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Ex-Dominguez High coach faces a reckoning

Russell Otis won basketball titles in Compton, but a trial on charges of theft and soliciting sex with a player may tarnish his legacy.

September 19, 2009|Lance Pugmire and Stuart Pfeifer

In a city known for gangs, corruption and poor schools, Coach Russell Otis stood for excellence and opportunity.

Over two decades, Otis led the basketball team at Dominguez High School in Compton to five state titles and a top national ranking. He helped dozens of players win college scholarships and saw four make it to the NBA. In 2000, USA Today named him high school basketball coach of the year.

These days, the 47-year-old Otis is not to be found at the Dominguez gym, getting ready for another season. Instead, he is preparing to stand trial on charges that he tried to pay one of his players for sex and stole $15,000 in Nike Inc. sponsorship money intended for the team. He has pleaded not guilty.

An examination of Otis' career reveals a charismatic figure whose dazzling success seems to have silenced doubts about his methods.

From courtroom testimony and interviews with former players, a portrait emerges of a coach who embodied both the most inspiring and the most distressing aspects of high school sports. He ran his program like a fief, with little oversight by school district officials or California's governing body for high school athletics.

Time and again, he coaxed elite players from other school districts to transfer to Dominguez, sometimes from across the country, according to testimony and interviews. The California Interscholastic Federation bars recruiting.

Former players have testified that Otis rewarded them with cash, gifts and favors: basketball shoes, cellphone minutes and the use of his Cadillac Escalade. The CIF prohibits coaches from using inducements to attract or retain athletes.

Yet even as he courted controversy and occasional scandal, Otis commanded the loyalty and affection of his players, many of whom describe him as a master teacher and motivator and as a father figure for boys who lacked one.

The current criminal case marks the second time Otis has been charged with a sexual offense against one of his players. In 2001, he was accused of sodomizing a member of the basketball team. He was acquitted after a three-week trial.

The Compton Unified School District, which had fired Otis, rehired him after the acquittal -- but without reviewing testimony from the trial or independently investigating the coach's conduct, board members acknowledge.

Otis went on to coach the Dominguez Dons for six more seasons. He was fired again this May after the latest charges were filed.

At the earlier trial, former players described Otis' recruiting and said he was generous with money, clothes and other gifts.

One player spent weeknights at the coach's Carson town house for more than a year so he wouldn't have to commute to school from his home in Van Nuys, according to trial testimony. The player, star guard Steve Moore, testified that Otis never acted inappropriately toward him.

But four witnesses at the trial accused the coach of molesting them or soliciting sex.

Assemblyman Isadore Hall III (D-Compton) was president of the Compton Unified school board and part of the majority that reinstated Otis in 2002. Hall now says he wishes he had known what surfaced during the trial.

"Knowing what we know now, would we change our decision if we had a chance to? Absolutely," he said in an interview.

James Staunton, commissioner of the CIF's Southern Section, said he too was unaware of trial testimony about Otis' recruiting practices and other activities until Times reporters recently asked him to comment on them.

Staunton said his organization would investigate and could impose sanctions as severe as stripping Dominguez of one or more of its titles.

He said that for a high school coach to recruit talent from around the country, loan his luxury SUV to players and allow one to live at his house would be "egregious" violations of CIF bylaws.

"If this is true, it's utter disregard for our bylaws and what we're trying to do to keep sports community-centered and academics-based," Staunton said.

Otis declined to comment, except for a brief conversation in a courtroom hallway in which he denied stealing the Nike sponsorship money. His attorney, Leonard Levine, said Otis never acted inappropriately with any players.

Levine said Otis' latest accuser fabricated his story of a sexual advance because he wasn't getting sufficient playing time and wanted an excuse to transfer to another school -- a defense Levine also presented at the 2001 trial.

"The evidence is simply not there," Levine said.

Regarding the potential CIF violations, Levine denied that Otis gave any of his players cash but acknowledged that he had lent his Escalade to players and allowed Moore to live at his house.

"I don't think he did anything wrong," Levine said. "He would open his door to somebody who had no place to stay. . . . I could care less what the CIF thinks. He should be given a medal, not criticized."

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