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Sonny Cox Must Be Doing Something Right

In a city where high-school basketball stars are recruited, not made, King High's coach plays the game so well that some rivals complain he must be doing something wrong.



Landon "Sonny" Cox is the greatest high school basketball coach in the state of Illinois. But his office at Martin Luther King Jr. High School is so cramped and crowded it feels like a broom closet. There are no trophies, plaques, or bronzed basketballs on the walls--there's no room for them; just some crudely clipped, yellowing newspaper articles. The brown carpet is threadbare.

"Horses, baby, horses--if I have the horses I can compete with Bobby Knight, John Thompson, or anybody," says Cox. "The Knights and Thompsons are only as good as their players. And they all come to me to get my players. So Sonny Cox must be doing something right."

But those big-time college coaches don't operate out of small rooms. They have huge offices with secretaries, assistants, and press aides at their command.

At best Cox probably makes around $40,000 (his salary as a high school counselor, plus $1,500 a year for coaching the team), while Knight, Thompson, and other star coaches gross about $1 million annually--including lectures, TV shows, and endorsements, of course.

Still, Cox does have the horses, and if coaching college ball is what he wants, their successes should have earned him a job coaching college ball by now. In eight years of coaching the Jaguars of King High School--a public school at 44th Street and Drexel Boulevard on the city's south side--he's won nearly 90 percent of his games (213 victories, 29 defeats). And he's not up against yokels; King plays in Chicago's public league, the country's toughest basketball conference.

Under Cox, King has won three public-league titles in the last four years. Last year they upset archrival Simeon in a game won more with brains than brawn. Cox outcoached Simeon's Bob Hambric, putting to rest any remaining doubts about his court savvy.

With practice for the '89-'90 season starting in a few weeks, the Jaguars figure to repeat as champions. The team features Jamie Brandon, Johnny Selvie, and Ahmad Shareef--all ticketed as can't-miss college players. If that's not enough, add Rashard Griffith to the roster. He's the six-foot-11, 14-year-old eighth-grader that almost every high school in the city recruited.

Each year Chicago's finest eighth-grade players are the bounty in a heated recruiting war between public and Catholic schools in the city and suburbs. It's a war in which Cox thrives. Recruiting is his specialty. He knows what to tell eighth-graders--and, apparently, seventh-graders, too; 12-year-old Tungi Thurman moved from Gary to Chicago this summer so he could play for King in 1991.

The more Cox succeeds, the more envious his competitors become. Speaking to a handful of favorite reporters--and rarely for attribution--they say he bribes grade-schoolers with T-shirts and gym shoes. They say he steals players from other teams.

It may be sour grapes. Twice the Illinois High School Association has investigated charges that Cox exercised "undue influence" recruiting players--most recently regarding Rashard Griffith. And twice Cox has been exonerated. Almost all of his players have earned their high school diplomas, and more than half went on to college (usually thanks to scholarships Cox helped them get). Until this summer, when Selvie was arrested on charges of drug possession (a trial is scheduled for October), none of Cox's players had ever run afoul of the law. He shields his team, requiring any college recruiters to contact players only through him. But that aggravates college coaches far more than it does Cox's players. They credit Cox for their success. And they remain fiercely loyal: "Coach Cox takes care of us," says former all-state guard Reggie King. "He's like my father."

"Some people say so many bad things about me I don't even listen to them anymore," says Cox. "They say I harassed Rashard into coming here. That's silly. Of course Rashard came here. He went to Marcus Garvey grade school. Well, I've got a frosh-soph coach named Bennie Parrott. That's the same Bennie Parrott who teaches and coaches at Garvey. The same Bennie Parrott who's my best friend. We've got like a feeder system going with Garvey. How can I lose?"

Taylor Bell, the Sun-Times reporter who has covered local high school sports for years, says "Is Sonny Cox a saint? No, but there are no saints in this business. What you have to say in his defense is that he helps his kids. If you don't live in the inner city and you don't know the environments that guys like Johnny Selvie come from--if you've never been to 44th and Drexel--then you just don't know. People say, 'Well, his kids don't score high on the ACTs.' That's a fact I'm not condoning. But look at where they come from; look at what they're up against. Maybe they shouldn't be putting all of their hopes in a game. Maybe they shouldn't pursue the dream of basketball. But right now, to be honest, that's all they have. Cox is driving them all over the area; he's taking them to summer camps; he's showcasing their talent; he's helping them get college scholarships. For all of his faults--and believe me, there are many--you have to ask: What would it have been like if he hadn't been there? The answer is that a lot of kids wouldn't have gone on to college; a lot of kids wouldn't have escaped the ghetto."

Sonny Cox never expected to be a teacher or a coach. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio (the exact year he refuses to say, though he must be around 50). His mother sang with the Erskine Hawkins band. His father managed a liquor store.

