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High Schools | SPOTLIGHT ON BOYS' BASKETBALL

West Still Commands Respect

January 28, 2002|BEN BOLCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those who know Willie West best say the legendary coach has mellowed in recent years, that his biting witticisms and intense deportment have been benched like an out-of-control guard trying to take a game into his own hands.

Go to a Crenshaw High game, and that's exactly where you'll find West--firmly planted on the bench. He has left the sideline patrol to assistant Maurice Duckett and others while he sits mutely, intent on letting the game unfold before him.

It's not that West has lost control of his teams or isn't involved. After suffering only his eighth home-court loss in 32 seasons a few weeks ago, West corralled his players in the locker room for more than an hour to set them straight.

But the 61-year-old is far removed from the days when he would get a feel for his players by mixing it up with them on the court.

"I'm not as strict and I'm not as aggressive as I used to be," West conceded. "I'm still there, but I'm a little softer. I guess it's because of the aging."

His former players have noticed the difference.

"He's softened around the edges a little bit," said Marques Johnson, who starred for Crenshaw in the early 1970s before embarking on successful careers at UCLA and in the NBA. "He used to be a straightforward, no-nonsense, my-way-or-the-highway kind of coach. He would yell at you for the smallest infraction or if you weren't doing something disciplined enough in his eyes."

And now?

"He's not as intense. I don't think he takes it home with him anymore," said Fremont Coach Sam Sullivan, a legend in his own right. "He leaves it in the gym, and that's the end of it."

While West's methods might have changed, his teams keep on winning. The Cougars (15-6), No. 17 in The Times' rankings, are making a push for West's 17th City Section title. Crenshaw has won eight state titles under West, who is undefeated in state championship games.

With 686 victories through Sunday--698, if you count the 12 games Crenshaw forfeited during the 1971-72 season for using an ineligible player--West is the winningest coach in City Section history and fifth on the all-time state list. He is atop the list of winners among active coaches in Southern California and is closing in on former Santa Clara Coach Lou Cvijanovich, the state leader with 829 victories.

West has competition in Oakland Bishop O'Dowd Coach Mike Phelps, who recently posted his 800th victory and could pass Cvijanovich next season.

But West isn't about numbers. For all his success on the court, West's greatest triumph may be the impact he has had on his players, eight of whom have gone on to play in the NBA.

"He pushed me more than any other coach I've played for my whole life as far as getting the most out of me," former Cougar Kris Johnson said by phone from Doha, Qatar, where is playing in the Qatar Basketball League.

"He was a taskmaster. We would do these crazy conditioning drills and be on the rope and do pushups, and this was before we would even go in the gym. Mentally, he had you to the point where if you were tired [during a game], it was never an excuse.

"Off the court, he was your best friend. He was the nicest guy in the world. On the court, he put on this mean face and was the general."

Kris Johnson and his father, Marques, won City Section player-of-the-year awards at Crenshaw, becoming the first father-and-son combination to accomplish that feat. Both went on to win a national championship at UCLA, Marques under John Wooden and Kris under Jim Harrick. And both say West was as influential as anyone in their careers.

Marques Johnson, now a commentator for Pacific 10 basketball on Fox Sports Net, said his fondest memories of West are the times the coach gathered his players after practice and held what Johnson described as "fireside chats."

"He would sit us down and talk about life issues for the next hour, whether it was school or girls," Johnson said. "The players lay back on their elbows and he took you on a journey. For a guy who is perceived to be not a great conversationalist by the public, he's a great speaker in a private setting. Those were some of the greatest speeches I've ever heard."

Said West: "I try to teach them to be men and be responsible. Some of them aren't going to play basketball after high school. A lot of kids want to go to college and we emphasize the academic aspect."

Kris Johnson said he never saw West sacrifice his principles. When Johnson was caught drinking an extra soda in violation of a team rule before a game in Myrtle Beach, S.C., West made him sit outside in 30-degree temperatures while the rest of the team finished its meal. Johnson found himself on the bench for the game, which Crenshaw lost.

"No one is bigger than the program," Kris Johnson said. "That was what Coach West would always preach. He never compromises his morals or his beliefs for a player. I respect that in him."

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