The coach who turned Compton Dominguez High into a boys' basketball powerhouse returned to familiar grounds Wednesday afternoon, and it was just like old times. Hugs, handshakes, smiles all around.
Russell Otis was enjoying the first day of his second chance. Less than 14 hours after the Compton Unified School District board approved his hiring in a hotly contested 4-3 vote, he briefly addressed his players, including three holdovers from the Dons' 1999-2000 national champions -- his national champions.
"It's just good to be back, to see the red and gold and black," Otis said, standing courtside. "It's an unbelievable feeling. The faces have changed, but this is still Dominguez."
He received a warm welcome from the players, who know the legend if not the man.
"I'm happy to be here and have him as a coach," said David Nichols, a senior forward who greeted Otis with a wide smile. "I'm going to work my hardest and play my heart out for him."
Added Travon Free, the team's best player: "He said everything is going to change back to the way it was. If you don't come out and play hard, you won't be here or be starting."
If only it were that easy.
With Otis as coach for 13 seasons, from 1987-2000, the Dons won seven Southern Section titles, four state championships and became the toast of a much-maligned town.
Sponsored by sports apparel king Nike, they wore top-of-the-line shoes, warmups and uniforms, traveled the country to the best tournaments and competed straight-up with the nation's best teams.
Dominguez was a magnet for top players, including 7-foot Tyson Chandler, the centerpiece of that national champion, who transferred in because it was among the best basketball schools in Southern California.
Chandler made the jump from Dominguez directly to the Chicago Bulls. But before he left, he and the rest of the Dons celebrated their end-of-the-season No. 1-in-the-nation ranking like professionals, riding around Compton in stretch limousines and receiving championship rings engraved with their names and uniform numbers.
That was in April 2000. Seven months later, the cheering suddenly stopped when Otis was arrested and charged with sexually molesting a former player.
The allegations were made public in November 2000, and Otis was placed on administrative leave just as the Dons were ready to start defense of their national championship. By February, Otis was officially gone -- ousted by the state-appointed leader of the Compton schools before his trial had even started. The given reason: He lacked a permanent teaching credential -- a detail that had never before been an issue.
Otis, 40, was acquitted of all charges, but that didn't get him his job back. His request for reinstatement was denied. Last year, he was a teacher at Gardena High; he didn't coach.
And although he is back at Dominguez and has completed coursework to get a teaching credential, still looming is a civil trial brought by the same family who accused him in the criminal case.
Last week, Randy McMurray, that family's attorney, seemed dumbfounded that Otis might be allowed to return to coaching. "I would think the people in Compton would think protection of their children is just as important as a winning basketball team," he said.
Without Otis, Dominguez's basketball program quickly unraveled.
Mack Calvin, who had college and NBA experience, was brought in as coach before last season, but even he was unable to stem the tide of defections among players loyal to Otis.
The Dons made the playoffs but sputtered to a 15-12 finish, losing more games than they had the previous three seasons combined.
Calvin, citing other personal priorities, resigned in October, about a month before the Dons were scheduled to open this season. The father-son team of Horace and Joey Aubrey -- both former Dominguez players -- took over the team on an interim basis, guiding the Dons to a 2-2 start.
Late Tuesday night, shortly after learning the Compton school board had decided to bring him back, Otis was visibly relieved.
"I think this is one step toward getting back on track and getting [my] life back in line," he said. "It's still kind of numbing because it's been so long and you had to fight so hard for a job that's yours."
Basil Kimbrew, a longtime school board member with loyalties to Otis, said the coach's return was possible because control of the district was recently returned to the local board. For a time, the decisions had been made by a state administrator given the assignment of steadying a district beset by poor test scores and a $20-million budget deficit.
"We should have hired him a long time ago," said Kimbrew, who came to the board meeting sporting a black warm-up jacket with "Dominguez: #1 in the nation" printed in red across the back. "The minute he was exonerated, he should have been here, period."
In most Compton circles, Otis maintained his popularity, even before his acquittal. But his support is far from unanimous.