SPOTTING WILLIE WEST WATCHING HIS SON AT REDLANDS’ CURRIER GYM

This is part of a series of mini-Redlands Connections. This is Part 3 of the series, Quick Visits. Magic Johnson and John Wooden showed up at the University of Redlands as part of a Convocation Series. This piece on Tom Flores was another one. Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, former NBA player John Block, legendary high school coach Willie West showed up. There are others. Cazzie Russell, for instance, came to Redlands with an NCAA Division III basketball team from Savannah, Ga. Russell, out of Michigan, was the NBA’s overall No. 1 draft pick by the New York Knicks in 1966.

Today’s feature: Former L.A. Crenshaw High School coach Willie West, Jr.

It was a slow night at Currier Gymnasium, the ancient, never-to-be-replaced basketball center at the University of Redlands.

It was one of the first Bulldog games of the season. Longtime coach Gary Smith and I hadn’t yet discussed his team for the upcoming season — a normal pattern I’d carefully followed since my arrival at the local newspaper in 1979.

Casually glancing down at the roster, spotting a few familiar names, I came across one that struck a small chord. There was a guard with an interesting name, a familiar name.

Willie West.

Willie_West (Cal State Los Angeles)
Willie West, a Cal State-Los Angeles Hall of Famer, made an even bigger name for himself as coach of L.A. Crenshaw High School. He showed up at the University of Redlands one night to watch his son, Willie West III, play for the Bulldogs (photo by Cal State Los Angeles).

Now where did I know that name?

Well, there’s Willie West, one of California’s most legendary high school basketball coaches.

His son, perhaps?

Why would Willie West’s son be at Redlands?

Had to be someone else. It was November 1995.

That slow night at Currier allowed me to scan the grandstands. One by one. Most were college students, of course. There were a few community die-hards. Plus staff members. There might’ve been or two I couldn’t recognize.

Finally, I spotted him.

Top row. Alone. Northwest portion of Currier.

Willie West, Jr. I’d come to learn that his son was actually Willie West III. He’d come to Redlands via State junior college powerhouse Ventura, where he helped lead the Pirates to a 37-1 record.

At that moment, his dad, Willie E. West, Jr., was still Los Angeles Crenshaw High’s basketball coach. West, Jr. and Bulldog coach Gary Smith had known each other for awhile. That was the connection that brought West III to Redlands.

Legendary? Twenty-eight league championships. Sixteen L.A. Section championships. Eight State titles. Dozens of kids enrolled in college. A few NBA players. Thirty-seven seasons. Career record, 802-139.

I’d only known a couple of players that wore Cougar colors. Even then, those guys never actually played varsity for The Man.

Said one young guy: “I practiced with them one summer. Most of the time, there wasn’t even a ball in the drills. He was tough, man. I mean it. You had to have something extra to play for him.”

A security guard at Moreno Valley High School was equally insightful: “I played JV (junior varsity) one season there. The practices were incredible. If you couldn’t cut it in practice, no way you’d be in the games.”

Truth is, West III didn’t play at Crenshaw during his senior year. His parents, divorced, led him to play in Houston after spending his sophomore and junior seasons playing in the Cougars’ uniform.

There were many nights West couldn’t have journeyed all the way out from his L.A. County home to see his son play. It was in-the-season for the Crenshaw coach.

Much was made of the fact that Willie III voluntarily took himself out of the Bulldogs’ starting lineup, giving Smith a scoring presence off the bench.

On a side note, it has to be noted that Smith — whose Bulldog teams were always competitive but rarely at the top of the standings — was held in high enough esteem that one of high school’s greatest coaches might send his son to play at Redlands.

A few nights after I’d made notice of the West-Redlands connection, West III hit for 28 points in a game against Chapman College-Orange.

I didn’t see Willie, Jr. in the stands that night.