The star player is missing in a forest of shame

MICHAEL OLESKER

March 25, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Somewhere out there is Troy Luster, but nobody seems to know exactly where. Once, he was found in newspaper headlines. Now, neither the school where he played basketball nor the school where he occasionally attended class knows where he's gone.

Some think nobody particularly cares any more, since his scholastic athlete days are done. Luster was a very good basketball player, but a very indifferent student. This is putting it kindly.

He played ball this year for Douglass High School while enrolled -- now and then -- at Harbor City Learning Center, which is an educational court of last resort for kids with troubled histories.

There are no sports teams at Harbor City, and Troy Luster, 19 years old, enrolled there in September, knowing the rules: Attend class, and you can play ball for any other school in the city. Don't attend, and you don't play ball for anybody.

But nobody followed these rules, until three weeks ago. Luster helped Douglass to victory over Centennial High in the state basketball tournament, only to have somebody spill his secret to Centennial: He wasn't in school anywhere.

"A serious error in communication," Nat Harrington, the city public school spokesman, said yesterday.

"We didn't know he wasn't enrolled at Harbor City," said Shirley Hill, principal at Douglass. "I have enough trouble keeping track of the people at my own school."

"I didn't know he was playing basketball for Douglass," said Dr. Gary Unfried, principal at Harbor City, "and my assistant principal didn't know."

Others -- particularly staff at Harbor City, who are fearful of saying anything in public -- feel Troy Luster was used as a basketball pawn while his academic troubles were ignored.

He averaged 22 points a game and 11 rebounds. His name was in the newspapers. How could Harbor City not know?

On the other hand: Luster enrolled at Harbor City in September, but was dismissed at the end of October for not showing up. How could Douglass not know this?

In fact, they'd had a hint. Yesterday, Douglass basketball coach John Nash said he'd heard "rumors" in January that Luster wasn't in school, and went with an assistant principal to see Dr. Unfried at Harbor City.

"Our understanding from Dr. Unfried," said Nash, "was that Luster wasn't attending regularly but that he was registered."

Satisfied, Nash kept Luster on the team. Today, nobody mentions that he had been out of school since late October and only managed to get himself back on the rolls -- and this much is unclear, because school officials won't release records -- either a few days before Coach Nash's January visit, or that very day.

He attended school Jan. 27, 28 and 29, and then, according to one school official, "nobody saw him or heard from him thereafter," though he continued playing basketball for the next month.

"I'm not sure about that," says Dr. Unfried. "Maybe he was here one or two other days, but that's all. He was dismissed from school on March 1 for lack of attendance."

That same night, Douglass played Centennial in the state tournament. Trailing 53-51, with 51 seconds left, Douglass tied the game on a layup by Luster. With 12 seconds left, Douglass iced the game when Luster grabbed a rebound and jammed in a final basket.

But then began a series of phone calls: Centennial getting a tip that Luster wasn't actually a student, and eventually Coach Hill confronting Luster.

"I told him he caused us to [forfeit] the game," Nash said yesterday. "He was indifferent. Look, I understand the implication here, that I knew I was using an illegal player. It's not true. Where's Luster now? I have no idea."

So there it is: Basketball season's over, and Troy Luster hasn't been in a classroom in nearly two months. Nobody at either school knows where he is.

But then, to hear them tell it, nobody knew his whereabouts while he allegedly attended school.

One of two implications can be made: A troubled kid was allowed to play basketball while he wasn't actually a student, because basketball is more important than studies.

Or: communication broke down so badly as to make everyone involved look unqualified, or inattentive, or uncaring.

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