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CROWE'S NEST

They made their stand, simply by walking away

February 26, 2007|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

The room and the mood were dark, the humiliation acute.

It was Feb. 7, 1990, and the South Torrance High girls' basketball team had just returned to campus from Inglewood Morningside, where the Spartans had stepped unwittingly into a nightmare that would leave them haunted for months.

Morningside center Lisa Leslie, her coach orchestrating the action as the future Olympian took aim at Cheryl Miller's then-national scholastic record of 105 points, had scored 101 in only two quarters against injured and overmatched South Torrance, whose tallest player was nearly a foot shorter than the 6-foot-5 Leslie.

Morningside, the defending state champion, had built a 102-24 halftime lead and showed no signs of letting up, even though two of South's seven players had fouled out and another was sidelined because of a knee injury.

That left the Spartans with only four players, one of whom also was slowed by an injury but had continued playing.

With the blessing of their coach, Gilbert Ramirez, the Spartans voted to walk out. They forfeited at halftime, riding back home in silence.

Ramirez led them into a room, asked if they wanted to talk.

"I remember he didn't even turn the lights on," says Darlene Flores-Castillon, who was the Spartans' captain but had sat out against Morningside because of an injured knee. "We just sat there and all you could hear was sobbing."

The Spartans, by walking out, had sparked a national debate about sportsmanship, compassion and the blind pursuit of records.

But all they felt was hurt.

"It was so humiliating," Flores-Castillon says. "So degrading."

Flores-Castillon, still living in Torrance and a 34-year-old mother of three young children, finds it unfathomable that Morningside Coach Frank Scott sanctioned the slaughter.

Scott, who followed Leslie to USC and spent seven years there as a part-time assistant coach before returning to Morningside as athletic director and girls' basketball coach in 1997, set aside one game each season for a senior to shoot for the school scoring record. The previous record of 68 points had been set a year earlier by JoJo Witherspoon, also against South.

"Now that I'm an adult and on the other side of it -- I'm the mom now -- I just kind of think, 'Wow,' " Flores-Castillon says. "I'm so surprised that a coach, an adult, would think about doing something like that.

"I just can't imagine what his thoughts were and why he let this go."

Scott, while admitting that South was chosen as Leslie's victim in part because it wasn't a very good team, maintains that his intent was not to embarrass anyone but rather to "do something special" for Leslie -- a position he reiterated last week.

But remembering how he and Leslie were blistered by local media and angry callers to radio talk shows decrying their lack of decorum in destroying an overmatched foe -- "I was called Hitler, the devil, a lot of other things," Scott says -- the coach says that maybe he hadn't thoroughly considered the potential ramifications beforehand.

"If I had to do it over again," says Scott, noting that he has vowed never to repeat the stunt, "I probably would not do it. Everyone knew at that time how great a player Lisa was; she didn't have to prove anything at that point."

Leslie, averaging 27 points, scored 49 against South in the first quarter and 52 in the second, giving her all but one of her team's first-half total.

The nation's No. 1 high school player, the female recipient of the Dial Award as the nation's outstanding scholar-athlete and a future three-time WNBA most valuable player, she made 37 of 56 shots and 27 of 35 free throws.

As Flores-Castillon remembers it, Leslie rarely crossed midcourt, reaping the benefits of a relentless Morningside full-court press that forced innumerable turnovers. "She was cherry-picking the whole game," she says.

Also, Flores-Castillon notes, Leslie's compliant teammates passed up open shots or shot the ball off the backboard so Leslie could rebound it and score.

"The sad thing was that the coach set the whole thing up," Flores-Castillon says. "In order to raise up one person, they belittled a whole team of young girls."

By halftime, the visitors had decided enough was enough.

"I remember Gilbert looking at us and asking if we were done," Flores-Castillon says. "If we wanted to go, he was OK with that, he would respect that. As a team, we just wanted it to end, so we all decided to leave."

First, though, came one final indignity. Leslie asked Ramirez if his team would let her score three more baskets to break Miller's record.

"Without a heartbeat, we knew the answer," Flores-Castillon says. " 'Sure, OK, let's let you step on us a little longer. Sure, sure.' I mean, come on. Who would want to be humiliated a little bit longer so she can get a record? Come on.

"The audacity to ask was pretty bold."

Still, Flores-Castillon says she holds no grudge against Leslie, though she wishes the star player had shown a little compassion.

She applauds Leslie's success, calls it "great" and "exciting."

Still, all these years later, she has no regrets about leaving.

"I wouldn't want anyone to go through that torture," she says.

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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