People Who Stay: A Basketball Coach, a Golden Voice Chanting 'Three-Ball,' and Players who Hang on Every Word

Coach Bartee. | Photo: Douglas MuCulloh

Mike Bartee gathered his players around him -- he had something to say about defense, and sharing the ball, and in the faces shining with sweat, in the circle so close to his words, every eye was trained on his hands and his mouth. They want to do what he asks -- every single trip up and down the basketball court -- because he would never spend his entire life here if it didn't mean the world to all of them.

He played his own basketball on this court, and his own coach, Gene Hughes, who spoke to him about defense back in 1967, was in the stands last week. Gene Hughes had driven many miles to watch Coach Bartee go for his 603rd win, in the third round of the CIF Southern Section Playoffs, against Lawndale High. When he won the 600th game, Bartee became one of only 26 coaches in California to mark that many victories -- and his players gathered around and told reporters how they'd wanted to win it for him. Three of his players, Adrian Hughes, Dorian Butler, and Marcus Baugh, have fathers who played for Coach Bartee during their own careers at North High.

What does it mean to spend your whole life in one place, on this wooden floor, running alongside young men where you ran yourself? I watch their shoes flash past from where I sit in the bleachers with the men and women I've known all my life, many of whom played here or cheered here. I've come to believe that there are two kinds of us here on earth -- people who stay and people who leave, whether that be leaving a continent for better work or to flee war, or leaving one city to live even thirty miles away.

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Hillard and Mary Anderson left Willis, Texas in 1923 bound on a train for Southern California, and though they spent a short time in Los Angeles, they moved to Riverside in 1924, settling on 11th Street. Their daughter Inona Anderson was only five years old, born in Comineil, Texas. Nine more children were born in California (Marshall Anderson, her younger brother, was featured with his wife in our Valentine's Day story.)

Inona Bartee

Nona had six children, one of them Michael Bartee. Bartee graduated from North High in 1967 as the leading scorer on the basketball team. The day after the Lawndale game, he sat in the bleachers behind me and said, "I only left Riverside for six months, when I was in the military. I played here at North, I played at Riverside City College, at Cal Baptist. Then I got my education degree at UCR." He smiled at the court, where that night, the North High girls' team was winning their own playoff game. (They were also featured in a previous story.) I talked about how many of us stayed here, and he nodded his head. "I love coaching these kids. Where else would I want to be?"

The thing he's most proud of is how many kids he's sent off to college, how many of them still come back and talk to him, and how many lives he's changed. He remembers every name -- and when I spoke to Coach Gene Hughes in the bleachers, he asked about my brother John, whom he coached in tennis back in 1982. That's one thing to admire about coaches, and fans -- they seem to remember every face, every kid, and they always ask, "What's he or she doing now?"

Leon Culpepper. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

A few days later, they closed the doors at the John W. North High gym five minutes after the start of the CIF semifinal game against Mira Costa High, because the entire place was already full. But even from outside, everyone could hear the resonant distinctive voice of Leon Culpepper announcing, "Three-Ball! Dikymbe Martin with the trey!"

He sits ten feet behind Coach Bartee, at the scorer's table, the voice of Riverside high school sports and Riverside Community College as well. For decades, Leon Culpepper has announced football games, basketball games, and other events in his deep bass tones. "Too Many Steps -- Travelling is the call," he says into the microphone. Lawrence Tanner -- LT to many lifelong Laker fans, has his own way of calling a game -- and so does Leon Culpepper.

His mother Ethel was born and raised in London, Ontario, Canada, and she arrived in Riverside in 1927. The Culpeppers lived on 12th Street, in a Victorian house edged with gingerbread trim, where family still remains even now. Leon Culpepper went to Riverside Poly High with Bobby Bonds, the Baseball Hall of Famer. "Bobby and I used to caddy for Cliff Strickland," he told me that night. "Cliff Strickland was a legend -- he set the course record at Victoria Club, shot a 68 and that record held for years. But he had to play on Caddy Day -- that's when black men could play back then."

Photo: Douglas McCullohLeon Culpepper gets a drink from the snack bar at halftime and then gets back up behind his microphone, to call another ten baskets, another hundred, to pronounce all those names. "Three-Ball! DeShon Taylor with the trey," he says, and his voice is Riverside. In the bleachers, Marshall and Dorella Anderson watch their nephew coach, and Kelvin Butler watches his son Dorian score 21 points. Kelvin played for Bartee on the 1984 team that won the CIF Southern Section Championship, and here he is faithfully entrusting his son to the same man, who calls plays in the semi-circle of fierce concentration. Tonight, the Huskies win 80-55. They will play in the CIF Championship game on Saturday, at the Anaheim Convention Center, for Coach Mike Bartee's eighth trip to a finals. Game 605. Then, win or lose, many of those senior players will go away to play basketball for someone else, will leave to go to college or get jobs.

And I realize there is another category, a third kind of people -- the ones who leave for a time, and then come back, to stay. Some of these young men and women in the gym, the same one where I used to sit at the scorer's table and keep stats, a few elbows down from where Leon Culpepper sits now, will be back, and some will not. But we send them into the world with words and cheers lingering in their ears.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.


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