Spencer tells his athletes about how he made it through a difficult period in his life to realize his dream of playing college basketball, graduating and become a head basketball coach.
Spencer, who also took on the coaching duties of the varsity girls program down the stretch of the season, is determined to change mindsets and culture at Cabrillo High. His work is cut on for him at 2001 Santa Fe Avenue on the Weside.
Unfortunately, the the culture of losing is deeply rooted, dating back to the inception of athletic program around 1999, two years after the state-of-the-art campus opened its doors.'
Spencer has this deep, penetrating stare that seems to be able see beyond his circumstances and visualizes a brighter future for a program that many people doubt will never materialize.
“I want to be one of the best coaches in Long Beach, and like to do it at this school. Turning the program would mean a lot,’’ Spencer said. “This school has never been successful, has never had a playoff win, never had a playoff home game, never finished in the top three in the Moore League.
“That is what I am working towards,’’ he explained. “Having a successful program is not going to happen over night. We have had a little success this year, but our success is not going to negate the undoing of how many years its been in a rut.’’
Poly, the mother high school in Long Beach and perennial athletic powerhouse, still attracts most of the best and polished athletes in the Long Beach Unified School District, many who live on the Westside. Other Long Beach high schools draw a good percent of the talent from area middle schools. For whatever reason, the school has never been a destination of choice for student-athletes.
This season, Spencer had only one varsity starter returning from the 2022 First-team All-Moore League squad, senior point guard DeShon McMiller, an athletic 6-foot-1 scoring machine that torched Wilson for 39 points, grabbed 16 boards, 11 assists and six steals.
“I did a lot of restructuring,’’ Spencer said. “We had guys who played Varsity last year that I moved down to Junior Varsity. I had players did not play JV at all, key rotational guys. Coaches value different things. I value just hard work. If players work hard, I can work with everything else.’’
Spencer led the Jaguars to a 13-15 overall record. Thirteen wins tied a single-season record, not good enough to get invited to the the CIF Southern Section Playoffs. The Jaguars had only a 2-10 record in league and finished in sixth-place.
Despite this, the Jaguars are encouraged with their progress. Last season, the team only garnered six wins, and finished 0-12 in league completion. Despite this, the team can feel encouraged about being ranked in the top 10 in the CIF-SS and among the top 25 in the CIF state. Jordan, Lakewood, Wilson and Poly punched tickets to the big dance.
The Jaguars played hard for coach Spencer. On Senior Night, for 32 minutes, they battled like their basketball lives depended on it, diving for loose balls, scrapping for rebounds, attaching themselves to Compton Tarbabes as they swarmed the floor for steals. They defeated Compton, 75-65, at home.
It was their 13th victory of the season, equaling the old benchmark by the 2010 team. No one slapped high-fives. No one bumped chests. The scene in the locker room was everything but festive. Athletes stood absolutely silent.
Of course, he was pleased that his guys earned the win, but he was not happy with the execution. He felt embarrassed at the performance, and gave his players the tongue lashing of their lives.
In fact, he invited the team to join him on the track the next day. Players, who elected not to show up, should turn in their jerseys.
Why?: They bought into his program, bought into his game plan, his strategy of how to elevate the basketball program from a doormat of Moore League — an easy win on the schedule— to one that Poly, Jordan, Lakewood, Wilson, Compton and Millikan feared.
“This program has been abysmal prior to this (year),’’ Spencer said, then explained people did their best but could not to establish a winning program .
“We set a goal at the beginning of the season to be competitive every game, which they ... I preached compete... in every game. We are not going to win every game. People do not expect us to. However, we do not want to be an easy outing anymore.’’
Spencer, 27, is a young man with old school coach mentality and approach to the game. His standards are reasonable and achievable.
He demands commitment, effort and execution. He knows that outside of the doors of the gymnasium and campus, life can be unkind and unforgiving if student-athletes are not well prepared for the real world once they graduate.
Before he teaches his student-athletes about the game, he addresses their needs beyond basketball. “Before I ever ask you to dribble a ball, play or do anything, I show I care,’’ Spencer said. “I am involved in their lives.
“Immediately after I got the job, I called a meeting,’’ he explained, then asked questions. “‘Do you have a mom? Do you have a dad? Is there older brothers? What are your living situations like?’ That led them to buy into my philosophy early. It helped us have a little success early. We did not have to go through a period of fighting.’’
Spencer can identify with some of his student-athletes. In 2009, Spence, then 15 years old and a sophomore at Long Beach Jordan, experienced one of the most traumatizing and heartbreaking moments of his life when his mother, Rose Stiggers, suffered a heart attack in her sleep and died on Sept. 8. His father was never in his life.
