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Players Angered by Speech

The L.A. City College basketball team is unhappy with pregame talk by school president, saying it 'reeked ... of blatant racism.'

November 11, 2005|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Players representing one of the most successful community college men's basketball programs in California took issue this week with a pregame speech from their school president, contending in a strongly worded letter faxed to The Times that it "reeked with the stench of blatant racism."

Several members of the Los Angeles City College team repeated their claims when asked about them late Wednesday night, after they accepted championship trophies from President Steve Maradian for winning the school's annual Tip Off Classic tournament.

"It seemed personal," sophomore guard James Spencer said of the new president's 10-minute talk before Monday night's season-opening victory over Citrus. "I don't know why he attacked us like that."

Said sophomore Dejon Prejean: "It was just unnecessary."

Maradian, who has been at the school since Aug. 1, said he was not aware of the one-page letter until a reporter showed it to him at halftime of Wednesday night's 77-72 victory over West Los Angeles College.

The letter, whose author is unknown, was signed by each of the team's 12 players, as well as longtime assistant coach Wendell Westbrook. All are African American.

Maradian, 54, who is of Armenian descent, said that he was "totally surprised" by the letter's contents. He said his talk was meant to encourage the players and to show support.

"The people that know me on campus would be shocked at the word racism out of my vocabulary or [attached to] anything I say," he added. "My field [of study] is the African American male student. So I'm shocked."

He said he might speak again to the players but would wait to "make sure I do it the right way" and let a little of the emotion die down.

"I need to find the right strategy, I need to understand what the issue is, other than they're angry or they're upset," Maradian said Thursday. "I want them to understand that the role of the president is not to interfere with their academic and athletic work but to support it and believe in them. Obviously, if that didn't come across right, then that needs to be addressed."

In their letter, the players alleged that Maradian "talked down to us, as if we were grade-school children rather than college student-athletes.

"He informed us that we had to go to class if we planned on playing for the team, as if we didn't already know this. ... He also said that he will attend every game and that he does not want us to embarrass the school or 'we will feel his wrath' -- a shocking statement filled with underlying racism. ...

"We were left thinking, 'Is this guy for real?' Is this the proper way to speak to a team about to open [its] season? ... We were also left wondering if he speaks this way to the other teams on campus that aren't made up of entirely African American men, and was he attempting to motivate us or intimidate us with his racial profiling."

Even before meeting Maradian, the players were at odds with the school president, whom they blamed for their coach, Michael Miller, being suspended for Monday's game. Miller, also the school's athletic director, was reprimanded by the school for smoking a cigar at a cross-country meet last month, a violation of South Coast Conference decorum policy that the coach believed warranted suspension from the meet, if anything, but not banishment from a basketball game.

The coach, whose teams have won two state championships and 12 consecutive conference titles in his 13 seasons, said that he was proud of his players for banding together to write a letter expressing their feelings.

"The ones I talked to felt very outraged and kind of violated almost," Miller said. "There's a sanctity of a locker room in sports and I think some of them feel like [Maradian's comments] were directed at a group.

"We have other teams here and nobody else has been talked to. ... That's what they conveyed to me: Why were the other teams not talked to like this?"

Maradian said he planned to address the school's five other teams but had not yet done so. The women's cross-country team ended its season last week.

Westbrook, who coached the Cubs in Miller's absence, said that the players expected a pep talk when Maradian turned up unannounced in the locker room about 20 minutes before Monday night's game.

By the time Maradian left, the players were incensed.

"He just kept talking about ... he's watching us, like we're going to do something wrong," sophomore forward Joseph Taylor said Wednesday. "We're not trying to do nothing wrong. We're trying to play ball. ...

"If we're trying to do good in life, why are you going to come and be negative toward us for nothing? You can't be doing that. It ain't right."

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