Disqualifying the Dream Team

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The shot clock is about to expire on the Miami High boys' basketball team. An official investigation has determined that boosters of the state championship squad improperly provided housing to star transfer students. The finding virtually guarantees that the school will have to forfeit its Class 6A crown as well as every game the Stingarees played last year.

That's hardly all. A three-day probe in May by Florida High School Activities Association deputy commissioner Ron Allen also unearthed ineligible players in the school's highly successful boys' soccer and baseball programs. Both will likely be required to forfeit all victories from their most recent seasons. "Historically we have shown no leniency toward ineligible players," Allen asserts in a telephone interview from his Gainesville office. "If you use an ineligible player, you must forfeit every game he or she played. That's it."

On June 9 Allen mailed his six-page report, plus 39 pages of attachments, to Miami High principal Victor Lopez. Lopez was given a week to respond before FHSAA commissioner Ron Davis makes a final decision. Lopez and athletic director Tiger Nunez declined comment. They referred all questions to Henry Fraind, the school system spokesman. Fraind, through an assistant, said he is awaiting "more firm information" about the investigation before he will comment.

Lopez's and Nunez's reluctance to talk to New Times is understandable. The FHSAA began its inquiry in response to a cover story in this paper ("Dream Team," March 5) that documented the basketball team's apparent breach of eligibility, recruiting, and residency rules. Allen confirmed infractions by five players featured in the New Times story: Udonis Haslem, Antonio Latimer, Steven Blake, Damion Fray, and Thaddeus Ambrose. All five accepted housing from a booster, a coach, or a school official. Such arrangements violate FHSAA recruiting policy.

Allen substantiated New Times's findings related to the team's best performer, Haslem, whom the Miami Herald last week named the Class 6A-5A boys' basketball player of the year for Dade County. New Times reported Haslem apparently lived in Broward County through February of this year, which would have made him ineligible to attend Miami High, a Dade County public school.

When Allen interviewed Haslem, the 6'8" senior denied having ever lived in Broward and said his home until recently was in the Miami High district. He said he stayed with his father in an efficiency apartment also occupied by Bob Corella, a self-described assistant coach of the basketball team. He says he now lives in North Miami. Allen seemed not to believe Haslem, however, noting that "Udonis could not remember where the property was where he and his father lived with Bob Corella, although he [said he] lived there for more than a year." The deputy commissioner also remarked that "the phone number supplied by Udonis to Miami Senior High School is a Broward County number." Moreover, even if Haslem lived with Corella, that would violate state rules.

Latimer, wrote Allen, lives in an efficiency apartment owned by the parents of Rosie Faz, a part-time assistant in the school's athletic department. Athletes are forbidden to accept housing from "any person associated with a school," according to the current FHSAA rulebook.

When New Times first investigated in February, the school district listed Latimer's address as Corella's apartment. Latimer, a senior headed to DePaul University, told Allen that he had lived with Haslem, Haslem's father, and Corella in the tiny one-room apartment for a few days. The move to Faz's parents' apartment was pure coincidence, he argued. "Antonio stated that he and Udonis were cruising around looking for a place for him [Latimer] to live and they just happened to stumble across an efficiency apartment [belonging to] Ms. Faz," Allen reported.

The three other basketball players mentioned in the report all had similarly illicit housing arrangements. Blake told Allen that he and his father accepted a rental apartment from Joyce Lund, a Miami High alumna and booster. Fray lives with an assistant coach, another no-no. And Ambrose's official address is a home owned and occupied by Barbara Inskeep, a part-time counselor at the school.

Allen also reviewed records of the school's baseball team, which this year won its first district championship since 1972, and found problems with grades and recruiting. The team went 27-8, finally losing in the state semifinals to Winter Park. Two students whom Allen cited as problematic, Jose Bellazetin and Fernando Alejos, were named honorable mention all-county selections by the Herald.

The deputy commissioner determined that Miami High assistant baseball coach Rodolfo Camejo violated FHSAA policy on recruiting by personally enrolling Alejos and Bellazetin and by signing a variety of official papers for the boys. Camejo allegedly met the pair, both Mexican citizens, during an international competition held in South Florida. Furthermore, Bellazetin did not properly document his education in Mexico, according to Allen, nor did his transfer to Miami High meet state guidelines. "He therefore appears to be ineligible for athletic participation the entire 1997-98 baseball season," Allen concluded.

Allen also questioned whether coaches inflated the grades of Bellazetin, Alejos, and two other Miami High baseball players. Student athletes in Florida must maintain a 2.0 grade-point average to participate in sports. The players Allen examined exceeded that standard only because of A's awarded in classes taught by either the head baseball coach or a former baseball coach. Of the 28 total grades awarded last semester to the four players, three were either B's or C's; sixteen were either D's or F's. The players earned nine A's -- eight of them from the baseball coaches. "The number of student athletes enrolled in the coaches' classes really gives this program an image of favoritism," Allen declared.

A player too old to be eligible, Jose Amaya, will likely cost the soccer team all 21 victories from its stellar season. The team earned a ranking of second in the state before losing in the district playoffs to eventual state runnerup American High. Allen determined that Amaya, a twenty-year-old sophomore, was overage during the season that ended in March. FHSAA bylaws state that an athlete can't participate in sports if he is older than nineteen years, nine months of age.

If the soccer team is forced to forfeit games, as expected, it will not be the first time Miami High has been penalized for using a player who is too old. In 1989 the school's football team, then regarded as the county's best, forfeited its season when the state determined a senior linebacker was overage. Athletic director Tiger Nunez took the blame then, saying he made a clerical error on an FHSAA form.

This time it's not clear if anyone will acknowledge wrongdoing. In April, Lopez blasted the FHSAA investigation and accused officials of unfairly singling out his school. "Basically," Lopez argued, "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."

Not any more.

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