Jackie Robinson played four sports at what was then Pasadena Junior College on his way to breaking major league baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Fifty years later, pitcher Barry Zito spent a year at Pierce College before transferring to USC, then joined the Oakland A's, where he won the Cy Young award in 2002.
Athletes as varied as volleyball's Flo Hyman, quarterback Warren Moon and Olympic swimmer Debbie Meyer, and coaches and sports executives including Jerry Tarkanian and Pete Rozelle, were educated at California community colleges. But that enduring sports legacy is in peril, as officials look for ways to staunch the state's hemorrhaging budget.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed slashing funding for community college physical education courses by $120 million, or about 40%. Because many community college physical education instructors double as coaches, the funding cuts and any subsequent layoffs could kill many sports programs, athletics officials at the colleges said.
Some advocates say it is ironic that the man behind the proposal is Schwarzenegger, a lifetime advocate of physical activity and an alumnus of Santa Monica College. Others see it as a sign of the state's desperate straits. Many hope the governor can be persuaded to accept alternate cuts.
"He is one of us," said Diane Henry, Cypress College's dean of athletics.
H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance, said Schwarzenegger had little choice but to make the proposal and others aimed at reducing the budget deficit. "Because of the size and scope of this recession, the governor has been forced to put forward options that weren't considered just four short months ago," Palmer said.
But even before a decision is made on the state funding issue, some community colleges are thinking of eliminating or trimming their sports teams. The governing council at Los Angeles City College voted earlier this week to recommend suspending the entire athletic program, including men's and women's basketball teams.
L.A. City College President Jamillah Moore, who will make the final decision, said putting sports on hiatus was just one option as the college faces an unprecedented budget shortfall. Linda Tong, executive vice president of the associated student organization at the college, said she voted against the proposal because it wasn't clear how much money it would save.
"We had a choice: either get rid of the program or retain teaching jobs," said Tong, a political science student.
About 25,000 students are involved in sports teams at the state's 110 community colleges, said Carlyle Carter, president of the California Community College Athletic Assn.
Some of the athletes plan to go on to four-year colleges but didn't take the right classes or do well enough in high school to be admitted directly, he and other community college coaches and advocates said. Others have been overlooked by recruiters or scouts, need to work on their playing skills or need to mature, physically and emotionally. Many hope to go on to professional leagues.
Baseball players who enroll at four-year schools don't become draft-eligible until their junior year ends or they turn 21, so some opt for two-year colleges. That was Zito's situation at Pierce, athletic director Bob Lofrano said.
"I like to think he wanted to play for me," Lofrano added.
Sports advocates said that eliminating or reducing funding for athletics and sports classes is short-sighted. State funding for relatively cheap P.E. classes helps offset more expensive courses, including those in the health field, they say. And sports teams also help attract the very students in short supply at some four-year institutions: poor, African American and Latino, advocates say.
"The reason kids stay in school and do not drop out is because they love sports," said Duke Russell, a frequent advocate for community college sports who signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 after playing baseball and basketball at L.A. City College. "Shakespeare and Chaucer, that does not inspire them, but they love to play."
Several alumni who played at the Los Angeles college during its heyday as a sports powerhouse in the 1950s and 1960s said they owed their careers to the athletic program there.
"I was not crazy about school, but sports kept me going," said Phil Pote, a baseball coach and physical education instructor for 25 years who played for L.A. City College.
Former major league baseball player Don Buford said he was considered too small for a scholarship when he played football and baseball at Dorsey High School in the 1950s. He decided to go to L.A. City College, and after the quarterback was injured, went out for the football team. He later played baseball at USC, then for the White Sox and the Orioles.
"If we cut these programs off at an early age for these kids, 18, 19 years old, we're in serious trouble," said Buford, of Sherman Oaks.
Added Scott Giles, athletic director at Fullerton College: "Whenever money's tight, the first thing to go are athletics, but these are really the things that make a school a school. Without them, there's no pride, no enthusiasm."
At L.A. City College, the women's volleyball team has been practicing for four months for a season kickoff in August but is at risk of having the program killed, officials said.
"They already bought their shoes and uniforms. All we need is to pay the coach, officials and transportation -- not much," said Jan McEveety, chairwoman of the women's P.E. and dance department. "It's very sad."