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Compton Dominguez's powerhouse program faces uncertain future

Former coach Russell Otis faces charges, standout Keala King has transferred and some wonder whether a dynasty is at risk.

July 17, 2009|Lance Pugmire and Stuart Pfeifer

Ten months after heralded Compton Dominguez High boys' basketball Coach Russell Otis was removed for allegedly attempting to molest one of his players, the Dons' powerful program is in disarray.

The school that has won six state championships in the last 20 years has no coach. Its best player, heavily recruited forward Keala King, has transferred to Orange County powerhouse Santa Ana Mater Dei. Left are three returning players who averaged a combined seven points last season.

Otis, who coached the Dons for nearly two decades, winning 10 Southern Section titles and sending three players to the NBA and dozens more to major colleges, was fired in June while awaiting trial on charges that he offered to pay one of his players $1,500 to perform a sex act.

Los Angeles County prosecutors have also charged him with felony grand theft for depositing a $15,000 Nike sponsorship check, payable to the school district, into his personal checking account. Otis, 46, is free on bail and has denied wrongdoing. He pleaded not guilty to all charges and said he will appeal his termination. His trial is scheduled for Sept. 2.

Last season, Dominguez tapped former USC and Lakers guard Duane Cooper to coach during Otis' absence. Cooper directed the Dons, still stacked with talent, to a 26-7 record and a Southern Section semifinal. But Cooper said he was told by school administrators in June that he would have to reapply for his job as part of a new Compton Unified School District policy that coaches possess a teaching credential. Cooper lacks such a credential, though he said he passed the California Basic Educational Skills Test and is enrolled in a master's degree program. He has interviewed for the Dominguez position but doesn't even have keys to open the school's gymnasium.

District Superintendent Kaye Burnside and Dominguez Principal Rigoberto Roman did not respond to telephone messages left by The Times.

Summer is when top teams build chemistry and challenge each other in tournaments, but Dominguez is in limbo a little more than four months before its opening tipoff.

Some in the local basketball community are wondering whether the turmoil might mark the end of a dynasty -- an elite team that has traveled throughout the United States to play, its players decked out in Nike-provided shoes, sweats and uniforms.

"We were supposed to schedule them this year, but I don't want to waste a game on them if their cupboard's bare," Compton High Coach Tony Thomas said.

"Russell feels bad for the kids and the parents who he cared so much about," said Leonard Levine, Otis' attorney. "But it's no surprise. . . . They dismissed the best thing to ever happen to that program, on unsubstantiated charges and grounds that will be proven as false."

Coach Bob Becker, whose Cerritos Gahr High team is a San Gabriel Valley League rival, doubts the Dominguez reign is in jeopardy. But Paramount Coach Mark McGarry said the loss of King, who averaged 17 points and eight rebounds last season and is being recruited by USC, Stanford, California and Gonzaga, will hurt Dominguez significantly.

"It will be much better than going to their house and thinking, 'Gosh, let's try to keep within 50,' " McGarry said. "Hopefully, it won't be like that anymore."

King's transfer is reminiscent of a flight Dominguez faced in 2001, when Otis was fired while awaiting trial on an earlier charge of molesting a player. Several players transferred from Dominguez during their coach's absence, and the team finished 15-12 in the 2001-02 season.

Otis was acquitted of that earlier molestation charge, and the school board voted to rehire him. In 2004, under Otis' leadership, the team won its sixth state championship.

The challenge now is for Dominguez to hold on to Norvel Pelle, a 6-foot-9 junior who transferred to join Otis from Lakewood, and sophomore point guard Chris Croom, another player close to Otis whose loyalty to the Compton school is unknown.

"We're behind the eight ball," Cooper said, "and as we've seen already these kids who are around basketball so often may look at other programs, like Mater Dei."

Dinos Trigonis, director of a Belmont Shore club team that has drawn Dominguez players in the past, said, "Intentionally, or unintentionally, they've affected the stability of their program. I'm not sure what they're doing, or why they're in limbo, and I'm not sure whether they care or understand the significance of this."



Player's move draws attention

A Southern Section leader says he'll look into Keala King's transfer from Dominguez to Santa Ana Mater Dei.

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