More Than Basketball

by Bill Tuomala


Long-time Carver High basketball coach Ken Reeves is retiring. Reeves, 62, led Carver to three city titles in 1980, 1984, and 1996. A banquet will be held for Reeves this Saturday, it will also feature a reunion of his first championship team.


An NBA journeyman before coming to Carver, Reeves has over the years been rumored to have turned down coaching offers from local well-paying private schools as well as certain California colleges and universities. But Reeves always chose to stay at Carver. Most of Reeves's early players figured he was just there to collect a paycheck, show his coaching acumen, and then move on to a more lucrative coaching job. How many white former pro ball players stick around in the slums for their whole coaching career? But he won them over, helping them to learn on the court and off.


Why stay at Carver? Reeves gives one of his typically blunt answers: "I just love coaching and helping these young men along. There's nothing like watching them grow as players on the court and as men off the court. Plus Carver and Willis (Jim Willis, Reeves's teammate and roommate at Boston College and Carver's principal during Reeves's first two seasons) gave me a chance when I had zero coaching experience."


Reeves's emphasis on tough defense, team speed, and conditioning - any number of his former players will to this day groan while recalling the laps around the gym that ended each practice - quickly lifted Carver from laughingstock to perennial contender. It didn't come easy at first.


"My first week on the job, we got blown out in a game that featured a stands-clearing brawl. And one of my best players quit the team and school because I got a little physical with him when he was mouthy in the locker room." Reeves eventually talked that player back into school and his name is James Hayward - you may have seen his name in the headlines as a leading public defender in Los Angeles County.


Reeves speaks fondly of his 1979-80 team that won Carver's first city championship. "That team will always be special to me," Reeves says, "We lost (forward) Curtis Jackson - he was shot and killed in a convenience-store robbery the night we took the semifinals. We dedicated the championship game to him and won. That team was filled with gutty players and unique characters. Our mainstay was Warren Coolidge at center. We had James Hayward and Morris Thorpe as guards, Milton Reese and Jackson as forwards. And we had guys like Abner Goldstein, Ricky Gomez, and Salami coming off the bench."


When Reeves says "Salami," he is referring to legendary Carver tough guy Mario Pettrino, to this day still known only by his high-school deli-meat moniker. Many of those early players still refer to each other by their locker-room nicknames. Like Warren "Cool" Coolidge, who almost turned pro while at Carver. He was misled by a sleazy agent who would likely have sold his rights to a slam-bang minor league team. Reeves convinced Coolidge to stay in school, and he went on to win a free ride through college via a basketball scholarship. His hoops career was ended because of an injury in college, but with that scholarship earned by his Carver playing days he was able to obtain his degree. He worked a few years at a Boston hospital before returning to Los Angeles, getting a graduate degree, and eventually becoming a city planner.


"Coach didn't see black and white," Coolidge says, "Heck, he played enough in the NBA to know that in that world, the black guys were the majority anyway - just like it's been at Carver. All he saw with us were basketball players in orange-and-blue uniforms. We quickly learned that he also saw us as students and individuals."


Ricky "Go Go" Gomez, owner of Gomez Auto Repair says: "Coach didn't have to go out on a limb for me - I was a second-stringer with a lousy jump shot - but he did more than once. He knew that without the team, I would be lost to the streets."


Gomez's sentiment is echoed by many a former player who has described how Reeves helped them stay away from the tough temptations of the street: alcohol, drugs, gambling, gangs, etc.


Along with his championships, Reeves also takes pride in the effort that the 1979-80 team made against a visiting Soviet youth team during the height of the Cold War. "I wouldn't let Carver play the game unless we played one half by the rules we normally played under, instead of a whole game by international rules. It only seemed fair - my guys had never played basketball by international rules before. Why should they be punished for that? Plus, we did have home court." Carver lost the game to the Soviets, but outscored their opponent in the half played under home rules.


Aside from his coaching accomplishments, Reeves has done many things for Carver and the community. He was a leading proponent - some claim the leading proponent - in Carver's long overdue establishment of a Chicano Studies Program.


Any changes he has seen in his years of coaching?


"No, kids are kids. They love basketball, they get into trouble. I try to use basketball to steer them away from the trouble."


How about any societal changes he has witnessed?


"It seems like the dialogue across the country is actually tougher to engage in then it was when I started coaching. Americans used to use terms like 'ghetto' and 'slums,' but now they use the euphemism of 'inner city.' Now everything is white-washed, pardon the pun."


A few years back, some Hollywood types spent a few days at Carver, watching Reeves interact with his team. They expressed an interest in doing a TV show based on Reeves and his players. The project never took off. "They didn't think it would work as a TV show," Reeves explains. "White figurehead, black teens, race issues, ghetto issues; I think they felt it was too much to try to tackle on prime-time network television. Maybe it could have been done back in the seventies when the race discussion seemed to be happening every night on TV."


Capable and talented long-time assistant Morris Thorpe, who matches Reeves's wit and ability to needle players, will take over as head coach. In his playing days it was Thorpe who early on gave Reeves the moniker which has stuck with him to this day in predominantly-black Carver: "The White Shadow."


Gone will be the traditional opening of practice, with Reeves dumping a large bag of basketballs onto the gym floor and addressing the team with his customary "Okay - let's move it, ladies!" Gone will be a coach who demanded as much from his players in life as he did in basketball, and helped them on and off the court to get it done. Best of luck, Kenny Reeves. You deserve it.






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