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City of dreams
While the city of Los Angeles has seen a long list of local hoopers go on to reach stardom over the past 25 years, there was no shortage of elite talent in the ’80s either. For young ballers in that era, a combination of the city’s drug epidemic, gang violence, injuries and bad luck, made the journey to greatness much more challenging. Still, they did their thing.
Ryan Jones

Dart Stamps has stories for days. Guys like Stamp, who’ve been around for a minute, who measure their involvement in the game not in years but in decades—eras, even—always do. And when the game in question is basketball history in the city of Los Angeles, Stamps goes back almost half a century. His stories do, too.

Jason Works was “Steph Curry before Steph Curry.” Eldridge Hudson was “LeBron before LeBron.” John Staggers was “doing Eurosteps, shooting off the wrong foot” a generation ahead of today’s NBA stars. “If you saw him,” Stamps says, “you’d know, that stuff’s not new.”

Gardena native Eugene “Pooh” Jeter echoes Stamps on memories of El Hud’s futuristic game. He also recalls when big John Williams’ dominance had crowds chanting “Allah”—something that got awkward when Nation of Islam members approached the Crenshaw star wondering who he thought he was. “When it comes to L.A. hoops,” Jeter says, “I love the stories. I love all those guys.”

For guys like Stamps and Jeter, the names and the stories are endless. But unless you’re from the city of Los Angeles—not from Southern California, land of smog and freeways, Hollywood, Disneyland and the Santa Monica Pier, but the city—you’ve never heard of most of them. These were L.A. guys, ballplayers who proved themselves at the Watts Summer Games, the Drew, or Joe Weakley’s Run Shoot and Dunk. The ones who rode their bikes to the beach and back in the morning before lacing up for day-long runs. The ones who honed their competitiveness at spots like Rogers Park, knowing a loss meant they might have to wait hours for another run.

For too long, too many of L.A.’s best players didn’t make it out—some did, but the exceptions stand out. That’s changed in recent decades, as the likes of Paul Pierce and Baron Davis, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday and DeMar DeRozan have confirmed L.A. as a prodigious producer of NBA talent. This is Los Angeles. Of course it gives birth to legends.

But for a lot of reasons, it’s only been in the past 25 years or so that elite talent has consistently emerged from the City of Angels. It was always there; it just didn’t always escape intact. And that era, where so many of L.A.’s legends were made and remained local, arguably peaked in the 1980s, a tumultuous decade for culture, politics, and sports in the city that still, for many, personifies the American dream and everything that can go wrong trying to attain it.

“It was an interesting time for all of us,” says Cameron Mays. “The culture was so rich in a lot of aspects, but a lot was happening, too. But even when it was a war zone, for a lot of us, the culture really thrived — it made us dream, made us want to move forward in a positive way.”

Drugs, and the crime that drugs brought to communities that lacked the resources to fight back, claimed some of L.A.’s best. The streets claimed countless others only their families and friends knew, young men who never had a chance at being household names. Others succumbed to injuries or bad luck. Some, though, made it all the way out. All remain a part of the L.A. basketball story, just as the city and the game remain an integral part of them.

For Stamps, a former player and longtime coach, the connection is Westchester High, not far from LAX. For Mays, a pastor, entrepreneur and part-time coach, and trainer, it’s Morningside High in Inglewood, mere blocks from the former home of the Showtime Lakers. For Reggie Morris, Sr, it’s his alma mater, Washington High, and it’s Manual Arts High and L.A. Southwest College, where he spent more than 15 years each as head coach (and became the only coach in state history to win state titles at the high school and JuCo levels). All are tethered to their alma maters, to their neighborhoods, and to the game.

“I’ve always been a history buff when it came to sports in general, especially from L.A. And as a kid, all I heard was those names,” says DeRozan, the Compton High alum turned NBA All-Star. “When you name those guys, it’s definitely a nostalgic feeling. As a kid, that’s where you kinda start—before you even get to idolize people in the league, you idolize people in your area that you look up to.”

