Elite 24: Cali playground legends

By Ronnie Flores | ESPNHS

Naming the 24 best playground legends from the Golden State didn’t seem so difficult at first. But the more we talked to people in the know, the further we got from narrowing down the list.

More and more names kept popping up, and the opinions of old-school cats varied greatly from the younger guys still lacing them up.

You might not agree with the list, but there’s no doubt all 24 are well-known and talented players on Califronia’s vast playground scene.

Editor’s Note: L.A. streetball legend James “Arkansas Red” Allen would have been a top five selection in this countdown had he attended a California high school. Allen attended segregated and now defunct Roosevelt (Palm Beach, Fla.)

1. “Ray Lew” Raymond Lewis, Verbum Dei (Los Angeles) ’71
Drafted in the first round of the 1973 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, Lewis in all likelihood is best player to never play in the NBA. Considered the best high school guard in SoCal over the past 40 years, Lewis was the youngest player ever drafted and signed when he left Cal-St. LA after his sophomore season. “When I first saw him play, my mouth dropped,” said Reggie Morris, Sr. “When he pulled up on his jump shot, he was always a little to the left or right of his defender.” While at Verbum Dei, he was a two-time state player of the year in two divisions. He even dropped 52 points in a summer league game against a group of L.A. Lakers before entering college and his 53-point performance against No. 3 Long Beach State is still spoken of with detail as if it happened yesterday. Those that saw him play, or played against him, still marvel at just how good he was individually. Many feel he never got a fair shot at the pros after his initial contract squabble with the 76ers, but he never lost his swagger until his death in 2001.

2. John Staggers, Crenshaw (Los Angeles) ’88
One of the nation’s top high school players in a legendary class, Staggers is in a class by himself at Venice Beach. No player has dominated there quite like him. The key to his game is his ability to score from nearly any angle and spot on the floor. “Once in the Best of Summer (AAU tournament), Alonzo Mourning was blocking everyone’s shots, except John,” said Danny Griffin, who played one year behind him at “The Shaw”. “He would take it in the key, hesitate and finger roll or tear-drop it in. It was unbelievable.” Even though he didn’t start for Crenshaw at times, he was city player of the year and averaged 23.8 ppg for a team that spent a majority of the 1987-88 season ranked No. 1 in the nation. The Cougars finished with a 28-1 record and even in the one game Crenshaw lost to Manual Arts, he hit an NBA three-pointer to send the game into overtime. His legend had just begun.

3. Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell, McClymonds (Oakland) ’86
Even though Mitchell spent quite a bit of the past 10 years incarcerated, his reputation is as big as any outside of New York City. Why? Mainly because of the video showing him doing amazing feats, such as jumping over people, motorcycles, and cars. The legend of “Hook” first grew at Mack, where he teamed up with Antonio Davis in OAL battles with Skyline’s Gary Payton and Greg Foster. His two seasons at Contra Costa JC were dunk shows, as was the few games he played for Cal-St. Hayward. The streets are where Hook’s game thrived, but unfortunately it’s the place that has defined his life.

4. Freeman Williams, Manual Arts (Los Angeles) ’74 
With a rock solid physique and an unstoppable pull-up jumper, Williams is one of the greatest shooters in playground history. An accomplished player on all levels, he’s a legend at Rogers Park and Venice Beach. “Free” averaged 24.6 ppg as a senior for “The Arts”, but he turned it out at Portland State, leading the nation in scoring (35.9) as a senior in ’78 over some guy named Larry Bird. He even lit up UNLV for 50 and another school for 81. “He could catch and shoot, off the dribble and stop on a dime,” said Reggie Morris, Sr., then a young Manual Arts assistant. “If there would have been a 3-point line&”

5. Dwayne Polee, Sr., Manual Arts (Los Angeles) ’81 

Polee was already a street icon by the time he got a cup of coffee in the NBA. As a ninth-grader, he played on a nationally-ranked team at L.A. Verbum Dei, where he earned his keep in one-on-one battles with Raymond Lewis and other older players. As he matured, he became a complete player, one that younger players emulated because of his great scoring, jumping and defensive ability. He was three-time all-city at Manual Arts and the watershed moment of his career came when he scored 43 points in a 82-69 championship game victory that ended Crenshaw’s three-year stranglehold on the title. 14,123 people were at that game, but thousands more claim to have witnessed it.

6. Earnest “Worm” Killum, Jr., Lynwood (Lynwood) ’90
Killum grew up on the tough streets of Watts, but he won over teammates with his leadership and classmates with his wit. Killum’s high school exploits were better known than his playground game, but there’s a reason for that. As a senior, he led the Knights to a 31-3 record and was named Cal-Hi Sports Div. I State Player of the Year while averaging 29.4 ppg and shooting 41 percent from 3-point land. Less than two years later, he passed away at age 20 following an acute stroke. Similar to “The Goat” in New York City, his legacy lives on because of the court named in his honor at Watts’ 109th Street Recreation Center.

