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Swoosh Comes to Shove

Westchester Won State Championship, but Many Local Coaches Say Nike's Sponsorship Gives Comets Too Big of an Assist

April 10, 2002|MIKE BRESNAHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even before the start of the season, when the Westchester High boys' basketball team was ranked No. 1 in the nation, opposing coaches were saying it.

Westchester, with its top eight players all likely to earn college scholarships, was so much better than the rest that it belonged in a league of its own.

Now that the season has ended with a state championship and a 32-2 record, many in the City basketball coaching ranks are still talking about the Comets.

They say Westchester has an edge--corporate sponsorship--that is ruining the competitive balance of the playing court.

"What you have is professional players in high school," said Ronald Quiette, the boys' basketball coach at Los Angeles Jordan. "Let them all play each other. Set up two leagues: The semi-professional league, and the rest of us."

Westchester and Santa Ana Mater Dei were among a select 15 teams in the nation that sports apparel giant Nike outfitted for free this season. For Westchester players, that meant an investment of more than $15,000. From headbands to high-tops, each Comet player received more than $1,300 in gear--including five pair of the newest top-of-the-line shoes. And there is more.

The team had its expenses to a prestigious holiday tournament in Houston paid for by a Nike affiliate. The estimated cost of that trip: $7,000. Westchester also played in three other out-of-state events last season, trips worth about $20,000 that were paid for almost entirely by organizers seeking a prominent headliner for their tournaments.

Special associations such as the one between Westchester and Nike concern high-ranking school sports administrators, who worry that the lines of fair play are being erased.

The California Interscholastic Federation, which governs athletic competition for the state's 1,292 high schools, doesn't have rules prohibiting such arrangements. But some might be coming in at least one of its 10 sections.

The director of the CIF's largest section said he is tired of endorsement deals such as the ones between Nike and Westchester that seem to allow continued success for "the privileged few."

James Staunton, commissioner of the 522-school Southern Section, said he thinks that restrictive legislation is a potential hot topic for an April 25 meeting of athletic representatives, where voting members from each of his section's 73 leagues will be in attendance.

"The only thing we can do would be to alter our bylaws to make it impossible to do this, even if a district would accept it through their policies," Staunton said. "If the time is right and the council can craft a rule that can at least put a damper on this, I think it would pass in a heartbeat."

Even though Westchester is a member of the Los Angeles City Section, any policy-making decision by the Southern Section is sure to be considered by the CIF's other regional governing bodies.

Staunton, a former high school principal, said Nike's "selectivity" is what disturbs him. "It's not the product; it's how they're doing it," he said. "It's run so contrary to what we're trying to do with the kids. Their business decision interferes with our attempts to try to provide a level playing field ... and to get away from direct influence on kids."

While most high school teams do car washes and bake sales to raise funds for equipment, uniforms and travel, Westchester, a public school, attracts all-star-caliber athletes from across the South Bay and parts of Los Angeles. The players admit they have been at least partially enticed by thousands of dollars in free apparel and paid trips to national tournaments that are attended by hundreds of college scouts.

"People who don't play [for Westchester], they're like, 'Damn you're lucky,'" said Scott Cutley, a starter for the Comets at forward. "They see our shoes. They see us traveling. They say things like, 'I'll sit on the end of the bench just to be a part of everything.'"

Some do. Jonathan Smith, a top player at Lawndale Leuzinger High, transferred to Westchester before this season only to become an end-of-the-bench reserve. But he doesn't regret his choice.

"There's a lot of exposure," he said. "At Leuzinger, we only traveled to tournaments in the South Bay. At Westchester, we travel everywhere. The shoes, they're nice too."

And, he added, "We win a lot."

Winning Tradition

In the five years they have been partners with Nike, the Comets have won four City Section championships and two state titles. Mater Dei, the other school with full sponsorship, has won Southern Section titles in 10 of the last 11 years.

Fairfax, Crenshaw, Compton Dominguez, Bellflower St. John Bosco, Santa Margarita, Santa Monica Crossroads and Glendora, which received smaller Nike contributions--most often, shoes and equipment bags--also are perennial powerhouses.

Westchester opponents think this is not a coincidence, although at all of these schools it is hard to determine what arrived first--success or Nike.

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