“Cooper used to go up there just to guard Raymond Lewis or Freeman Williams. He said if I can guard these guys, I can guard anybody in the NBA.”
- Reggie Morris on Cooper playing at Inglewood’s Rogers Park

If past is prologue, then you can roll things back a decade or so and start with Raymond Lewis. He starred at Verbum Dei HS, averaged 33 ppg as a sophomore at Cal State L.A., and was a first-round pick by the Sixers in the ’73 Draft. Lewis never played in an NBA game, a victim of a system that viewed him as replaceable and his own lack of a support system. He remains a cautionary tale of “not having good people around you to give you good advice,” Morris says. “But as a player, he was way ahead of his time.”

Lewis proved it to ensuing generations: During the Lakers’ Showtime dynasty, Michael Cooper, a Pasadena native and 8-time NBA all-defense pick, would drop in on Inglewood’s Rogers Park to test himself against the local streetball royalty. “Cooper used to go up there just to guard Raymond Lewis or Freeman Williams,” Morris remembers. “He said if I can guard these guys, I can guard anybody in the NBA.” Even as he approached 40, Mays says, Lewis would show up to the Drew League, drop 30 points in a half, and leave.

Lewis was followed by the likes of Freeman Williams, who lit up the city at Manual Arts before starring at Portland State, where his 3,249 career points are second in NCAA D1 history; Marques Johnson, who was all-everything at Crenshaw and UCLA before becoming a five-time NBA All-Star; and Reggie Theus, the Inglewood High and UNLV star who spent more than a decade in the NBA. These were the dudes who solidified the pipeline in the ’70s, ensuring a path for the next great ones out of L.A. Of course, the arrival of one particular Midwestern transplant to Southern California did more than a little to help set the stage for what followed, as well.

“Back in the day, everybody wanted to be like Magic Johnson.”

So says John Williams, the Crenshaw High product and 1984 McDonald’s All-American Game MVP, one of countless L.A. area hoopers who were inspired by the Lakers’ all-everything point god, and the rare player with the size (6-8, 220 in his prime) and skill set to justify the Magic comparisons. Eldridge Hudson of Carson High, a few years ahead of Williams and another highly skilled big, was another: Hudson was on his way to stardom and UNLV (and beyond) before a series of knee injuries derailed his promise.

“Hudson was a left-handed Magic Johnson, and he probably could shoot a little better, too,” Stamps says. “He really was that good.”

Not many were on that level, but the ’80s nonetheless saw an explosion of elite talent across the city—including future pro Elden Campbell, who joined fellow Morningside alum Byron Scott on the post-dynasty Lakers. Maybe there was something in the water in Inglewood in those days, as Ralph Jackson and Jay Humphries combined to lead Inglewood High to an undefeated national championship in 1980. Other schools and neighborhoods boasted dynamic duos of their own: A few years later, Chris Mills, hailed as one of the city’s all-time best players, teamed with Sean Higgins up at Fairfax on unforgettable squads.

And it didn’t stop there. Morris, the longtime Manual Arts coach, remembers his star wing Dwayne Polee as “just a maniac for the entire game — his ability to compete for so long was incredible.” Mays recalls Polee’s lockdown reputation: “He was going to guard your best player, and your best player was going to have a horrible night.” He remains a bona fide L.A. legend.

Mays also remembers the Banning duo of Mark Wade — “the Tom Brady of point guards” — and Joey Johnson, younger brother of Hall of Famer Dennis, a quiet competitor who boasted a 50-inch vertical by the time he got to Arizona State. John Staggers at Crenshaw, Jeep Jackson at Gardena, Jason Works and Barry Walker, the list goes on. Together, they paved the way for Ed O’Bannon and Kevin Ollie, Andre Miller and Trevor Ariza, Tayshaun Prince and Tyson Chandler, not to mention the All-Stars and future Hall of Famers already mentioned above.

Even now, for those who’ve come from the same fertile ground, the names resonate.

“A lot of time it’s guys that don’t even make it to the pros that you look at for motivation, because you identify with them a little bit more,” DeRozan says. “You understand where they grew up. You’ve probably been to the high school they went to. That’s how it started for me—that’s why I wanted to stay home, why I went to Compton High. I wanted to be that for my high school and be the motivation for my community.”

