CIF State: Old school vs. New school when La Caada’s Tom Hofman and La Verne Lutheran’s Cooper face off in CIF State Southern California Regional championship.

2011 CIF STATE BOYS DIVISION III
Boys Basketball Southern California Regional Final
Saturday’s game at the Galen Center
La Caada vs. La Verne Lutheran, Noon

“The years that Glendora was great, when they had Tracey Murray, when they had my assistant coach Brandon Lee, when they had all those great players, do you think all those great players lived in Glendora? Where did they come from? They all came from different places.”La Verne Lutheran coach Eric Cooper.

“I’m proud of the way we do it at La Canada. I’m not taking anything away from anybody else, but I think we’ve done it right and I’m not saying that they don’t. I never look at it as a bad vs. evil type of situation. We’re different, and again, it’s not because of right or wrong. It’s public/private. We get who we get. It’s just another opponent. I respect Lutheran and what they’ve done.”La Caada coach Tom Hofman

By Aram Tolegian, Staff Writer

On one end of the Valley is the La Caada boys basketball program, led by a coach whom most people from Flintridge to La Verne and beyond have heard of. On the other end of the Valley is La Verne Lutheran’s program, led by a coach whose number is on speed dial by several college coaches but whom few people from his school’s surrounding area could pick out of a crowd.

The difference between the two programs, their players and the two men who lead them could not be any more pronounced. On Saturday at noon, they’ll meet at USC’s Galen Center to decide the CIF State Division III Southern California Regional championship.

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At La Caada, Tom Hofman is in his 25th season and enjoying his finest year at the helm of the program that he built into one of the Valley’s flagships.

At Lutheran, Eric Cooper is in his fourth season and has already won two CIF-Southern Section championships and a state championship.

One school (La Caada) has about 2,200 students. The other has about 150.

One school (Lutheran) has five players committed to continue their playing careers at colleges such as Arizona, Xavier and UTEP.

The other school’s last big-time recruit was in 1993 when 7-footer Richard Mandeville went to Indiana.

When both teams take the court Saturday afternoon, fans will see a pair of programs that represent two ends of the spectrum of today’s prep basketball world. It’s a world in which the school is quickly becoming replaced among the elite by private schools that are just as likely to be as big as Mater Dei or as small as Lutheran.

Hofman grew up in Pasadena, played for PHS (Class of 1970) and later went to Pasadena City College.

“I had five D-1 offers,” Hofman said when asked if he was any good at PHS, “but I stayed around because I met my wife and decided to stay local. I played one year at PCC and broke my wrist. I had a cast on my hand for three years. That was kind of the end of the basketball career.”

Hofman got married at 20, went to Chico State to finish school, and was soon back in Southern California to begin his teaching career in South Central L.A. Then Hofman’s former coach at Pasadena, George Terzian, called one day and told him about a job opening at La Canada.

“I didn’t get the head coaching job, but I got the special education job,” Hofman said. “And I coached the junior varsity team for two years. I really was not ready to be a varsity coach at that time.”

Hofman became varsity coach in 1987 and quickly built the Spartans into an area power. La Canada has won 20 league titles under Hofman and had just one losing season, but CIF championships have been less easy to come by since La Canada plays mostly with homegrown talent.

Prior to this year’s Southern Section Division 3AA championship, La Canada’s only title was in 1992. In the state playoffs, La Canada has advanced this far only once – in 2007, when the Spartans lost to an Artesia team that Hofman calls “one of the best in the history of Southern California.”

Rapid success hasn’t been an issue for Cooper, who’s blessed with the type of top-notch talent that can take a tiny school like Lutheran and lift it to lofty levels. With that success, though, comes scrutiny. Although Cooper claims things are getting better, most area coaches shunned Lutheran and its players in the program’s early years.

The Trojans play with what amounts to a travel ball all-star team, and some area coaches and fans weren’t ready to back a school they hadn’t heard of five years ago and don’t expect to hear about five years from now.

