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Working for a Better Dei

Financial woes having impact on school's basketball tradition

January 11, 2003|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

The storied basketball program at Verbum Dei High, the former home of NBA and college stars past and present, is caught in the worst kind of full-court press.

A new corporate work program, designed to help the small Catholic school keep its doors open, seems to be bringing its tradition-rich boys' basketball team to its knees.

Verbum Dei, which plays Huntington Beach Ocean View today in the Nike Extravaganza at the Long Beach Pyramid, has already lost more times -- five -- in 14 games than it did all last season, when the Eagles went 29-4 and won a Southern Section championship.

Coach Ronnie Gipson attributes the team's struggles to the practice and games some of his players are missing because of their participation in an off-campus work program designed to raise money for the financially foundering school.

School officials don't offer any attractive options. They say the work program must take priority or Verbum Dei might shut down.

"What's at stake here is that there might not be a school to have a basketball team," said Jeff Bonino-Britsch, the work program's director.

The program, launched this year, works this way:

Companies pay Verbum Dei $25,000 each school year and, in turn, the school assigns students to do on-site clerical work at 35 companies, including 11 law firms. Typical duties include filing, faxing and answering phones.

Each student is required to work five days a month. In return, their families receive an $1,800 break in the cost of tuition and textbooks, dropping the cost of attending Verbum Dei this year to $2,200, the lowest among high schools in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The program was introduced to financially brace the struggling all-boys school, located in the heart of Watts and referred to as "a beacon of light" in the community by administrators and alumni.

Verbum Dei opened in 1962 and began to gain national prominence in the 1970s with teams that featured future NBA players David Greenwood and Roy Hamilton. More recent alumni include the Clippers' Andre Miller and promising University of Utah freshman Richard Chaney.

Enrollment, which used to be in the 300s, has gradually sagged the last 10 years. It was 191 last year. It is now about 145.

Some parents relish the tuition break and approve of their children getting a head start on resume-building by working in corporate environments. But not everybody is thrilled with the work program, particularly people involved with the basketball team. They point to a Dec. 17 game between Verbum Dei and Riverside King, last season's state Division II champion, as an example of their frustration.

Verbum Dei played without two starters and lost, 57-54, in the first round of the Chino Hills Ayala tournament. The game was scheduled for 3 p.m. on a Tuesday. The missing starters could not get off work in time. King won by making a three-pointer in the final seconds.

Senior guard Mike Davis was one of the missing starters. He couldn't leave the downtown law office where he was working.

"We got back from work and they said we lost at the buzzer," Davis said. "And that was at the tournament we were supposed to win.

"Some of us are planning on going to college through sports and if we miss games, it's not good."

School officials say that parents and students were informed of the possibility of missing games at an orientation at the start of the school year, but that hasn't curbed the concerns of former alumni such as Greenwood.

"I'm disappointed with a lot of the things that have transpired -- it's embarrassing," Greenwood said. "The inflexible way they're trying to do it is not right. It's like telling [UCLA forward] Jason Kapono, 'You can't play against USC if you don't do your job on campus, working in the sandwich shop.' "

Greenwood graduated from Verbum Dei in 1975, was a two-time All-American at UCLA and had a 12-year NBA career. He returned to Verbum Dei as a coach for three seasons and led the Eagles to the 1998 and 1999 state Division IV championships.

Greenwood is now coaching at Chino Don Lugo. Greenwood's son, Jamil, a 6-foot-4 freshman, is there as well, not at Verbum Dei.

"He needs to have his butt in school five days a week, not working," Greenwood said.

Miller, who led the NBA in assists last year at Cleveland before being acquired by the Clippers during the off-season, was the main reason Verbum Dei went 29-3 and won the Southern Section championship in 1994. Miller then became a two-time All-American at Utah and was selected eighth overall in the 1999 NBA draft.

Miller said he wasn't entirely familiar with Verbum Dei's work program -- "obviously it's something that the school needs in order to stay afloat" -- but he underscored the importance of athletes getting time on the court.

"Some kids might not be able to get into a university with just their education," he said. "If you've got an ability to get into a university you've got to take advantage of it. Maybe that's the only way to get in."

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