Fab Five Take It To The Next Level
By Charles Smith
Special to the Times

Los Angeles City College's basketball program is proving to be a launching pad for players who are graduating to Division I schools.

The Program
Not a made-for-Hollywood movie about the inner workings of a popular college football team, but the story of a Central City community college basketball team that has made a national impact the past two years:
  • Nine Division I scholarship players.
  • Two junior college All-Americans.
  • 60 wins, including a school-record 33 victories last season.
  • An .882 winning percentage.
  • A strong run through the California Community College state championships in 1995 that ended on a one-point, upset loss in the quarterfinals. Perhaps greater than all these accomplishments, however, is the fact that all five Los Angeles City College starters received Division I scholarships.

Derrick Brown (Providence College), Saipele Tuialii (Texas Christian), Markee Brown (Oregon State), Derrick Higgins (Cal State Northridge), and Jason Wright (University of New Orleans) are projected to start for their respective schools.

LACC's stature is so great that a sixth team member, redshirt Leland Osborne, signed with South Alabama -- without having played a minute of community college basketball. Mike Dorsey (Northridge), Marty Cotwright (New Mexico) and Raheem Muhammed (Texas Pan American) all signed Division I scholarships in 1994. "This is an improvement program", said Los Angeles City College Coach Mike Miller. "Our job is to get kids ready for the next level. When kids come here, they play against some of the top talent in the country. This is a Division I school at the community college level." Other than winning a championship, the only thing that Los Angeles City College hasn't done since 1993 is put a player in the NBA. Yet. Derrick Brown could change that.

"I think he'll be a pro and I don't say that about everyone," said Miller. "He is a special player, the best I have had here." And during his short three-year tenure, Miller, 30, has coached some of the nations top 19- to 21- year-old basketball players. Brown, a 6-foot-6 forward from Brooklyn, averaged 22 points and 10 rebound a game. "They're expecting big things of me and I don't want to disappoint them," said Brown. "My plan is to go there, take care of business and get to the next level."

Brown, a community college All-American selection, was also co-most valuable player of the Southern California Athletic Association Conference with front-court mate Tuialii. Tuialii, a 6-6 forward, averaged 15 points and 6.5 rebounds. "We neede Sai," said TCU Coach Billy Tubs, who guided Oklahoma to the 1988 NCAA championship game. "I think he has a great future with us." That's high praise for Tuialii, who was not even considered for the best player on his South Gate High basketball team. "It's a big step for me," said Tuialii. "I was surprised that it would turn out this well."

Markee Brown, a 6-1 shooting guard, was recruited by Providence, South Alabama and Clemson before signing with Oregon State. "It's a rebuilding situation, kind of like when I first came here," said Brown, who averaged 16 points while shooting 45% form three-point range and 50% from the floor. "I want to do the best I can and hopefully we can turn things around." Last Season, Oregon State finished 9-18, seventh in the Pac-10. Brown's biggest asset is not his shooting accuracy, but his ability to defend. "[Markee] worked to become a good offensive player, but he has always been a good defensive player," Miller said.

The high-flying Higgins is expected to have an immediate impact at Northridge. The 6-4 swingman from Locke led the state in field-goal percentage (69%) using a jaw-dropping array of spectacular dunks. "Outside of his physical talents, he plays very hard." Northridge Coach Pete Cassidy said, "I think Derrick will bring a lot of excitement to us."

Higgins, who could join former LACC player Dorsey at Northridge, was the Cubs' best all-around player averaging 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists. "It'll be like old times when [Mike and I] used to dunk on people," Higgins said.

Wright, a 6-1 point guard, has one of the best crossover dribbles in college basketball and is an excellent playmaker. "If you're gonna have a great team, you need a great point guard," said Miller of Wright, who had 21 assists in a game against San Diego. "He can play the fast or slow game."

LACC's Osborne is a 6-3 guard from Cimaron - Memorial High School in Las Vegas. He averaged 17 points a game while leading Cimaron - Memorial to the Nevada AAA Boy's Basketball championship ship in 1993. He sat out this past season as a redshirt. "[South Alabama] signed him based on my recommendation," Miller said. "That shows the respect that this program has." Indeed, few community colleges in the country garner the respect that LACC does.

Last season, over 125 Division I coaches attended LACC's practices and games. Representatives from the Big East Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, PAC-10 and Big 8 packed the tiny gym off Vermont Street to watch Miller at work. "[Miller] has done a great job with that team," Providence Coach Pete Gilian said. "All the kids play hard and are unselfish. [It's] a tribute to coaching."

Ventura, which won the championship this year after being runners-up the two previous seasons, has had only five players sign Division I scholarships since 1993. LACC nearly doubled that number. "We recruit student athletes," Miller said. "Players come here expecting to move on and we cultivate that desire." All six of this year's Division I transfers will graduate on time as did the three from last year.

"My goal is to see that my kids graduate on time first and foremost," Miller said. "Basketball is secondary." But for those with enough talent to make it their living. Los Angeles City College can help bridge the gap from high school to college.

Cotwright, a 6-9 forward who will be a senior at New Mexico, was eligible for a scholarship coming out of Westchester High but was not recruited. Cotwright was a junior college All-American at Los Angeles City in 1994.

Muhammad, a 5-6 point guard who graduated from Los Angeles City in 1994 and was not offered a scholarship coming out of high school in Chicago, will be a senior at Texas Pan American.

Dorsey attended Seattle University, an NAIA school, for one year before coming to LACC and moving on to Northridge. Last season, Dorsey was the team's most valuable player at Northridge. Dorsey, who has African American and Japanese American ancestry, has been offered a pro contract by Team Isuzu - a professional basketball team in Japan - and will play with the Japanese Olympic team in 1996.

"All the kids that have come here have bettered themselves as basketball players and as people ," Miller said. "That's what is important to me."