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An off-day assist

COMPTON, Calif. – Here was Tayshaun Prince, back at his old high school, back in his old gym, backing up his old coach who not long ago wondered if he'd ever be back.

Not a dozen hours before, Prince helped his Detroit Pistons to a 1-0 lead in the NBA finals. Now he had found the time to come to Dominguez High to talk to students about all he had learned while a student at the school.

Mainly he was talking about his former coach, Russell Otis, using phrases such as "father figure" and "role model" and "respect."

"When I [started] doing well in the NBA," Prince said, "a lot of things were said about how well [Kentucky coach] Tubby Smith prepared me. But nobody ever said a thing about Russell Otis. Nobody mentioned his name. Tubby did an unbelievable job once I got to college. But I think it all starts before."

This is what old players say about old coaches, of course. But this also was different.

In December 2000, when Prince was a sophomore at Kentucky, there weren't many people saying anything nice about Russell Otis. He was arrested and charged with sexually molesting a former player. Soon after, the city suspended him from the only job he'd ever wanted, coach of his high school alma mater.

His name now was in the papers not for leading the Dons to a national title, helping scores of kids earn college scholarships or making the basketball program a source of hope and pride for a community that needs plenty of both.

Suddenly Otis, whom so many Compton kids had turned to for guidance and support, was to be avoided, cursed, mocked.

"It was hard because I have family and neighbors who asked about it," said Wesley Richardson, a Dominguez assistant coach and Otis friend for 17 years. "I have friends who would tease and make jokes."

The case rocked and roiled this tough, working-class community just south of Los Angeles. Sides were taken. Lines were drawn. Then at the April 2001 trial, inconsistencies in the accuser's story derailed the prosecution. A jury of nine women and three men acquitted Otis of all charges.

But his reputation, perhaps even still, hasn't been so easy to clear.

REINSTATEMENT FIGHT
"I got hired in August 2001," said Dr. Jesse L. Gonzales, superintendent of the Compton unified school district. "And I remember the first question the newspapers asked me was whether I would reinstate Coach Otis. The first question. I said I didn't know."

Gonzales, recently arrived from New Mexico, was one of the few who hadn't yet formed an opinion. So he reviewed the case files. He met with teachers, students and former players. And he talked with Otis.

"I remember my first conversation with him," Gonzales said. "He never came in and said, 'I want my job back.' He said, 'What can you do for me?' He was very genuine, very professional. I looked and it was all just allegations. And allegations could happen to anyone. It could happen to you tomorrow."

Charges like these are the dark fear of everyone who works with children. Proving innocence is difficult. Even when one does, the questions and doubts linger. Which is why, even after being cleared in a court of law and even after getting Gonzales' recommendation, the city school board blocked Otis' reinstatement.

"He had two strong supporters on the board but not enough," Gonzales said. "For all the wrong reasons they slammed him. You want to believe the worst in people."

The move reinforced the divisions in Compton. In 2001, when the Dons – led by current Chicago Bull Tyson Chandler and coached by Otis' assistant and friend Steve Singleton – won the state title, it was bittersweet.

After the game the team carried the trophy into the stands and gave it to their suspended coach. Singleton broke down in tears.

"That was Russell's team," said Richardson, an assistant on that team. "Make no mistake. That was his team."

While some argued Dominguez would be better off without Otis, Gonzales saw a different side. Growing up in Hobbs, N.M., he had played for legendary coach Ralph Tasker. He understood how a great coach can mean so much to a school and a town.

Compton, with its poor families and poorer reputation, is such a place. Dominguez itself is physically rundown, with crumbling buildings serving about 2,700 students. Gonzales says many of its kids are from impoverished backgrounds and a strikingly high number are homeless.

"People say athletics can have a positive influence on kids," Gonzales said. "But it is really a coach that can have such an influence. It was clear to me he was a great coach, a great teacher and a great, great role model for kids."

So the superintendent kept fighting, and when a new school board was installed the next year, Gonzales prevailed. In December 2002, right in the middle of the Dons' season, Otis returned as head coach.

But no one really knew what to expect. How would the kids react? Would there be distrust? Could he really coach here again?

Then on his first day, in a show of support, 35 students came to the gym and tried to join the team in midseason.

"When our first league game against Lynwood was standing room only, that is when I knew things were back to normal," Richardson said.

This spring, a little more than a year later, Dominguez won its sixth state title under Otis. He called it the most meaningful of his career.

PAST AND FUTURE
Prince hadn't been to Dominguez since Otis had been reinstated. If the coach weren't back, it is uncertain if Prince ever would have come back. Which is why Monday morning was more than just a chance for an alumnus in the NBA to lecture a gymnasium full of starstruck students.

This was about bridging the gap, celebrating the achievements of the past while pointing toward the potential for the future.

"Tayshaun is a role model," Otis said. "He has his degree. He is in the NBA. He has never been in trouble. For him to come back, it is just an unbelievable experience. And what he said about me, it was touching."

Prince, like almost all of Otis' former players, never wavered in their support of their coach. No matter how harsh the allegations, they went with what they knew of the man, a determined, intelligent, 42-year-old married father of one.

"[The players] believed," Otis said. "They believed in me."

Said Prince: "We had a relationship for a long time, even before I came to play basketball here. My brother played here; my sister came to school here. Once I got here, definitely [he was] like a father figure."

Prince's mother, Diane, still lives in the neighborhood and used to worry what Dominguez was losing without Otis.

"It was a tremendous opportunity for Tayshaun to play for Coach Otis," she said. "People make their own decisions about what they believe. I've known coach for a long time so I didn't believe what was put out there."

Some, of course, still do. But Otis would prefer just to move on, work with the next generation of Dons and continue to be as much role model as basketball coach.

"You know what?" Richardson says. "So many times you get so much negativity because we are in the city of Compton, they call it the 'hood. But we have positive people here. We have people not doing things ... We've had lots of kids come through this program that he has helped. Not just NBA players – just kids."

As painful as the memories are, at times there is value in appreciating the past. For Otis, knowing he almost lost it all makes a day like this, when a former student talks to present students, even better.

"It is sweet," he said softly. "It makes it even sweeter."