After the pandemic and near-death experience, coach Poncho Perry Jr. relaunches his West Coast Academy Basketball program, which serves underprivileged youths in the Long Beach and South Bay areas.
CARSON — On sunny Saturday mornings in Stevenson Village, you can hear sneakers squeaking. You can hear basketballs pounding the pavement. You can see basketballs swooshing between nylon nets. Athletes are busy practicing defensive drills, honing their dribbling skills and improving their shooting forms.
You can hear Charles “Poncho” Perry Jr., a longtime youth basketball developmental coach, yelling instructions. The 50th-something-year-old is back in the game, back in his environment teaching the game that open up doors for him to earn an athletic scholarship to compete at San Jose State University in 1987 and 1988 before eventually embarking on playing opportunities to compete overseas.
Today, Poncho is just thankful to be alive and to be able to coach again. On Feb. 4, 2019, Super Bowl Sunday at 9 p.m. in Las Vegas, Poncho was sitting in the back of a vehicle at a red-light when it was rear ended by a car traveling at 85 MPH. The car Poncho was sitting in catapulted in to the air. Poncho went through a windshield.
“I lost consciousness. The last thing I remember (was) telling the driver of the vehicle was ‘We are still alive and there’s no need to panic.’ The next thing I knew, I was in the ICU with tubes running in and out of me with no feeling in my lower or upper extremities. I panicked. I thought I would be paralyzed for the rest of my life.’’
Poncho had suffered traumatic brain injury, a severe spinal cord injury, two broken ribs and nerve damage, the latter of which he stills suffers from today. During his journey back, he felt deep depression from not knowing his physical condition and the amount of physical therapy it would take to make a full recovery.
Teaching basketball is in his DNA. His father Charles Perry Sr. coached some of the greatest basketball players to ever lace up pairs of sneakers in Los Angeles County. He grew up watching everyone from legendary players like Raymond Lewis (Cal State LA), UCLA greats Marcus Johnson, Sidney Wicks, and Curtis Rowe to Robert Smith and Reggie Theus (UNLV) and Freeman Williams (Portland State) to Jose Slaughter (University of Portland), Ozell “Hoppy” Jones (Wichita), Darwin Cook (University of Portland) to John Williams (LSU). That’s the short list.
“I was raised in the gym. My dad was a coach,’’ Poncho says. “I grew up watching Marcus Johnson, Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, and Freeman Williams. My dad coached Raymond Lewis. I know what type of player he was. I saw him play. I know what he brought to the game.''
Poncho has known John Williams since Williams played at Carver Junior High. “He was the biggest kid in the country who knew how to handle a basketball like a point guard,’’ Perry says. “He played with my brothers and over time John became like a brother to me. I know he lived in the gym.
“I know how he became a great ball hander at his size, how he could finished around the basket,’’ Poncho continues. “That’s what I wanted to become. I knew if he could do it, I could do it, too.”
They were his role models. Poncho, who competed at Washington Prep High, played one season at San Jose State, then competed at a JC before playing overseas.
“I grew up around Crenshaw High. At the time, L.A. gangs were just starting, but basketball kept me off the street. That’s what I try to stress to my kids, ‘If I can, you can,’” Poncho told the LA Sentinel in 2008.
Now Poncho is ready to teach the next generation of athletes how to grind.
Within the past two years, Poncho returned to the local area from a short stint in Northern California where he helped coach an ABA semipro basketball team.
He had left his organization — West Coast Academy— a youth basketball skills development and training operation, in good hands to pursue professional coaching opportunities. However, once the pandemic went rapidly throughout the land, WCA and the ABA organizations -- like many businesses-- shut their doors.
After much reflection and long observation of the impact of vaccination and masking protective measures, Perry felt comfortable enough to relaunching WCA.
“I was hesitant about getting back started. I took time to step back. With that time off, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to coach again. I evaluated somethings,’’ Perry says. “I know the success of the program, the success of youth girls and boys going to college. To have your own (program), I started to miss that.
“I had some players and parents reaching out,’’ Perry adds. “They wanted to start training and participating again. To get back into the groove of things, I started training girls and boys in high school and middle school. They want to get better. It made me realize my calling is really through God. God wasn’t ready to take me away from the sport. I have a 13-year-old boy at home who has the potential to be really good. I felt it’s my responsibility to hone his skills, to help him pursue his dreams.”
Perry is enthusiastic as ever. He is in the best shape of his life after recovering from a car accident during 2019 in Las Vegas, that nearly killed him. Perry, who suffered a lot of brain trauma, spent months going through rehabilitation. He had to relearn how to walk again.
Today, he is lean and fit as ever. He is ready to pursue what he describes as the calling on his life, his purpose. The question becomes are youth athletes. Perry comes from a time and era (1970s and 1980s) when, for the most part, the game was taught on blacktops to prepare athletes to compete in gymnasiums at every level.