“I still don’t understand why,” Cooper said when told that he’s still considered a controversial figure by many of the local coaches, and that many local observers attribute his team’s success to it being because Lutheran is a manufactured program made up of players from the Rising Stars travel ball team that won a national championship under Cooper.

“These are not the good kids from that team,” Cooper said. “The best kids (from that team) did not come (to Lutheran). If I would have gotten the 7-foot kid from Brea, or any of the good kids from that team at that time, now you might be saying something, but I coach my nephew (C.J. Cooper) and have set up a program for my son (Eric Jr.) to come into and play.

“Whomever comes to the school after that, that has nothing to do with me. Once you start winning, people want to come.”

C.J. Cooper is one of the top players in the area and will play at UTEP next season. Cooper’s son, Eric Jr., is a sophomore and has a verbal commitment to play at Arizona, where he’ll join Lutheran teammate Grant Jerrett, a 6-foot-9 junior forward.

With talent like that, it’s easy to see why Lutheran has ridden the fast track to becoming one the Southland’s top teams, but because of Cooper’s past relationship with several of his key players, it’s also easy to see why some are skeptical of the school that counts several top college basketball prospects among its 150-student enrollment.

According to Cooper, though, where the players come from shouldn’t matter, because those pointing fingers probably don’t realize that most successful programs don’t win solely with neighborhood kids.

“The years that Glendora was great, when they had Tracey Murray, when they had my assistant coach Brandon Lee, when they had all those great players, do you think all those great players lived in Glendora?” Cooper said. “Where did they come from? They all came from different places.

“With me, the way I do it, I don’t have to convince anybody. All I have to do is work my butt off. If you look at me, five days a week, where am I? I’m in the gym, doing workouts.”

For Cooper, going full throttle is the only option because that’s all he knows. Cooper grew up playing in the parks of Compton against an element of society that often gave dire consequences to things such as hard fouls.

“I lived in Carson until I was about 8, and that’s when my parents split up,” Cooper said. “That’s when I moved with my mom to Lynwood until my second year of high school. That’s when I pretty much started playing basketball in the parks with the street-ball people.

“When you’re a young kid and you go to the park, there are individuals there that are older, like grownups. They’re street dudes, gang members, things like that, but they like to play basketball. For you to play, you have to learn to respect adults and then you have to be good or they’re not going to pick you.”

“You just learn not to offend people out there. If you get into a fight on the court and the guy leaves, there’s a possibility he’s going to come back, and several times that has happened. Somebody leaves, comes back with a gun and everybody scatters. It happened multiple, multiple times.”

Cooper played his high school ball at Banning. He woke up every morning at 5 and took the bus from Lynwood to Carson. He averaged 25 points per game and got a scholarship to Arizona after graduating from Banning in 1985.

Cooper played two years at Arizona before finishing his career at Texas-San Antonio. He played professionally overseas before returning to the States and eventually played with the Magic Johnson All-Stars.

Cooper coached one season of girls basketball at A.B. Miller and then spent two years as a coach in the WNBA with the Phoenix Mercury.

Cooper’s coaching philosophy sounds basic, but isn’t easy to implement.

“Win every game by at least one (point) and that we have to be diverse and have all angles covered,” Cooper said when asked what his philosophy is.

“So, if you play against a team like La Canada, then you have to be prepared to run a half-court offense and play defense for 30 seconds. It’s just being prepared for everything.”

The question now becomes, can the upstart coach from the little school with big talent take down the legendary coach from the traditional school with years of success in its coffers?

“I’m proud of the way we do it at La Canada,” Hofman said. “I’m not taking anything away from anybody else, but I think we’ve done it right and I’m not saying that they don’t.

“I never look at it as a bad vs. evil type of situation. We’re different, and again, it’s not because of right or wrong. It’s public/private. We get who we get. It’s just another opponent. I respect Lutheran and what they’ve done.”