The packed gymnasium was silent and the documentary cameras were rolling.
Allan Guei’s first three free throws ricocheted off the rim and fell back to the court. The crowd sighed.
But Allan was no stranger to taking free throws under intense pressure. The captain of Compton High’s basketball team squared up to the basket and sank five of the next eight.
For that performance, he received a $40,000 scholarship to be used at the college of his choice beginning next year.
Allan, who will be the first in his family to attend college, was among eight students at Compton High School who competed Friday in a nerve-racking contest for the scholarship. The event was the culmination of “Free Throw,” a documentary produced by a Culver City advertising firm — Wong, Doody, Crandall, Wiener — whose four owners include Manhattan Beach resident Court Crandall. It was Crandall who came up with the idea.
“I thought the free throw is a good metaphor in a world where there’s a bunch of lines that are kind of dividing us,” Crandall said afterward. “The focus became, how do we show the world another side of Compton, that’s more positive, beyond the stereotypical guns and crime stuff.”
To take some of the edge off, all eight students knew they’d win a scholarship of at least $1,000. Any senior with a GPA of 3.0 or better was eligible to compete. Of the roughy 500 seniors at the school, only 80 were able to enter the drawing.
The eight finalists included a spunky majorette and art student named Victory Holley, who was raised in a family of a dozen children by a single mother. They also included Omar Guzman, who in June will become the first member of his family to graduate high school, and Efren Arellano, whose immigrant parents work in factories.
In the documentary, which the producers plan to shop around at film festivals such as Sundance, the camera crew follows the students around for a few weeks. They accompanied Victory as she shopped for a prom dress, trailed Donald Dotson to a prayer group and followed Omar on a bus to downtown Los Angeles, where he participated in after-school activities.
“They’ve all been accepted into universities, and they all have no idea how they are going to pay for it,” said Skyler Mattson, a client-services director with the firm.
The students also met with Bob Fisher, who on March 11 set his ninth Guinness World Record for free-throws made in a single minute, draining 49 – on one leg.
“He thinks it’s a total mathematical-physics thing,” Mattson said. “It has nothing to do with athletic ability.”
On Friday afternoon, the players were introduced on the gymnasium floor by a microphone-wielding Principal Jesse Jones, who called out their names in a booming voice. Each student made his or her entrance into the cheering auditorium like boxers running into the ring.
Donald crossed himself. Diana Ramirez appeared petrified. Efren, a dancer, moonwalked his way to center stage. Victory came running in flashing the victory sign with both hands.
Were there an award for most unique shooting style, it surely would have gone to Diana. After shivering at the line for maybe 20 seconds, the young woman, who stands about 5-foot-2, took her first shot – underhanded. It smacked the backboard and dropped to the shiny hardwood. After missing again, the crowd broke into a classic bleacher cheer using feet and hands. “Stomp stomp clap! Stomp stomp clap!” She nailed four out of the next eight.
“I got up to the line, my hands were just shaking and my knees started buckling,” she said afterward. “I couldn’t throw it overhand so I just went with the Rick Barry,” she added, referring to the NBA Hall of Famer known for his trademark underhanded free-throw style.
Compton schools are notoriously underserved. At Compton High School, the dropout rate in 2009-10 was 27 percent, according to the California Department of Education. That’s actually just 5 1/2 points above the state average. But in 2009-10, the number of Compton High students who’d completed the course work necessary for entry into a college at either the University of California or California State University systems was stunningly low: just two students out of the 317 graduates, according to the Department of Education.
Principal Jones said he was grateful for the entire affair.
“The exciting part is not just the $40,000, but to recognize there are individuals out there who are willing to share their resources and their blessings with Compton students,” he said. “Maybe there will be others out there this year, in this economy and (amid) cutbacks, so our students can get a quality education.”
As for Allan, basketball had apparently been opening doors even before the free-throw contest. He said he is soon making recruiter trips to the University of Massachusetts and UNLV.
“Today was an exciting day,” he said. “Last night, me and my parents, we prayed about it. We just left it in God’s hands.”
The contest on Friday ended with a pleasant surprise for the seven runners-up. Jones, using his microphone, delivered the news, starting with Omar, who’d only drained two shots. He’s the one who is about to become the first in his family to graduate high school.
“Omar Guzman, you will not receive a $1,000 scholarship. Instead, you will receive one-year tuition paid at San Diego State University!”
The crowd roared, and Omar’s face registered shock. The other six students also received one year of free tuition at a four-year college.
Efren, the moonwalker, will use his award to attend California State University, Dominguez Hills, in Carson. He will study criminal justice.
“I tried my hardest to hold back the tears,” he said afterward. “They were right here, on the edge of my eyes. I succeeded in holding them back.”