In those days, drinking fountains served as water and Gatorade bottles. Players came to the courts with only t-shirts, shorts and wore out sneakers, no slide sandals, no backpacks, and no 100+ dollar sneakers. Players stepped between the lines ready to compete in games of 21, 3-on-3 or full court basketball all day, sometimes twice or three times a day. If you didn't score enough points, you sat on the sidelines waiting for games to end. For half-court or full court games, you could waiting a long time, especially of someone took your game from you.
Older guys taught the younger ones invaluable lessons that would helped them at every level of basketball and life. By the time players reached junior, high school and college, they knew how to take a gut-punch, elbows to the ribs, in-your-face trash-talk, someone trying to take your heart.
Free ball enabled players to develop their creativity with the ball, instincts for the game, mental and physical toughness. Perry believe that’s what missing from current players. This generation is too pampered, he says.
For over two decades, WCA has served athletes and their families. He has prepared athletes to compete at every level of high school basketball. Some enter high school varsity ready. A plethora of them earned athlete scholarships NCAA Division I, II and NAIA colleges or universities.
“Patrick Rembert, a kid who I had coached since middle school, was one of the original guys who helped us start the program. He maintained his grades and continued to develop his skills, now he plays for UC Irvine. Seeing him play on television is one of the biggest joys I’ve had thus far,” Poncho told the L.A. Sentinel Newspaper in 2008.
On the girls’ side, Tayler Bennett (St. Anthony High/Rice University), Brianna Johnson (Garden Serra High/University of Denver), Danae Miller (Long Beach Poly High/UC Santa Barbara) and Cheyenne Allen (St. Anthony High/Cal State University Northridge) are the short list of youth players who learned the fundamentals of the game under Poncho’s tutelage.
“Coach Poncho had the one of the biggest impacts on my life on and off the court,” says Johnson. “The work ethic he demanded on the court carried me through high school and college. I am so blessed because that is still in me to this day and will carry it onto my professional career. He is the best coach I have ever had. Through … (the) program he created, I have met lifelong sisters, brothers, and friends that I can call my family. For that, I am so grateful.” His goal hasn’t changed.
“The goals have always been for me to help youth athletes prepare for middle school, for middle schoolers to prepare for high school and for high schoolers prepare for college,’’ Perry says. “There’s talent out there that’s really good but doesn’t have the right mindset. They don’t have the desire to work hard to maximize their ability. The game is missing coaches and athletes who want to maximize their game and potential. The talent is getting better every year, but the work ethic is not there.”
“I think we lost that when we stopped allowing kids to play free ball. It allowed them to figure out things on their own,’’ Perry says. “The best basketball players came off the blacktop.
“(Back in the day), there weren’t any trainers. We knew how much work to put in to become elite athletes. Where did that go? How did we lose that?’’
“We played shirts and skins,’’ he says. “We were the generation that thirst for the game. Everybody wants to play basketball but don’t want to do the work to become good at it.
“I am coming back to education parents, coaches and athletes. I consult with younger coaches to let them know what’s missing. We have to make sure we are maximizing our players’ potential.
"… Everybody gets to play against the best, the young gets to play against the older guys.
"Every player in the NBA had a background playing basketball on the blacktop. That mentality helped them through the rest of their basketball careers,” Poncho concludes.
Rembert learned a lot.
“Coach Poncho … (is like) a second father. ... I didn’t think anyone could be as tough on me as my dad … until I met Coach Poncho in high school,’’ Rembert says. (He is) by far the toughest and craziest coach I’ve ever had.
"Most people might see that as a deterrent. But in fact, his personality and coaching style helped not only mold me into the player I am currently but into the man I am today
“Without coach, I would not have been in the midst of my 11th year as a professional basketball player,'' he continues. "Without is crazy antics and words of encouragement (a nice way of putting it. LOL) during our hundreds of workouts, practices, and games, I wouldn’t have been as prepared mentally for the coaching I’ve received in college and now in Europe.
“His aggressive nature and relentlessness shaped my attitude and sharpened me mentally to where nothing anyone says to me can even remotely effect me whether it be on or off the court, " he adds.
“Which I guess I can also attribute my brash over confidence I have today, too. To outsiders, coach might seem like some crazy asshole who just yells. To those of us that know, he’s someone that deeply cares for his players —not just on the court but off it— for the rest of their lives, away from basketball.
"He’s definitely someone that I attribute a great deal of my success to. I will take those lessons from coach with me wherever I go for the rest of my life,” Rembert concludes.
Perry teaches basketball at Stevenson Park in Stevenson Village at 9:30 a.m. Saturdays in Carson, and serves as a consultant to Long Beach Jordan’s boys varsity basketball team. He can reach him at Ponchopperry4@gmail.com; Instagram @coachponcho; (562) 787-0588.