak with Fluker.

"It was like an AT&T commercial," Fluker said.

Robinson was at an Army boot camp and feeling homesick. He timed his call just when basketball class was ending so he could speak to Fluker.

"He called to say, 'Thank you,' " Fluker said.

Every parent of a Chatsworth basketball player should be grateful for having Fluker as their son's coach. He's teaching them not only about basketball but preparing them for life.


Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422.

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