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Cru set for Vegas tourney

August 01, 2001|By TIM YANNI, Sports Writer

Walking past the outdoor cement basketball courts of Southwest High School in El Centro, one could easily overlook the young men playing basketball.

Playing in the late afternoon, the players might appear to be involved in any ordinary pick-up game. But these guys are not in a pick-up game and these guys are not ordinary.

These are the players of the El Centro Cru, a basketball team of players ranging in age from 13 to 16.

Von Gaines, a 26-year-old El Centro resident, is the volunteer head coach of the Cru and his passion for basketball makes all the effort pay off.

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"Very seldom do kids from the Valley get exposed," said Gaines, who has fielded the Cru in tournaments throughout the western United States. "Some of these guys are going to catch the eye of a scout who wouldn't have come down here."

The Cru doesn't play in a local league or against local teams. Gaines said his philosophy is to expose his players to competition in areas that are much more populated than the Imperial Valley, and the Cru's hard work has paid off.

The Cru has a record of 27-10 in 2001 and is looking to improve it in a tournament in Las Vegas that begins today.

"We most definitely are going down there to get first," said Gaines.

He added his team is made up mostly of players on high school junior varsity and lower levels and can compete against many varsity-level teams.

"I don't feel the kids get better playing the same kids they play in the Valley," Gaines said.

He added the Cru's competition against teams from cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles, and El Paso has given it more experience than a local summer league ever could.

"I think we get more experience out of that then we would in a summer league," said Gaines.

Gaines, originally from Louisville, Ky., came to the Valley to play basketball at Imperial Valley College. He also attended Dominican College in San Rafael.

Gaines said the Cru was developed to keep kids busy and interested in basketball.

"I just thought these kids could compete," said Gaines. "I started with a quest and that quest has finally been answered."

Gaines' quest began in 1997 when the Cru was founded in an El Centro recreation center.

"It's open for anyone who wants to come out and be a basketball player," said Gaines, explaining that new players are encouraged to join the Cru.

He said parents and community members pay for the Cru's road trips and tournaments.

"They help us out a lot," said Gaines. "We really appreciate it."

Gaines said some would-be players are discouraged by the heat of late El Centro afternoons, but dedication can make up for fatigue.

"I feel that if you want to be a basketball player, you'll dedicate yourself regardless," said Gaines.

Among the most important fundamentals stressed in practices is keeping the game fun while winning at all costs, said Gaines.

Discipline is covered, along with drills involving running, fast breaks, defense and shooting.

"Shooting is probably our most important drill that we do," said Gaines, adding good shooting can make up for the height deficit his team often faces.

Andrew Grooms has been with the team since it began competing four years ago.

"It's fun," said 13-year-old Grooms. "I just like playing basketball."

Grooms, an El Centro resident, said he enjoys the tough competition he faces in tournaments with the Cru.

"Playing against the big teams and better competition will make me better," said Grooms.

He added the individual players and the team as a whole benefit from such competition.

Grooms said he was not discouraged by his young age when he tried out for the Cru four years ago and said his hard work has paid off.

"I just worked as hard as I can," said Grooms. "I knew that if I worked hard I was going to play."

Grooms said he is looking forward to the Las Vegas competition and thinks his team is ready to win.

"We're going to go in confidently but not overconfident," he said,

Robert Christensen, a 15-year-old El Centro resident, has also been with Gaines' Cru since it's founding four years ago.

"I like coming out here so I can get better," he explained.

He added he is honored to play for Gaines.

"No one really knows basketball like our coach," Christensen said. "He just shows us how to enjoy it and win."

Christensen and Grooms said they would like to stick with basketball and possibly become professionals someday.

Gaines' basketball coaching experience includes volunteering for the Cru for four years, coaching recreational basketball and leading both boys and girls junior varsity teams at Central Union High School in El Centro.

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