7. Kenny “Bad Santa” Brunner, Dominguez (Compton) ’97
Despite 5-foot-9, Brunner is one of the most feared and respected streetball players in California. His career has been decorated with honors and championships. He was a four-year star for the Dons and capped his career with two state titles. Brunner ran the point for 137 games at Dominguez, and the Dons won 123 of them. A former Drew League MVP, Brunner also won L.A. NBA Summer Pro League honors in ’05 and will tell you exactly what his status is as a Cali legend. “Hook (Mitchell) passed the torch to me right on ESPN2,” Brunner said. “I consider myself 1A with Ray Lew (Raymond Lewis).”

8. Eldridge “El Hud” Hudson, Carson (Carson) ’82
Oh, if it weren’t for injury. That’s what hoop gurus that watched Hudson play in high school. As a freshman starter for Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV, Hudson injured his knee in a game on New Year’s Day, 1983. He was never the same player, but did help Vegas reach the 1987 NCAA Final Four. At Carson, he capped a memorable senior season by leading the Colts to the Div. I state title, averaging 25.1 points in seven post-season games. He went for 28 points, 13 rebounds, and seven assists in the regional title game over archrival Banning. Before the injury, he could lead the break or dominate on the box. On the playground, “Ed Hud” adjusted his game by pounding opponents underneath, but he’s never lost that feathery southpaw touch.

9. Ernest Lee, Kennedy (Sacramento) ’82 
In stark contrast to many playground legends, Lee was obsessed with playing in the NBA. That ultimately proved to be his downfall when he wasn’t selected in the 1987 NBA Draft. Lee attended Clark (Atlanta, Ga.) when the coach at that Div. II school saw him playing in an Atlanta summer league after failing to qualify academically at Washington. His scoring averages were 34.1, 29.3, and 29.7 his final three years, leading the nation each season. In Sacramento, Lee is a legend for leading Kennedy to a 29-1 record as a senior and for his battles with Kevin Johnson, a future NBA guard one year his junior at Sacramento High. By Johnson’s admission, Lee was the superior talent. He took his own life in 1994, at age 30, by jumping from a bridge.

10. Jason Works, Dorsey (Los Angeles) ’78
Perhaps the least-known player on Cali’s Elite 24 list, Works’ basketball career is a bit of a mystery. He attended six different schools in six years, ending up at UC-Irvine, where he did not finish the 1980-81 season. Today, coaches compare his game to Allen Iverson, because there was no on else comparable then. The problem was Works seemed to care about basketball as much one does a pimple. “He drove coaches nuts,” said current Chapman College coach Mike Bokosky, who recruited Works to UC-Irvine out of LACC. “He was a born-again Christian that would take the bible on road trips& just one of those different cats.” Despite the odd moments, his talent was undeniable. “No one knew who he was, but he was great,” said Reggie Morris, Sr., then a UC-Irvine assistant. “He could have played in the NBA, he was unguardable,” Bokosky added.

11. Sam Robinson, Jefferson (Los Angeles) ’66
A two-time prep All-American, Robinson had a reputation that stretched across the country, thanks to Sonny Vaccaro’s Dapper Dan Roundball Classic in Pittsburgh, Pa. Back home, the sleek forward was two-time city player of the year and the ringleader of a team that averaged 110.9 points per game in ’66, still a state record. Robinson also put in work on the playground and was the first-ever professional draft choice out of Long Beach State. “There was nobody like Sam,” said Reggie Morris, Sr. “He’s one of the greatest to play high school ball in Los Angeles.”

12. Marques Johnson, Crenshaw (Los Angeles) ’73
The five-time NBA all-star nearly invented the point forward position with the Milwaukee Bucks. He also helped John Wooden win his final NCAA title, but he was also an up-and-coming playground star in the late 1960s during the formative years of L.A.’s streetball scene. Johnson perfected his craft at Joe Weakley’s Run, Shoot and Dunk League, when it was still played at Denker Park, against the likes of Jerry “Money” Chambers, Walter Ned and James “Arkansas Red” Allen. He teamed with Dorsey’s Rickey “Tex” Walker to lead his RSDL team to a title game against a team filled with pros and led “The Shaw” to a two-year 32-0 on-court record before joining the Bruins.

