By Michael E. Miller
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By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
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By Luther Campbell
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Don't accuse the heralded boys' basketball team at Miami High of cheating. At least not if you want to avoid the ire of school principal Victor Lopez. In a seven-page, single-spaced memorandum obtained by New Times, Lopez savages an investigation of his school's athletic department by the Greater Miami Athletic Conference (GMAC).
The Miami High investigation started one week after publication of a New Times cover story ("Dream Team," March 5) that documented the basketball team's apparent violation of eligibility, recruiting, and residency rules. If the GMAC substantiates any wrongdoing, the basketball team could be required to forfeit the Class 6A state championship it won in March.
In his April 24 response, Lopez insists the investigation is improper and unfairly targets his school. "I will not ... allow Miami Senior to be singled out when, as you well know, the roots of this problem are widespread throughout the district and the state, for that matter," Lopez argues. "Basically we have a situation where the integrity of Miami-Dade County Public Schools and [their athletic programs are] being challenged through largely anonymous accusation and unsubstantiated innuendo."
Lopez reserves particular scorn for New Times, which he says takes potshots at school administrators and programs. He claims that this newspaper "opted to twist and manipulate the facts in the name of sensationalistic journalism."
"It bothers me when an article from ... Miami New Times, a local tabloid ... brings about an investigation. Does this mean that the District will react to every article printed from now on? [The New Times reporter] sat in my office, along with my athletic director [Tiger Nunez], and proceeded to misquote and misinterpret everything that Mr. Nunez and I said to him."
Lopez's response turned up one mistake in the New Times cover story. A chart noted that fourteen of the fifteen members of the basketball team appear to hail from outside the school district, achieving their eligibility via transfers. The article concluded that only junior Michael Oliva had not transferred to Miami High.
Turns out it's not fourteen out of fifteen students who transferred. It's fifteen out of fifteen. According to Lopez, Oliva transferred from La Salle High School in 1996.
At GMAC's request, Lopez addressed the cases of four other athletes.
*Damion Fray: Lopez confirms that the 6'7" sophomore transfer from Jamaica lives with Roma Nicholas, who is described by Lopez as a "long-time friend of Damion's family." Lopez doesn't mention that Nicholas's son, who lives with her (according to his driver's license), is an assistant coach on the school's basketball team. Florida High School Activities Association (FHSAA) rules state that a player who moves in "with any person associated with a school" can lose a year of athletic eligibility.
*Antonio Latimer: Lopez confirms the senior transfer from the Florida Air Academy lives in an efficiency owned by the parents of Rosie Faz, an athletic department assistant. Again, FHSAA rules state that a player who accepts residence "with any person associated with a school" can lose athletic eligibility for a year.
*Udonis Haslem: New Times documented that Haslem, a senior transfer from Wolfson High in Jacksonville, appears to live with his father and his stepmother in Broward County. Evidence cited includes his driver's license, an accident report, and eyewitness accounts.
If Haslem does live in Broward, he would not have been eligible to enroll at Miami High, a Dade public school. Lopez admits that Haslem lived with his father (in Broward) until November, but adds that the student then moved to Dade. "He now lives with his mother in Opa-locka," Lopez claims.
Haslem's mother Debra (who lives in North Miami) told New Times in February that her son has lived in Miramar since he moved from Jacksonville two years ago. Even if Debra Haslem never noticed that her 6'8" son had lived with her for three months, Lopez doesn't explain why he allowed the enrollment of a student who, by his own admission, lived outside Dade at the start of the school year.
Most likely, Haslem achieved his eligibility by using an address inside the district provided by Bob Corella. Corella, a former scorekeeper for the team, describes himself as an unpaid assistant coach. When New Times looked at school district records in February, Haslem (and Antonio Latimer) listed their home addresses as the efficiency apartment occupied by Corella. That address was later changed.
Lopez never explains how Corella's apartment came to be the official address of two star basketball players, though he deems it necessary to distance himself from the booster. "Mr. Corella is an overzealous alumnus who has never been an assistant coach at Miami Senior, volunteer or hired," Lopez writes. "[Tiger Nunez] met with Mr. Corella this past summer due to an incident which occurred during a tournament in Bristol, Tennessee during the holiday, December, 1996, and other prior incidents involving Mr. Corella. Mr. Corella was told that he was to cease claiming any association with Miami Senior High School. Further, that he was not a representative of Miami Senior High, official or otherwise, and if his attitude and actions did not change, he was going to be banned from all Miami Senior High School functions and events."
This description of Corella differs somewhat from one provided by head coach Frank Martin in February: "He's somebody that whenever I need to take five kids to the doctor, he's willing to help."
*Steven Blake: Lopez confirms the junior transfer from Killian High School accepted a rental apartment inside the school district from Miami High alumnus Joyce Lund, whom Lopez describes as "an avid fan of college and high school sports [who] is often seen at our athletic events." He does not address the FHSAA "policy on recruiting," which states that a student-athlete may not be offered or accept "a residence with any person associated with a school." If found to have done so, Blake could lose his senior season of eligibility.
As with Corella, Lopez expands on the relationship between his school and Lund, a 58-year-old telephone company employee. "To the best of my knowledge, she has never been involved in the recruitment of athletes, nor does she seem to be the type of individual that would lend herself to such an ill-advised practice," he said.
In February, Lund told New Times that not only did she provide an address for Blake, she has lent out her address to members of the school's baseball team.
Lopez did not address this statement, but it could compound his problems. New Times has learned that the probe into illegal recruiting by the basketball program has been expanded to include the baseball and soccer squads. In addition, FHSAA Chairman Ron Davis asked Lopez in a March 23 letter to personally examine charges that some of his athletes' grades were improperly changed.
"I am concerned about the possibility of recruiting that may have occurred in both these programs," wrote Davis, whose Gainesville-based association oversees high school athletics in Florida. "I would like you to personally investigate and provide this office with assurances that no coaches have interfered with these grade change requests and that they were completely within the spirit of fair play."
The baseball team is enjoying a stellar season. For the first time since 1968 the Stingarees have earned a berth in the state baseball Final Four, which commences Friday in Tampa. If the allegations are proven, the baseball team could be forced to forfeit the state championship. The soccer team ended its season in March, compiling a 21-2-3 record. The squad, rated as high as second in the state, lost at the regional level of the state playoffs.
Lopez did not address the expanded inquiry in his response. He was out of town last Friday and could not be reached for comment. Miami High athletic director Tiger Nunez had but one statement: "I have nothing to say to you guys.