"My parents were Baptists and they raised us right," says Cox, who has since converted to Catholicism. "They always tried to get us to learn as much as they could because they wanted us to go to college so we could be productive citizens. They figured right. So many of the guys I grew up with are dead now. They died from drinking or drugs or they got shot. At least 30 or 40 of them are dead. It seemed for a while like every week someone was getting killed.

"But I've never even smoked a joint. And if you think of all the rooms I've been in where dope was being smoked, well man, that's something. I guess it goes back to the time when I was small and my father caught me smoking a cigarette. He put me in a room and made me puff all of those cigarettes. They made me sick as a dog, and I always remember that."

It's hard to imagine Cox--a short, round man at least 30 pounds overweight--as a three-sport athlete at Martin DePore High School in Cincinnati. But he was. He played football (quarterback), basketball (guard), and baseball, his best sport. He dreamed of playing for the Cincinnati Reds until a banged-up knee ended his brief minor-league career. He returned to college--Kentucky State--where he played three sports and pursued his first love: jazz.

"Ever since I was little I could play the saxophone--it was like a gift to me," says Cox. "All during college, I played music all the time. I was out playing music at night, and playing ball during the day. When we went on a basketball or football trip, I took my horn with me. Oh, I stayed in trouble with the coach. He didn't want me running around so much. But I was young; I didn't need sleep. Now, I can understand where the coach was coming from. If I had a kid like that on my team, I'd try to be understanding and talk to him about taking care of his time. But he probably wouldn't listen to me either."

He hooked up with the great saxophonist Joe Henderson, then a kid from Lima, Ohio. They decided to move to California, and set out for the west coast in the summer of 1962. Their first stop was Chicago.

"I was only gonna stay here for a little while, maybe the summer," says Cox. "But the scene was hot. We were playing seven nights and seven days with a matinee on Saturday and Sunday. We had more jobs than we could handle."

Sonny Turner, a trumpet player, remembers when Sonny came to town. "He was good. He was this young cat coming up from Ohio to the big city, gonna be a star."

Cox organized a band with pianist Kenny Prince and drummer Robert Shy. They cut eight albums on the Chess label, and called themselves "Sonny and the Three Souls."

"He got his nickname Sonny because he sounded like Sonny Stitt," says Prince, now a regular at the Green Mill. "We played mostly jazz, but some pop. We played Algiers, Mikey's, the Lounge, Mr. Robin's Nest, the Hungry i. Most of these places are closed. We also played in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana. We played all over. Sonny was the leader; he did the talking between sets."

Cox says "When the kids come over to my house and see the albums, they say, 'Oh Coach, you didn't play no sax.' Or they'll look at the pictures and say, 'Is that you, Coach? That looks like you, but that can't be you.' They don't have time for jazz. They're just listening to that rap music, which really isn't music, just a bunch of noise. They couldn't believe what I was into. I was living in the Roberts Motel on the south side. And I was playing all night. John Coltrane or Cannonball Adderly or Sonny Stitt, they all dropped by to jam. I played on the same bill as Redd Foxx. I knew Lenny Bruce. They used to say he was sick, but I thought the man was funny. We had one hit: 'High Heel Sneakers.' Funny thing is, I never liked that song. We were just messing around one day and the studio director said, 'Play this tune.' It was on our album Dangerous Dan Ryan. I don't know how much money I made from it, but I know this: it bought my first house."

One day a friend suggested Cox accompany him to Board of Education headquarters, where he was applying for a teaching job.

"They were really needing teachers bad in those days," says Cox. "They were hiring them off the street. The man said, 'Look, why don't you sub for a few days? You can make $35 a day. You don't have to do anything but sit in front of the class and keep the kids quiet.' I started thinking, 'Man, I can make a lot of money. I could substitute until three. Then go down to Chess Records, where we were doing studio work. Then go to my gigs making $50 a night. I could clean up.'

"So I said, 'I'll go substitute for a couple of days.' They sent me down to the Dulles School over at 63rd and Calumet. I was only going to stay for a few days, and I wound up staying there for 12 years. Joe [Henderson] did go on to California, and he became a star. That man is a musical genius. But I stayed right here, and I don't regret a thing."

He taught gym. He got married. He had two children. He tried running a couple of nightclubs, but they didn't work out. Tired of traveling around with the band, he dropped music altogether, and started coaching Dulles's sixth-grade basketball team.

"You have to understand that my first major in college was physical education and recreation, and I had played all those high school games," says Cox. "So I already knew a little something about coaching."

It was frustrating. The sixth-graders tried hard, but had little coordination. They couldn't run his plays. Cox wanted to coach on the high school level, but his chances were slim.

"The principals would say, 'You can't coach high school because you're an elementary school teacher,'" says Cox. "The strange thing was, they were desperate for coaches. They had all of these old white guys who were retiring. But they wouldn't budge. They had their ideas. Well, in '74, Dr. Bob Brazil, he was the principal at Parker High School--which is now Robeson--said, 'They're talking all of this garbage about elementary coaches, but I need a high school baseball coach.' So he hired me, and I'd go coach there after school."