“I don’t take anything for granted. I, literally, went outside to play and never saw my mother alive again,’’ Spencer said. “She was not sick or anything like that. I do not want (my athletes) to take anything for granted.’’
His older brothers B.J. Curry, 26 then, and Robert Collins, 28, suddenly became fathers. Curry and Collins— who at one point had gotten caught up in street life— did their best to take care of him.
“I stayed in every part of Long Beach,’’ said Spencer. "They picked up the slack. I often stayed with my second oldest brother.
“My brothers essentially took on a 15 year old son,’’ Spencer continued. “They had to balance the fun of being a brother and shift to the seriousness of being a father figure, incorporating me into their lifestyle.''
How did Spencer make it through this dark moment in his life?
“Robert and I are different,’’ said Curry comparing them to Spencer. “We went through the troubles of growing up in the inner city. We learned by trial and error.
“Chris has always been head-strong and stubborn, which allowed him to stay the course. He took her death the harder. He was the youngest.
“The age difference allowed us to be more like fathers than brothers. I never wanted to be his father, but we filled the void, pushed him in the right direction.’’
At that time, the life of Spencer mirrored one of his cousins. “I had an older cousin who lost his mom, Betty, my aunt,’’ Spencer said.
At the time, he was 12 years old. Years later, as a varsity guard, he was a highly recruited basketball prospect.Then, he turned to the gang life, committed a crime at age 17 and sentenced to prison, ending any hopes of having a basketball career.
“Basketball was my safe haven,’’ Spencer said. He focused on trying to earn an athletic scholarship to compete in college and doing well academically. “I never received counseling or anything,'' Spencer said. "I just cried and walked onto courts.’’
“His ability to not fall victim, not unleash his frustration to the world, is a real testament to him,'' Curry said. "Jordan coaches and friends put their arms around him and supported him. I believe he is still friends with most of those people to this day.’’
Ron Massey, legendary Long Beach Jordan High coach, set up his program to operate more like family and college program because he knew that many of his student-athletes came from impoverished backgrounds and unstable living conditions. His office became a one-stop-shop for nearly everything student-athletes could ask for, from guidance to deodorants to fruit and snacks. He conducted game-day dinners, said Lakewood High co-coach Robert Willis, who served as a varsity assistant coach at J-Town.
“Jordan basketball program was family,’’ said Willis. “I lost my mother in my 50s, and it's still hard. Basketball became a refuge for Spencer. He was always in the gym.
''Massey taught that these are your brothers. Our culture and atmosphere helped him through tough times after his mom passed because he always had somewhere to go, someone to talk too.
“Once you get between those lines, you become focused,’’ Willis continued. “It helps you endure stuff; You get out there on that court, clear your mind. It was good for him to be a part of Jordan basketball program.’’
Massey’s tough love helped Spencer.
“Massey was the ultimate example of discipline,’’ Spencer said. “I learned early. In my freshman year, I did not know too much about him.
“He was the scary man with the deep voice,’’ he added. “He got on us about everything. He had a no-black-socks rule. If you wore those black socks, you were going to run. If you did not know about his rule, he made an example of you that day. From that point on, you knew not to wear them again.
"If you handed in your schedule folded, wriggled or anything other than presentable, you had to run.''
In his senior year, Jordan High pressed Poly High to the wire for Moore League bragging rights. The Panthers lost to a Jackrabbit team led by Roschon Prince and Jordan Bell, finished second and earned a berth to the CIF Southern Section Playoffs. Jordan advanced to the quarterfinals, where they lost to a good Loyola squad. “He was one of those players who worked his way into becoming a good player,’’ said Willis. “He asked a many questions… ‘how do I get better?’ He went about the process the right way. I knew, at some point, he was going to find himself on the floor and be a big part of what we were doing over there.’’
Somehow, Spencer, through his tears and pain of losing his mother, maintained a 3.8 GPA and scored 1360 on his SAT. His heroics on the basketball court enabled him to earn All- Moore League honors. Scouts loved his athleticism, aggressiveness, ability to play bigger than his 6-foot-2 frame.
In 2012, Spencer, who earned All-Moore League honors, played every position except point guard, where he felt he could thrive. Being an undersized front-court player hurt his chances of being recruited by NCAA Division I basketball programs. Not one NCAA Division I program knocked at his door. He graduated from J-Town, but did not earn a full scholarship. Yet, he found somewhere to go.
“I was really athletic. Despite putting up good numbers, it didn’t lead to mass recruitment because I was playing out of position. I knew I was going to college either way,’’ Spencer said.
