He is frail now. The years have taken their toll on legs that once pounded and paced the sidelines of Fairfax High's gleaming basketball court. On a recent Sunday, the slight Jewish man in the red wind-breaker and baseball cap reading "Coach" shuffled with a cane into Canter's Delicatessen.
Marty Biegel, 86, was heading for a table across the room, and when he got there a group of tall black men rose to cheer:
Biegel, the father figure who helped raise them.
Biegel, the wizard who turned them into champions.
Biegel, the bridge-builder between blacks and whites.
"What's up, Mr. B?" they said one after another, lining up to give him bear hugs.
"You're looking good, fellas," Marty shot back, beaming up at them. "What the hell happened to your Afros?"
Once again, Marty Biegel was back with his boys.
A story that began in angry debates over school desegregation in Los Angeles continues as a love affair today, between a teacher and the players whose lives he changed.
Nearly 40 years ago, in 1969, Biegel took over the basketball coaching job at Fairfax High School. He was a pint-sized scrapper from New York, a history teacher with a heart of gold and no illusions about his new post: The mostly white, Jewish school near Hollywood was strong academically, but pitiful in sports. The chess team won medals. The football players? Don't ask.
Then Biegel got a gift -- a product of good timing, an earthquake and decades of agitation for civil rights.
In 1968, school district boundaries were redrawn, allowing black students living south of Pico Boulevard to attend the school at Melrose and Fairfax avenues. Its numbers grew from 35 to 1,000 in four years, and Fairfax became one of the few city schools to achieve racial balance on its own, without a court order.
Much of Los Angeles fretted when blacks began appearing in white schools during the 1970s. Not Biegel.
He celebrated the new black athletes in his gym -- players who could go to the basket with either hand and leap high above the rim. An orthodox Jew, he'd look heavenward and murmur a prayer.
"We're winners!" he would crow. "We can take anybody!"
Biegel's Lions won four straight East Valley League championships, a record for Fairfax. But the charismatic coach couldn't have done it -- or lived the life that ultimately defined him -- without the gifted black kids he recruited.
And those kids, now men, have never strayed far from his side.
They attended the funeral of his wife, Helen, in 1985 and sat shiva with him as he wept on his living room floor. Gathering around him in a protective circle, they held his hand and kissed his head. "It was very sad and quite moving," said Ruth Herman, his sister.
Biegel in turn offered his players a shoulder to cry on when they were shattered by divorce, lost jobs or suffered other disappointments. He is godfather to many of their children.
But they share an even deeper bond. The coach and his players were unsung heroes as integration rocked Fairfax High. Their triumphs became a unifying force, a vivid symbol of change.
At Canter's -- the site of one of their many get-togethers over the years -- Biegel, 5 feet 6, was embraced by six of the men he had coached as teens. They bent down one by one to hug him. He reached up to kiss each on the cheeks. They told stories about nail-biting games and miracle shots at the buzzer.
Biegel told stories too -- the same ones, three or four times -- but the men pretended not to notice.
"You're all like sons to me," the old coach said, his eyes welling up with tears. He pushed aside a plate of potato latkes. "You were my little boys back then. And you're all such handsome men now."
Born in 1922 on New York's Lower East Side, Biegel was the oldest of four children. He was a good student and a free spirit. Sports were his passion. But his father wanted him to become a rabbi. To his parents' dismay, he spent hours in a pool hall, rubbing shoulders with wiseguys.
"Marty always wanted to be different," said Herman, his sister. "So he took his own course in life. He rooted for the Chicago Cubs while he lived in New York City. Who does that?"
Biegel won a baseball scholarship to the University of Colorado, then left college before graduation to join the Marines during World War II.
After marrying Helen Greenfield, his high school sweetheart, he moved to California. They raised two children.
As his teaching career began in 1955, Biegel's heart was still on the playground. He coached kids' basketball at the Westside Jewish Community Center. When the Lakers came west in 1960, he became a reserve NBA referee; he'd hustle down the court with Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and other legends.
During the 1960s, he was a popular history teacher.
"The work was demanding, and you didn't want to let him down," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a former student. "We had debates about the Vietnam War that got intense."