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Popular Basketball Coach Killed in Inglewood

Lee Denmon III was a Morningside star who came back to teach. Police say a gang member shot him.

March 18, 2003|Akilah Johnson | Times Staff Writer

He was Morningside High School's hero, a former college basketball star who returned home to teach youngsters the finer points of a game he loved.

On Monday, players and members of Lee Denmon III's family found themselves mourning the death of the good-humored 23-year-old, who was shot Friday in his parents' driveway in Inglewood. Police said the killer mistook him for a rival gang member.

Known to his players simply as "Coach Lee," Denmon was described as a talented but humble basketball standout who was determined to build a coaching career at his alma mater in Inglewood, where he graduated in 1997.

Denmon, who won numerous trophies as a shooting guard in high school, at Southwest Los Angeles College and, most recently, at Texas A&M in Corpus Christie, began coaching freshman basketball at Morningside in the fall.

The shooting took place about 11:40 a.m. Friday at the home on South 7th Avenue. As he walked from the car with two friends, a stranger in another car stopped at the driveway and began yelling at Denmon, who wore a T-shirt and basketball trunks.

"The guy asks him, 'What set are you in?' " his father, Lee Denmon Jr., said. Denmon told the stranger "he wasn't a gangbanger; he was a coach."

At that instant, Denmon's father said, his son noticed that the driver held a gun in his hand. "That's when he turned and ran down the driveway toward the house, and they shot him."

Late Friday, police arrested Raymond Hodges, a 19-year-old gang member, in connection with the shooting. He was being held without bail.

Denmon, tall and lean, was known for his quick smile and laugh. But relatives and fellow coaches said he also had a drive that caused them to believe he would succeed in a coaching career.

Carl Franklin, Morningside's head basketball coach, said he coached Denmon as a high school student and was thrilled at his decision to become a coach. Denmon, who also was working nights at a Bank of America branch, hoped to get a spot teaching social sciences next year. He hoped also to move up a rung on the coaching ladder and instruct junior varsity players. Eventually, he wanted to coach in Texas to be closer to his 1 1/2-year-old son.

"He was a mild-mannered person," Franklin said. "You wouldn't have known that he was as competitive as he was. When I asked him what level he wanted to start coaching at, he said, 'Well, I'll start at the bottom and work my way up.' "

His mother, 52-year-old Frances Denmon, said Monday that her son had "found his focus with coaching. It was like energy."

In her home, two most-valuable-player trophies sit on the mantle. At Morningside High School, a photograph of Denmon hangs in the school's trophy case. Players said that the coach was respected for his talent, and that he made practice fun by turning shooting and running drills into games.

"Yeah, I'll miss him a lot," said a 15-year-old sophomore. "I really looked up to him. He's done so much. He went to college. Knowing someone from Morningside can do that makes you want to do it too."

After returning from Texas, Denmon moved in with his parents. In his small bedroom Monday, a coach's whistle and red stopwatch hung from the corner of an entertainment center. Two Texas A&M jerseys with Denmon's number, 5, were tacked to the wall, along with newspaper clippings recounting his playing days.

"This is so much him," said his sister Lisa Denmon, 29. "You feel his presence."

The coach's father gestured to a dining room wall, where copies of family members' college degrees were hanging -- a source of great pride for the family.

"We always had this family thing that we were four links in a chain," Denmon's father said. "And he always said he wasn't going to be the weak link. He definitely was not the weak link."

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Times staff writer Monte Morin contributed to this report.

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