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Celebrating milestone, change in L.A. hoops

Long-time Fremont (Los Angeles) coach Sam Sullivan was honored for surpassing the 600-win plateau and celebrated the moment with many of his past players, including former MLB all-star Eric Davis. Nick Koza/ESPNHS

LOS ANGELES -- During the middle of an ordinary JV basketball game between Coliseum League rivals Fremont (Los Angeles) and Manual Arts (Los Angeles), you could anticipate something special about to happen.

First, former Fremont standouts like Eric Davis, the former MLB center fielder, and Casper Ware Sr., a three-time All-L.A. City choice and the father of current Long Beach State guard Casper Ware Jr., strolled in. Ex-students began to trickle in next, and eventually there was an impromptu Fremont class reunion in the Pathfinders' gym.

Davis, Ware Sr. and a plethora of Fremont alumni showed up to celebrate the coaching career of Fremont’s Sam Sullivan, a coaching icon in the L.A. City Section and a fixture for 35 years at the South Los Angeles school located on San Pedro Street.

At the conclusion of a double-overtime JV game that was extra emotional and physical because of the overflow crowd, Sullivan was honored for winning more than 600 games and, more importantly, positively molding the lives of countless young men. He then fittingly went out and secured another milestone win, as Fremont's varsity squad followed up the JV game with Sullivan's 650th victory.

"I saw a lot of faces I haven't seen in years, and it made me lighthearted to see them," Sullivan said following his varsity team's 74-37 win that pushed his record to 650-254. "It actually gave me a nostalgic feeling thinking about all the memories over the years. The good has definitely outweighed the bad."

Humble Beginnings

Darnell "Sam" Sullivan is a 1969 Fremont graduate who decided to teach and coach at his alma mater after a career in pro ball didn't materialize. After coaching on the lower levels for three years, the former Fremont shooting guard took over a talented varsity squad in 1977-78 that finished 17-6.

"You always remember your first team," Sullivan said of his club that featured Davis, Ware, Dane Suttle Sr., Shelton Reed, Karlan Johnson and Michael Ware, Casper's older brother by one year. "It was a great group of kids and all of them except Casper had been with me on the JV team the year before. (Former Fremont coach) Dave Yanai told the principal he'd be crazy not to hire me. Yanai told me, 'You're not going to win it every year, but make people think you're going to win it every year.'"

"What I like is the coaching style he had. He made the game fun for everyone," Casper Ware said. "It was the way we played and the run-and-gun style we had. We were like a family up here."

It's fitting the ceremony to honor Sullivan occurred more than two years after he surpassed 600 wins in December 2009. After all, the work he's done at Fremont has occurred with little fanfare.

Sullivan, 61, got stuck on Fremont basketball at age 11 when he would sneak into the gym to watch the Pathfinders play. He has such a great connection to the community that it's not surprising his 85-year-old mother, Eula, still lives five blocks away from the school.

Fremont's Turning Point

While Sullivan will always cherish his first team, he holds a special place in his heart for his 1988-89 team that brought him his first of three L.A. City AAA championships.

For many years, Fremont played second fiddle in the city to Crenshaw and Manual Arts. In fact, his team lost to Crenshaw seven consecutive years in the playoffs.

The 1988-89 team featuring seniors Tyrone Phillips and Maurice "Spuds" McKinzy (Sullivan's current JV coach) and a special group of eight sophomores, including All-City wing Chris Ford, changed all that. The Pathfinders beat Los Angeles High School to win the school's first city title in 12 years and finish 26-4.

Sullivan and his former players and assistants were basically in agreement the most memorable moment of the last 35 years was playing for the Division I state title in 1990-91. Led by the 6-foot-2 Ford and 6-foot-5 Michael Tate, the Pathfinders steamrolled every quality team in Southern California, with their only regular-season loss coming against Mercer Island (Wash.). Fremont fell to Jason Kidd-led St. Joseph (Alameda, Calif.) in the state final, 67-61, to finish 34-2.

In an eight-year stretch between 1989 and 1996, Sullivan's clubs went 213-37 (.852). Fremont has been ranked in the Cal-Hi Sports State Top 20 eight times, most recently in 2004-05 when Sullivan was named state Coach of the Year for Division I.

"In the summer of 1990, we were playing at Tustin and we had another game that night at Crenshaw," said Tyrone Holliness, a reserve forward on the '91 team. "We were driving back and one of the cars broke down. We played Crenshaw with five guys. By the time the other guys showed up, we were already up double digits. Right then, I knew we had something special."

The Pathfinder Way

"Look at that thing, we helped him get about 400 of those wins -- our names should be on there," said former Fremont assistant Michael Houston about the banner unveiled to honor Sullivan.

Houston was jawing at another former assistant, Keith Young, who got a quick chuckle out of the comment before returning to barking commands to Fremont's players and offering pointers to McKinzy during the rout of Manual Arts.

Sullivan has never produced a McDonald's All-American, but he's stayed competitive in the state's toughest section with players who carry his lunch-pail attitude and work ethic.

During the championship years, Sullivan, Houston, and Young were known for their fiery demeanors and quick triggers if a player made a mistake. The players were similar. Ford's attitude and physique resembled former middleweight boxing great Marvin Hagler, and he carried a scowl during warmups that intimidated opponents. Tate was known as the "Exterminator" for his shot-blocking prowess and enforcer role.

"Coming to play games against Fremont, our kids got a reputation to play hard and compete," Sullivan said. "We loved to hear how kids seemed to think the court was longer here or find something to complain about. There is a bunch of different ways to win basketball games, and that's what I think makes this game the best."

Young still carries that Pathfinder toughness with him, but Sullivan has adapted his ways.

"Some of my former players come to a practice and comment how they could never get away with some of the things these kids do," Sullivan said. "They know I can't coach now like I coached them or else the kids would quit.

"If you don't adapt, you'll be out."

Changing Demographics, Same Message

While Sullivan's coaching philosophy regarding hard work on the court and close-knit relationships off it remains the same, Fremont's student body has changed dramatically since his early years.

According to data figures released by the Los Angeles Times in 2007, Fremont's student body was 96 percent African-American in 1980. It is now 90 percent Latino, with a dwindling African-American population.

Back in 1980, kids in the community were encouraged to play multiple sports as a way to steer clear of the streets. Davis was actually recruited to play football at Fremont, although he ended up with more scholarship offers in basketball than in baseball and football. Holliness said between the ages of 14 and 19, he never went more than two days without playing. For both Davis and Holliness, playing sports was really the only thing to do in their free time that didn't carry a negative connotation.

Today, Sullivan has a talent pool that, because of technology, has plenty of safe options other than playing sports. He's also working with a greater percentage of students for whom soccer or baseball, not basketball, is their first love or for whom basketball isn't taught and passed along by an older family member.

"Coach taught us to be determined," said Davis, who noted basketball is his favorite sport. "He was trying to educate, teach and win at the same time."

Fremont enters the 2011-12 playoffs with a 12-19 record. Despite the losing record, there are two things certain about this year's squad that remain unchanged from the '91 team or even the '78 team -- the players will play hard and believe they can defeat their opponents.

"You still want to make your kids believe you can (win state)," Sullivan said. "You never tell kids that they can't. The job is more gratifying now because you realize the hard work it takes. You don't realize it when you're 25 and think you can do everything by yourself."

Ronnie Flores is a senior editor for ESPNHS. He can be reached at ronnie.flores@espn.com. Don't forget to follow him on Twitter: @RonFloresESPN