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Cries of foul follow Otis and program

Compton Dominguez basketball coach, who is on administrative leave, is the subject of various allegations.

October 28, 2008|Lance Pugmire | Pugmire is a Times staff writer

Maybe Russell Otis' reign as Compton Dominguez High boys' basketball coach is over.

Maybe it's not.

Otis remains on paid administrative leave from the Compton Unified School District as Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives investigate an allegation of criminal misconduct, according to district and sheriff's officials.

Seven years ago, Otis spent several days in a defendant's chair as an L.A. County jury weighed the legitimacy of charges he molested a former male Dons player. He was acquitted.

He has denied wrongdoing in this case too.

"He hopes he can get back soon to doing what he does best: coaching kids playing basketball," his attorney, Leonard Levine, said this month.

For now, the program Otis has led to 10 Southern Section and six state championships since 1987 is in limbo, stocked with elite athletes waiting to see who will be their permanent coach.

His Nike-sponsored program is a national power, boasting NBA stars Tayshaun Prince and Tyson Chandler as graduates, and attracting transfers from cities such as New York; Baton Rouge, La.; San Bernardino; Irvine; Torrance; Rancho Palos Verdes; and Bellflower.

Some local coaches and basketball observers have complained for years -- without offering proof -- that Otis breaks residency or recruiting rules to land the extraordinary talent that finds its way to his campus each year. High school sports, they argue, is no place for such questionable ethics.

Speaking before he was suspended, Otis denied any wrongdoing.

"People who know me, no explanation is needed. Those who don't, no explanation is good enough," Otis said. "You want us to feel bad about our success? Well, we're not. We're happy that we get young black men to be productive members of society and, in some cases, go on to success in college."

Although the CIF Southern Section has not disciplined Dominguez basketball during the Otis era for residency or recruiting violations, The Times interviewed former Dominguez player Austin Autry, who said he transferred from Torrance's Bishop Montgomery in 2005 after he was recruited by Otis and assistant coach Trayvon Lewis.

Autry said he first was approached by Dominguez players, then met with Lewis.

"They knew my background, they felt I was an asset," he said of the Dominguez coaches.

Autry said he then met with Otis at a restaurant in Westchester, where the player's possible transfer to Dominguez was discussed. In a Las Vegas tournament later that summer, Autry said he met Otis and Lewis again, where they quizzed him about his options and "talked about not wanting to get into trouble."

Such pre-enrollment conversation is classified as undue influence in the Southern Section's rules book, a section spokesman said.

Told of Autry's account, Otis said, "Wow! That's amazing. I can't believe Austin said that."

Otis denied he met with Autry in Westchester or Las Vegas before the player enrolled at Dominguez. Lewis could not be reached by The Times.

The coach said he "doubts very seriously" that Lewis recruited Autry to the school because Dominguez had a gifted point guard on its roster that season, then-freshman Brandon Jennings.

A separate situation could raise questions about whether the school followed residency rules. Forward Aaron Moore received a Southern Section hardship waiver during the 2006-07 season so he could leave Dominguez for Riverside Poly. His mother, Barbara, lived in Riverside and was battling emphysema, according to an article in the Riverside Press-Enterprise in January 2007.

But Moore returned to Dominguez in late 2007 without a second hardship waiver being filed through the Southern Section and played part of the season. That would mean Moore and his ailing mother would have had to move into the Dominguez attendance area for him to be eligible to play varsity basketball.

In a telephone conversation with The Times this summer, Moore said that when he returned to Compton he moved into the home of his "auntie," Minnie Henry.

Moore hung up the telephone when pressed about further details of that move and has declined to return follow-up calls.

Henry, contacted by telephone at her Compton home, said Moore did live with her briefly in December 2007, "then he left, and I don't know where he went."

Southern Section spokesman Thom Simmons said it would be rare for a player to be granted a second hardship waiver.

"We'd be asking, 'What is your hardship?' And he can't get his eligibility on hardship without approval of the commissioner's office," Simmons said. "If he played without a valid change of address, he played illegally, and Dominguez will be sanctioned."

A Compton Unified district spokeswoman said in a statement that "a comprehensive review last week of district records found no violations of Southern Section residency rules by Dominguez basketball players since . . . 2002."

Otis says he knows what the CIF rules are and he doesn't break them, adding, "A kid should go where he wants to go . . . like you can if you're good in choir or band."

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