If the ’80s were the decade when L.A. basketball was ready to figuratively explode, it was also the moment when the city itself was on the verge of blowing up for real.

“Cooper used to go up there just to guard Raymond Lewis or Freeman Williams. He said if I can guard these guys, I can guard anybody in the NBA.”
- Reggie Morris on Cooper playing at Inglewood’s Rogers Park

Reggie Morris won’t mention the names for publication, but he can’t forget them, either: Six of his players murdered during his long career coaching high school and college basketball, victims of gang violence primarily sparked by turf wars over crack cocaine. “I’ve probably been out of every school’s underground tunnel or back entrance in the city, having to get out of a gym in a hurry,” he says. “I also coached track, and there were times where there were shootouts going on across the field. We’d have drills to know what to do in those situations. It just became normal for us.”

The impact of the cocaine crisis on this generation, and specifically its athletes, transcended Los Angeles. It became a nationwide issue. In 1986, just two days after being selected with the second overall pick in the NBA draft by the Boston Celtics, Len Bias tragically passed away from complications of a cocaine overdose on the campus of the University of Maryland, where he had earned back-to-back ACC Player of the Year honors the previous two seasons.

No one was entirely safe, but there were benefits to being a ballplayer—especially a good one. Williams, the biggest star in the city in his prime, can still rattle off the names of some of Los Angeles’ most notorious drug kingpins: “Freeway Rick, Benzo Al, Waterhead Bo… some of those guys I knew personally. But I didn’t want to be crossed up in nothing like that. I just wanted to play ball. If you were good, they would look out for you, make sure you were ok. That was a good feeling to have.
Adds Dart Stamps, “If you played basketball, they respected you. I used to tell my guys, when you’re out here in your neighborhood, in the streets, just carry a basketball with you. Look at Drew League, or Watts Summer Games. Nothing ever happens up there.”

“They were crime-stoppers,” Pooh Jeter says, remembering the impact of Willie West’s legendary coaching run at Crenshaw. “There were guys who made sure that certain crimes didn’t happen at certain times, because they were all at the games. There wasn’t no crime when the games were happening.”

Sometimes, though, it wasn’t much worse than the intense neighborhood rivalry that already infused games between neighboring squads vying for precious court time. Says Stamps, “When you play pickup basketball in L.A., you’re going into the gym, you’re going in there ready to fight. Now, very seldom did you fight, but that was the mentality. Because if you lose, you might be done for the day.”
Says Jeter, “I can’t imagine what the players had to really deal with, on the mental side. But the beauty of it is, the one who played in that era who made it out, it shows the focus they had in those surroundings—to know, ‘This is going on, but I have a way out.’”

The city has changed, and the game has changed with it. In Los Angeles, the best high school talent now often bolts to Orange County, or to the Valley, to private schools and suburban sprawl, programs where there are more resources, communities with less crime. Veteran observers of L.A. basketball will tell you the game isn’t what it used to be, and fair enough. But its history is still vibrant.

Baron Davis is prominent among the former pros who have made a priority of highlighting the city’s basketball history, connecting the legends with the current generation, and each other. Pooh Jeter established Hometown Favorites, an invite-only summer clinic that brings the city’s best prospects out to learn from and run with local legends like Baron and Russell, and has featured L.A.-based pros like Chris Paul, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. “Our goal should be that we want them to be better than us,” Jeter says. “We have to be visible to help them get there.”

John Williams helps out with local programs, and his son plays college ball. Stamps and Mays keep a hand in coaching and training. And Morris, respected dean of the city coaching scene, occasionally drops in on his son, Reggie Jr, who is now the head coach at Fairfax. Collectively, they and others provide the connective thread for the city’s basketball past and present, keeping that history alive.

Photos via Getty Images, AP Images, Bill Eppridge/Sports Illustrated and University Archives Photograph Collection [digital resource], Pepperdine University Special Collections and University Archives