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.

 

TOM FLORES’ TIES TO THE OLD AFL DAYS

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: Tom Flores.

I still remember the day when the onetime Oakland Raiders’ legend showed up at the University of Redlands.

Before Tom Flores’ speaking appearance that day, I’d been given an hour to sit with him in an adjoining room inside the school’s chapel. I grew up in Raider Territory, a town called Hayward, some 20 minutes south of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. It allowed me a little background for this little chat.

“I’ll bet you,” he said, “that you can’t name the original eight AFL teams.”

“You guys started in Minnesota,” I told him.

Tom FLores (Silver & Black Pride)
Tom Flores, standing in front of his team in preparation for a game, led the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders to Super Bowl victories. In between those triumphs, Flores spoke at the University of Redlands (photo by Black & White pride).

Flores, who’d played collegiately at the College of Pacific in Stockton, smiled. I thought I had him.

Name the other ones, he challenged me.

I almost got them all. Buffalo Bills, Boston Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers, Houston Oilers, Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs. Oh, and the New York Jets.

“Not perfect,” he said.

The Kansas City Chiefs were the Dallas Texans. The Jets were originally the New York Titans.

One of Flores’ memories: “I remember we were being paged over the intercom at the airport. They said, ‘Oklahoma Raiders.’

“They didn’t know if we were truck drivers or pro football players.”

The AFL weren’t exactly household names in those early 1960s. It was, he recalled, all-out war between the AFL and NFL.

After several minutes of taking on Flores’ trivia questions, he was introduced to a couple hundred audience members.

“There’s something about those stained-glass windows,” said Flores, noting the inner décor of the University of Redlands’ ancient chapel. “I had a few off-colored stories I was going to share with you, but I don’t think I’d better do that.”

He was part of pro football history. The part of the old American Football League that merged with the National Football League in 1970.

Flores had played QB for the Raiders. He wound up as an assistant coach to the legendary John Madden.

When Madden stepped aside as Raiders’ coach after the 1978 season, Managing General Partner Al Davis tabbed Flores as his head coach. What lied ahead were two Super Bowl championships, one in Oakland, the other in Los Angeles.

Flores’ visit to Redlands came in between those two titles.

“I don’t mingle in any of that,” Flores told me, referring to the conflict his boss, Davis, was having with the NFL and its commissioner, Pete Rozelle. “It’s hard enough to get a team ready to play.

“Teams don’t need all those other distractions.”

He was totally in Davis’ corner.

“I think he’s right. Six years ago, we had one of the best stadiums in football. Now, we’re one of the worst. Everybody has passed us by.”

That 27-10 Super Bowl win in New Orleans over Philadelphia in 1980 had some errant media coverage, he told that Redlands audience.

“We’re publicized as a team that has no discipline,” he said. “When we went to New Orleans for the Super Bowl, they publicized the fact that everyone on the team was out on Bourbon Street every night. Well, that wasn’t true at all.

“Only half the team was out.”

Audience members had questions.

On football’s best player:

“There are several and I should go position by position. But I think Walter Payton is one of the most complete backs in the NFL. He’d sure fit in with the Raiders.”

On the upcoming NFL draft:

“We’re not limited to a position in the draft. But I think we’ll look for an offensive back or receivers. If there’s one out there we like, we’ll take a dominating defensive player.”

On Davis:

“As long as I win, we get along great.”