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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

Transfers Are Raising Stakes, and Suspicions

November 16, 2003|Eric Sondheimer

There's a continuing credibility crisis in high school basketball.

With almost every transfer of a top player, no one knows for sure if parents are simply exercising their right to find a better situation or moving because of illegal inducements.

The stink of corruption keeps getting stronger even though the City Section and Southern Section have new transfer restrictions requiring athletes to change residences if they want to gain immediate eligibility.

For whatever reason, high school basketball brings out the shadiest of characters. They can turn on the charm one minute, then turn into your worst enemy behind your back.

As basketball practice began Monday at City Section schools, Westchester, the two-time defending state Division I boys' champion, was back in the transfer spotlight.

A year ago, the Comets were put on probation for one year because a school representative was found to have made illegal contact with an athlete before the player's enrollment. Two players were declared ineligible for providing false information to the City Section.

Frustrated at what he called "this nonsense we have to go through," Westchester Coach Ed Azzam gave the impression he was through with accepting high-profile transfer students.

"I told [Athletic Director Brian Henderson], 'No more transfers,' " Azzam said. "It's a pain. It's frustrating."

How quickly Azzam has changed his thinking. Amir Johnson, a 6-foot-9 junior from Los Angeles Verbum Dei, enrolled at Westchester recently after apparently moving into the school's attendance boundaries.

Asked if there were any negatives to Johnson's arrival, Azzam said, "The only negative is what's going to be in the paper day by day."

Opposing coaches are suspicious about how Johnson ended up at Westchester, but don't expect an investigation unless someone turns up evidence of impropriety.

"If there's a suspicion on the part of anyone out there, they would need to initiate the process," said Barbara Fiege, commissioner of the City Section. "I'm not going to pick up the phone and find out information about this kid because that would [imply] something's wrong, and I have no reason to suspect that."

Azzam guided Westchester to its fourth consecutive City championship last season without the two transfer students. It was one of his most impressive coaching performances. He would have faced an even tougher chore this season without a true center and could have shown again what an excellent coach he is.

But adding Johnson to the lineup might give him the best talent in the state, so what's the coaching challenge? Will it be fun beating league opponents by 35 points and more while trying to keep his group of all-star imports happy?

His biggest problem probably will be dealing with parents whose children aren't playing enough because of new players taking their spots in the lineup.

High schools had better be careful, because one day a transfer student might provoke a teammate or parent into speaking up about improprieties behind the scenes. A few weeks ago, there was no clear favorite to win the City title. Fairfax, Dorsey, Woodland Hills Taft and Reseda Cleveland all thought they could challenge the Comets. Not anymore. Westchester has once again put itself above everyone with the help of a top transfer student.

It's part of life in the suspicious world of high school basketball.

*

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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