13. Gene Ransom, Berkeley (Berkeley) ’75

Perhaps California’s ultimate showman, Ransom thrilled crowds at the old NorCal Tournament of Champions and at Cal’s Harmon gym. Ransom never lost that street flair to his game in the Pac-8 and was even offered a contract by the Harlem Globetrotters. Like Pistol Pete, Ransom may have been a bit ahead of his time as a ball-handler and shot-maker, but he never forgot the object of the game: winning

14. Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner, Inglewood (Inglewood) ’89 

Naturally gifted, it seemed Miner could do anything on the court. Perhaps no four-year pro career is more memorable, as teammates recall things he did in warm-ups. Miner could score with finesse and dunk with breath-taking power. “Harold always played pick-up at Rogers, Bel-Air, wherever,” said former Crenshaw center Danny Griffin. “But the thing is, he played in dockers, pants, under shorts, whatever. He was so talented.” Miner was a first-team all-state selection, All-American at USC and a two-time NBA Slam Dunk Champion.

15. “Jumpin” Joe Caldwell, Fremont (Los Angeles) ’60
Caldwell was known as “Jumpin’ Joe” on the playgrounds of L.A. and “Pogo Joe” in the pros. Caldwell was the predecessor to Cali’s great leapers such as, Darnell Hillman, Joey Johnson and Harold Miner, but his game was complete. One of the few players who was an all-star in the ABA and NBA, Caldwell led Fremont to back-to-back city titles and was the city player of the year in 1960, pumping in 24.8 ppg. A nasty dispute with management led to him being unofficially blackballed from the pros, but he was well respected by his pro playground peers such as Dr. J.

16. “Jumpin” Joey Johnson, Banning (Wilmington) ’85 
California has its fair share of all-time great leapers: Evric Gray (Bloomington), David Whitmore (St. Bernard), Corey Benjamin (Fontana) and Shaun Pennington (Hayward) come to mind among players not on the Elite 24 list and more recently, Dwayne Polee, Jr. (Westchester). They all take a backseat to the father of Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) standout Nick Johnson and younger brother of NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson. Are there better players among Cali’s Elite 24? Sure, but Jumpin’ Joey is a legend because he couldsimply sky. “His leaping ability probably was detrimental to the rest of his game,” said former USC and L.A. Lakers guard Duane Cooper. “But that’s what happens when you have to duck to get out of the rim’s way.” Johnson was all-city for the Pilots and finished at Arizona State, in between winning a JUCO national title at College of Southern Idaho, where locals still marvel at his legendary leaping feats.

17. Robin “Syk Wit It” Kennedy, Lynwood Aventist (Lynwood) ’92 

The Pasadena native did not have a well-known prep career, but he flourished at the JUCO level and on the streets. He earned his nickname from his good friend and Chaffey College running mate Reggie Cotton because his moves, especially his “Rob K Cross,” were so sick (meaning good). Kennedy went on to Nevada-Reno, but got his big break at L.A.’s Bel-Air Park when he tried out for the AND 1 Mix-Tape Tour in 2001. This Drew League veteran is known nationwide and you can still catch him crossing over defenders up at Venice Beach in the summer.

18. Casper Ware, Fremont (Los Angeles) ’79

Teamed with Dane Suttle, Sr. to form one of the city’s best backcourts ever. Lightning-quick, Ware was a three-time all-city performer and could bomb from NBA 3-point range even though the shot was only worth two. Ware was a JUCO All-American and finished at Loyola Marymount, but his college accolades pale in comparison to his street credibility. “I can’t give him enough credit,” said former Manual Arts coach Reggie Morris, Sr. “He lingered in the Drew League for years.”

19. John Williams, Crenshaw (Los Angeles) ’84
If this Elite 24 group was ranked based on high school dominance, Williams would be near the top. Williams is the only ESPNHS National Player of the Year pick from SoCal in the last 40 years. “He was such a physical presence&a guard couldn’t play him on the perimeter,” said former Banning all-state guard Eric Cooper Sr. “It would be like a two guard matching up with LeBron James.” Williams led “The Shaw” to a state title as a junior and scored 41 points in the city final as a senior. After his NBA career, Williams put in work in various summer pro leagues and won multiple Drew League titles.

20. Vernon “Schea” Cotton, St. John Bosco (Bellflower) ’97 

Similar to New York’s Albert King, Cotton was a basketball prodigy. The biggest name on the SoCal hoops scene during the 1990s, Cotton won multiple AAU national championships and led Mater Dei to the Div. I state title as a sophomore. By then, stories told of his performances on playgrounds and gyms across the country were already legendary. Unlike King, Cotton didn’t develop in an NBA forward, but countless pros, both older and younger than him such as Kevin Garnett, Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant, have all been subjects in those true tales.

21. James “Gumby” Gray, Westchester (Los Angeles) ’92 
His skill is only exceeded by his style and flare. “Everybody wants to be like Gumby,” Marques Johnson said during a Fresno State telecast. Gray wasn’t always eligible to play for the Comets, but he capped his prep career with a 27-point, 16-rebound performance in a 4A city title win over Crenshaw. A slashing point guard, Gumby left Santa Monica JC as its all-time leading scorer. By the time he played one season for Jerry Tarkanian, he was already a legend at Rogers Park in Inglewood, and even turned out the Drew League one year playing left-handed because of a bum shoulder.

22. Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman, Johnson (Sacramento, Calif.) ’67

In the ABA or on the playground, Hillman is remembered just as much for his prodigious dunks as his Afro. California’s answer to Jackie Jackson, Hillman is one of the game’s greatest leapers on all levels. Stories of his ability to sky to the top of the backboard are endless and nine years ago, Hillman was No. 22 on Slam Magazine’s list of greatest dunkers. At Johnson, Hillman was an All-Superior California selection, pumping in 21.1 ppg, but he developed into a valuable defender and shot-blocker in the pros.

23. Sam Crawford, Westchester (Los Angeles) ’89 
“You got to remember, Westchester was one of the first L.A. City schools to have ninth-grade,” said former Crenshaw standout Danny Griffin. “What he did in ’86 against Crenshaw was unheard of.” The freshman led a second-half comeback against the eventual state champs and in high school, was already doing battle with pros such as Michael Cooper and Norm Nixon. There were times the all-state guard got the best of pros, and he continued to flourish at Moorpark JC and New Mexico State, where he led the nation in assists as a senior.

24. Maurice “Mo” Spillers, Locke (Los Angeles) ’92
One of California’s all-time late-bloomers, Spillers pumped in 21.3 ppg in his senior season. Nevertheless, he didn’t have a big reputation around the city. That changed when he improved his game under the tutelage of legendary L.A. basketball figure Joe Weakley at L.A. Southwest College. Spillers transferred to Utah State, where he developed as a brute forward with guard skills. He still puts in work overseas and when he’s ballin’ at Venice, HAX, or the Drew League, people know who he is now.

Other Cali Streetball Legends


The Under Armour Elite 24 is a celebration of streetball’s past, present and future. The 2012 game will be televised live on ESPNU at 7 p.m. ET Aug. 25, with the dunk contest on ESPNU at 7 p.m. ET Aug. 24.

• 2012 Elite 24 announced
• First 12 players chosen
• Second 12 players chosen
• Elite 24 history
• Elite 24 records
• Elite 24 all-time rosters
• Elite 24 alum in NBA
• Memorable Elite 24 nicknames
• Rucker Park legends
• Other NYC legends
• Cali playground legends
• America’s playground legends

Will Alexander
Clifford Allen
Kevin Beal
Walter “Chipper” Bentley
Dwain Bradberry
Kevin “Bean” Bradley
Jermoine “J-Boogey” Brantley
DeShon Brown
Dion Brown
Mike Brown
Russell Brown
Biff Burrell
Paul Caldwell
Aron “Hooky” Carmichael
Allen “Houdini” Caveness
Jerry “Money” Chambers
Phil Chenier
Ronnie Coleman
Lester Conner
Baron “Too Easy” Davis
Stephon Davis
Tommie “Tank” Davis
Carrick DeHart
Jerry “The Assassin” Dupree
Dominic Ellison
Marco Fleming
Chris Ford
Davey Fortson
Jair Fray
Zach “Chestnuts” Fray
J.C. Gipson
James Hardy
Carl Ray Harris
Keith “Ice Cream” Harris
Ricky Hawthorne
Eric “Spinmaster” Holmes
Hernell “Jeep” Jackson
Deke Jordan
Charles Johnson
Henry Johnson
Michael “Mountain Man” Johnson
Edgar Lacey
Tommie Lipsey
Jeremiah “Carnival” King
Jermaine “Three Ring” king
Raymond “Circus” King
Michael Knight
Edgar Lacey
Vince “Chico” Langston
Steve “Show Time” Logan
Sam Martin
Erron “E Money” Maxey
Billy “The Hill” McGill
Cleveland “Pete” McKinney
Eric McWilliams
Walter Ned
Fabian Nixon
Winters Patterson
David “Airplane” Payne
Jimmy “Helicopter” Payne
Shaun Pennington
Wolfe Perry
Reggie Phillips
Wally Rank
Angelo Robinson
Norman “Doc” Shavers
Woody Sauldsberry
Eric Saulny
Dwight Slaughter
“Fillmore” Phil Smith
Robert “Pookie” Smith
Donald Strong
Lenzy Stuart
Dane Suttle, Sr.
Michael “The Exterminator” Tate
Reggie Theus
Willie Thomas
Wun “The Shot” Versher
Gerald Walker
Ricky “Tex” Walker
Bernard Ward
Will Weir
Lawrence “Camel” West
Gilbert WilburnFlintie Ray Williams
Guy “The Fly” Williams
Lawrence Williams
Francois Wise
“Wonderous” Willie Wise
Eugene Wright