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Second-Chance Points

Abraham, a successful women's coach at Northridge until his arrest for drug trafficking, is back in game with Sparks

May 17, 2006|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

Six years ago, Sparks General Manager Penny Toler flew to Oregon to watch her WNBA team play the Portland Fire. Before the game, though, she had a stop to make.

Her college coach Michael Abraham was nearby, off Highway 18 on Ballston Road. He had been an assistant coach at Long Beach State, where she starred 20 years ago. His last job, she knew only too well, was head coach at Cal State Northridge.

When Toler arrived, she walked along the deep green lawn toward a low-slung building. Then the barbed wire came into view.

Abraham was in the minimum-security facility in Sheridan because of a drug trafficking offense. By then, the grim details of his crack cocaine addiction while at Northridge were well known. Yet, it was during this prison visit that Toler talked to him about what it's like coaching in the WNBA.

Late last month, days before training camp opened, it came full circle. The Sparks quietly announced they had hired Abraham as an assistant coach.

The decision is not supported by everyone.

When asked about it, Toler said Sparks management is willing to take risks "even right down to my job." That hasn't changed.

Abraham, 46, was hired without meeting team President Johnny Buss or Coach Joe Bryant. It didn't matter, because no one disputed Abraham's expertise with women's basketball.

"People tell me this guy did a bad thing," Toler said. "But there is a difference. It's a difference when you have someone who is bad and does a bad thing, or a good person who does a dumb thing."

Yet, the past is not so easily put aside.

*

Abraham's fall was precipitous and unexpected.

From his stint at Long Beach he had jumped to Oregon State to become an assistant coach. But then allegations -- never proved -- of improper recruiting led him to resign.

Soon Northridge came calling and in 1995 hired him as head coach. A kind of magic seemed to take over. In three seasons, he turned a 1-26 women's team into a 14-14 squad that was getting better every game. And he was attracting national attention.

Then it all stopped.

On Oct. 28, 1998, as the Matadors' practice ended, Abraham was taken away in handcuffs in connection with a trafficking case that peripherally involved a former recruit. He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute crack cocaine and was sentenced to 18 months.

Several administrators were forced to resign when it became clear that rumors were true about Abraham's addiction -- a habit he said he kicked in 1996 by going "cold turkey."

The Sparks, per team policy, would not discuss his contract. But Abraham -- a man who smiles often, even when talking about his past -- said the contract has no drug stipulations.

"There's no drug testing," Abraham said.

Toler is unwavering.

"We've had vacancies before, and over the years I've always mentioned him to Johnny. But I didn't think the timing was right. But even though Johnny had never met Michael, he had a feel for him from me."

Toler also wanted to be there for Abraham, just as he'd been there for her, although she said it did not figure in his hiring.

"I came [to Long Beach] at a time when my life was in total chaos," Toler said. "I had just lost my parents, so at the drop of a dime -- it could be anything -- I'm ready to go home. And he was always there."

The prison visit was a simple act of faith.

"As soon as he came out he kind of chuckled," Toler recalled. "The biggest surprise was his hair was turning gray, and that was a huge indication that this was no picnic for him."

When they talked basketball, Toler remembers telling him how perfect the WNBA would be for someone with his ability.

" 'You'd love it,' I told him," Toler said. " 'You don't have to worry about kids going to school. At the pro level, coaches coach.' "

Abraham said a letter from Toler to the judge in the case helped to hasten a move to a halfway house toward the end of his sentence. That allowed him more time with his wife, Trisonya, and their children before he was released in November 2000.

Toler stayed in touch, and then a few months ago made the job offer. Abraham by then was teaching kids basketball in his backyard in Portland.

"It took her awhile to convince me she was serious, that she was willing to stick her neck out," he said.

Bryant, who was coaching a men's team in Japan when the hire was made, has no reservations about Abraham.

"I did talk to him on the phone," Bryant said after a recent practice as the Sparks prepared for their opener Sunday against Seattle.

"Of course, Penny endorsed him, but at the same time she left it up to me. I just wanted people that were qualified. I understand the history, the whole story. But it doesn't matter to me. I think sometimes, the experience of life helps you grow as a person."

Beth Bass, chief executive of the Women's Basketball Coaches Assn., agrees.

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