“Ultimately, we spoke to the guys at UC Irvine. The Anteaters offered me a preferred walk-on spot. I got there, had a blast, learned a lot.
“It was just really, really tough financially. My finances came from myself. I was not able to take the loans out. I had to go to junior college.”
Ernest Kirton, an assistant coach at Long Beach City College, saw him playing at a local gymnasium and convinced Spencer that Vikings head coach Barry Barnes could provide him with an opportunity to hon his skills and give him a real shot of realizing his dreams of competing at the next level and graduating from college.
Like Massey, Barnes set his program to be more of a brotherhood and extended family environment where athletes could come to him and staff for anything. Game-Days, Barnes fed players meals.
“It was a match made in heaven,’’ Spencer said. “For a kid like me, going severely under recruited, I was happy to get letters from JUCOS and anyone when I was in high school. I was very, very humble. Long Beach City College is where things turned around.’’
On the floor, from 2013 to 2015, Spencer, who eventually accepted the idea of playing the No. 2 guard position, flourished in the South Coast Conference, regional and state competition. The Vikings won consecutive SCC Titles, advanced to the JUCO Sweet 16 in his first year and advanced to the Elite Eight in his final year. Spencer made tremendous contributions to LBCC, which foreshadowed the rest of his college career. In his final season, he averaged 15.4 points and 7.9 rebounds.
“But it was tough for a moment. ‘I’m a point guard coach! I want to run the team!’’ Barnes explained what Spencer told him. “It was a battle. We had a great point guard from Long Beach Poly in Brandon Stanton. I moved Spencer to the two-guard position, and he did an excellent job for us. We won a lot of games.’’
During Spencer’s first tournament in Palm Springs, he averaged 20 points and 15 rebounds per game. Barnes received a plethora of calls from college coaches enquiring about him. College coaches hoped the eye-popping numbers possibly came from post players. Barnes told them that Spencer stood only 6-foot-5, possessed huge hands and could jump out of the gym, a hybrid powerfully-built guard who was a versatile floor leader.
“We turned things around over there, the rebirth team,’’ Spencer said. “It was the first time I truly got to play my position. I got to be a vocal point. The team called on me every night to do something. I was asked to guard the best player or to score.’’
His all-around game drew attention from a plethora colleges across the nation. At one point, he had 15 colleges hot on his trail. Eventually, Spencer accepted an offer from Benedict College, a NCAA Division II Historically Black College in South Carolina.
“He was a joy to coach,’’ said Chase Campbell, currently an assistant woman coach at Jackson State and former assistant coach at Benedict College. “I love coaching Chris, a guard who could do multiple things on the floor, a three-level-scorer, a true floor general. Chris knew how to facilitate, knew how to get others involved, athletic.
“Chris was not a great shooter, but he could knockdown the open jump-shot,’’ he continued. “He was very physical and could jump out of the gym.”
At Benedict College, Spencer always showed up to work despite his situation. He has always persevered through everything he went through.
“I love that kid to death,’’ Campbell said.
There, at one point, Spencer led the nation in assists. In one game, he set a single-game record of 13 assists, one that stands to today, he said.
Campbell and other coaches are not surprised that Spencer is coaching.
“Right now, he is a good example for those kids at Cabrillo for not giving up, preserving,'' Willis said. “You can see how he carries himself on the bench now. In my opinion, experienced coaches today are not necessarily looking the part when it comes to dressing for games. Spencer's dress style is to look professional. His demeanor on the sidelines is what those kids at Cabrillo needs, not screaming and yelling at the refs, not getting verbal altercations with people.’’
Spencer, who, graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Sports Management, served as assistant coaches at St. Anthony High, and Compton Early College High before he accepted the position at Cabrillo.
He is thankful for those opportunities, and surviving a journey to this point in his life. He shares his life experiences to help his athletes deal with the challenges.
“The Culture here definitely changed,'' DeShon McMiller said. "We have a coach dedicated to working with you, really committed. I have learned a lot life skills from Chris. He has taught us how to be men. Last year, we really did not do team stuff. Now, we have team meals.”
Jeremy Siquig, who played a significant role in the team success this past season, said, “Last year, we had a lazy rotation all the way around. We did not have training like the stuff we do now. We did not take things seriously.
“Spencer creates a better environment for all of us, sets a better example for us,'' he added, "He helped us out a lot.''
Kirton said Spencer is a good, family oriented guy, a pillar in the community, and he is pleased with the life and direction of his former athlete.
“I had to fight, man!’’ Spencer said, “I teach them how to deal with bigger things outside of basketball. If it was not for my coaches, I could not have made it. I want to be the coach I had when I was younger.’’