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STILL STANDING BASKETBALL COACH DOESN'T HIDE PAST.

Byline: RAMONA SHELBURNE

It's hard to say exactly what you expect from a meeting with Michael Abraham.

His life was the stuff of sensational headlines, the kind of story you can't believe actually happened.

Could the head women's basketball coach at Cal State Northridge actually have been arrested after practice one day in October 1998 by the FBI on federal drug-trafficking charges and led out of the Matadome in his gym shorts?

If you tried, you couldn't think of a more humiliating way to be taken down.

A lot of people will only think of this scene when they hear the name Michael Abraham. He knows it and has resigned himself to that.

"Honestly, I think I'll always be known as the drug-dealer coach, or whatever title people want to associate with me," Abraham says. "It sucks, but that's my reality."

This isn't the Michael Abraham who Penny Toler knows. To Toler, the general manager of the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA, Abraham is the guy who coached her at Long Beach State, where she was an All-American.

For Toler, Abraham was more than an assistant coach. He was the one there for her when nobody else was, when her life seemed one step from unraveling after her parents died within five weeks of each other.

In many ways, he's a big reason she's where she is today.

She went to visit him at the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institute in Sheridan, Ore., where he served 11 months of an 18-month sentence. He also served six months in a North Portland halfway house.

He didn't ask her to stick her neck out for him. Actually, he tried to discourage her. He'd seen the way people moved away from him when he'd walk into a gym, the way they'd avert their eyes so he wouldn't sit next to them. He could only imagine what they said when he was out of earshot.

But Toler had had this idea in her head for a long time, and last week, she finally pulled the trigger on a huge risk, asking Abraham, 46, to come aboard as an assistant coach for the Sparks.

"Michael is a good person. I really think he'll be a great coach at this level," she said. "I look at it like, in life, I hope that if I ever messed up, somebody would be willing to give me a second chance.

"When I came to Long Beach, I'd just lost my parents. Stuff would go on, and I'd be like, I'm done, I'm going home (to Washington, D.C.). But him and (head coach) Joan (Bonvicini) were there for me, they made my life easier until I could stand on my own and I could go forward. It was easy for me to give him a chance because he was someone that stuck by me when my world was caving in."

She's not the only one of his former players to have such loyalty to him. Abraham recruited Neda Milic to CSUN from Serbia in 1996.

In 1999, she testified as a character witness at his trial in Omaha, Neb.

"I came here from the war and things back home were not great. But he really gave me hope," she said. "He definitely helped me put my life together here. I don't know, if I came to another school, where there was no one like him to give support, I don't know if I would've made it."

Toler and Abraham know there's only one way this experiment with the Sparks will work, and that's by being honest about everything, by owning up to what happened and holding nothing back.

This is where you'd expect the interview to get uncomfortable. But it never did. The harder the questions got, the easier he talked.

Question: "Do you ever think about the people you disappointed?"

Answer: "I think about the kids who trusted me. The parents who trusted me to take care of their daughters. Every family member I have has the stigma of having me as their family. And because of the fields they've chosen, they've all had to answer for my actions."

Question: "How did you deal with your guilt?"

Answer: "I had to go see a psychiatrist because I was so guilty. All of this stuff sort of hits you at once. How I'd treated my wife, how I'd been around my daughter, how I'd affected my family. Prison was really the least of my worries. It was way easier for me to be in prison than for my wife (Trisonya) to be out of prison. My family was out there, answering for me. It was hell."

There was no subject he wouldn't touch, no question he would balk at. Afterward, he even said he felt good, like it was cathartic.

"That's the only way you move on," he said. "You have to talk about it. You have to own up to it. This is another way I stay sober. You have to remember."

For many years, he'd kept his world a secret and lived in fear of exposure. All the window shades in his house in Northridge were crinkled from his constant paranoia that he'd be discovered.

When he used crack cocaine, he'd hole up alone in a closet in the middle of the night. His hands and legs still bear scars from when he'd drop a red-hot pipe.

This wasn't a party; it was a dark cave. The higher he got, the lower he sank. He lost 35 pounds, slept two hours a night. Three times he went to the hospital thinking he was having a heart attack, only to be told it was just anxiety.

Within a year, his habit had developed into a monstrous addiction. He was $60,000 in debt. Every financial resource he had, he squandered.

One day in 1996, a former player of his, Jessica Haynes-Jackson, asked if he knew where she could buy a few kilos of cocaine. The deal - between Haynes-Jackson, her sister Johnetta and his dealer - went down at Abraham's house. He spent most of the time in a back room using crack cocaine and hoping he'd get a small cut of the money. He never did.

Instead, he became a felon.

Not right away. Abraham's day of reckoning didn't come until October 1998, two years after he'd sobered up.

By 1998, he'd turned his life around and established CSUN as one of the top programs in the Big Sky Conference. Just three years after going 1-26, Northridge won 14 games and Abraham had recruited a banner freshman class that would eventually lead the team to the NCAA Tournament.

But in 1996, two police officers had approached him at Burbank Airport as he was about to board a flight for CSUN's game at Northern Arizona. They asked whether he recognized photos of Johnetta Haynes and his dealer. He told them nothing.

"That was my chance to cooperate," he said. "But I was too afraid. Had I talked then, the FBI later told me, that I probably would never have been charged. ... That's a great thing to hear when you're facing 13 years in jail. Like they could've forgiven what I did then if I would've cooperated, but now it's worth 13 years in jail.

"In the end, though, it wasn't their fault. It was my fault. They had every right to charge me. The sooner I came to grips with it, the easier it was to move forward."

Since he was released in November 2000, that's just what Abraham has tried to do. Most people in his situation would've distanced themselves from their past. Abraham has confronted it.

He has made a living as a private basketball coach in Oregon, running clinics and helping high school players work for college scholarships. For a long time, he'd start off every clinic by saying, "OK, who knows about coach Mike?"

Full disclosure. That's the only way it would work.

"But there came a point where my wife and I decided we were going to stop offering it. If people wanted to know, they could ask me about it," he said.

He's trying to do the same thing in L.A. He has offered himself to the league as a spokesman who can speak on the dangers of drug abuse.

It took a long time for Toler to get Abraham cleared by the WNBA, but it finally signed off.

"Their position is just like ours," Toler said. "We'll give anyone a second chance, but there won't be a third.

"I'm sure that critics and everybody else will judge us, but it's never been our first thought what someone else thinks. I have the luxury of working for an organization where they are used to doing their own thing. The whole Buss family is outside the box. They risk a lot, but they get a lot."

ramona.shelburne(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3617

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Los Angeles Sparks assistant coach Michael Abraham listens to player Tamara Moore at a team practice.

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 29, 2006
Words:1514
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