Cox coached baseball at Robeson for eight seasons, winning more games than he lost. He liked it, but he didn't love it. The baseball season runs from April to May, when the air is still chilly. What's more, he toiled in obscurity.

"You look into the stands, and there's no one there--not even cheerleaders," says Cox. "You have to be strong to coach baseball in Chicago. Basketball is king here. That's what people want to see."

In time, Robeson hired him as a counselor and then coach of its frosh-soph basketball team. When the varsity basketball coach quit in 1979, Cox figured the job was his. During Cox's reign as frosh-soph coach, Alfredrick Hughes, later Loyola University star, and Isaac Carter, later a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton University, had both come to play at Robeson. But another coach, Robert Collins, got the job.

"Yeah, it bothered me," says Cox. "I was starting to wonder what in the world a guy has to do to get a job in this town. I stayed at Robeson for one more year, but I wasn't happy."

In 1981, he got a break. King's basketball coach quit, and the principal, Joseph Lee, hired Cox. King High School, built in 1968, had never been a basketball powerhouse. It didn't have the winning tradition of schools like Crane, Marshall, Phillips, or Robeson.

It did, however, have one of the country's top forwards in Efrem Winters. And Lee was determined to build a winning team.

Lee wanted Cox to take advantage of a federal mandate--stemming from a desegregation lawsuit--that opened enrollment in all public high schools to any high school-aged city resident. The new rule was intended to draw white students to all-black magnet schools that offered special courses. At the very least, the special courses would supposedly guarantee that black students be allowed the same opportunities as whites. Under the mandate King was given money to create programs in computers as well as radio and television production.

"Lee said we want you to recruit kids to sign up for our special programs," says Cox. "So that's what I did. I went all over the city looking for students. But I wasn't stupid. I made sure some of those kids were six-foot-five and could play basketball."

Recruiting athletes was then a new concept for the public schools, although it was already standard practice for Catholic schools.

"What the high school coaches do is sell a dream," says Earl Smith, a long-time observer of the Chicago prep scene. "They tell a kid he'll be the next Isiah Thomas. It doesn't take a lot of money to attract a kid to a high school, maybe some sneakers. It's not as corrupt as college recruiting, which is awful. But it's still pretty disgusting."

High school coaches are supposed to follow the same recruiting guidelines as college coaches (who are, on the whole, notorious violators of the rules)--which means no inducement before enrollment. But IHSA officials are lax enforcers; for them it's not a high-priority matter, since most kids simply attend the high school in their district.

"Most of the coaches don't come on too strong [to me and my kids], but that's because they know me," says Mac Irvin, a south-side resident whose five sons--including Byron, now a guard for the Portland Trailblazers--were widely recruited prep stars. "I've been around; they know I know the game. It may be different for kids who come from poorer families, where there's no man in the house."

With some players recruitment borders on harassment. Unlike their college peers, high school coaches in Chicago don't have much money with which to entice players, but then few inner-city youngsters have high expectations. With a little help from corporations--such as Nike and McDonald's--who sponsor summer basketball camps, coaches usually have a few gym bags, pairs of sneakers, or T-shirts on hand for their prospects.

Cox says he's never distributed gifts to prospective players. He says he doesn't have to. "First of all, I know talent when I see it; that's a gift I've got," says Cox. "Some coaches, they look at a kid and they still don't know how he plays. I can look at a kid once and tell if he can play. I watch the way he moves; I watch the rotation on the ball when he shoots. I watch if he will stick his nose in there and go for a rebound. That's what I saw in Johnny Selvie. He couldn't shoot a lick, but he backed down from no one. The first time I saw Tungi [Thurman] it was at this summer-league game. A big kid got a rebound and kicked it out to Tungi, who hit this dude streaking down the side, just like that--bam--in one motion, a perfect pass, caught him running in stride. Tungi was in sixth grade then. He was no more than five feet tall. But I knew he could play. On one play he showed that he could see the whole floor. Some kids play their whole lives and they can't do that.

"Now they say I cheat, but I don't cheat. I tell the kids the same thing. I tell them, 'If you come to King High School, we will give you the best education possible.' I tell them, 'I'm a counselor, I know the rules. I'll see that you take the right courses to get you into college. If you need help, we'll get you a tutor. I'll see that you graduate on time. And another thing, you're gonna be the best that you can be.'

"I know these kids. These are inner-city black kids. I would like to coach a white kid, but to play at King you have to play hard, and most white kids, they just don't play that hard. It's nothing racial. Most white guys have a lot more different ways to make it in society than a black guy. They don't have to play basketball to make a living. They go to the best schools; they don't live in the ghetto. When you find a white guy who does live in the ghetto, he's tough. But most white guys don't have to play ball in the summer. They can go to the beach. Some of our guys don't even know how to swim. Basketball is the cheapest thing to play, all you need is a raggedy old ball. I remember the first time we went to Cincinnati to play in a tournament. That was the first time my guys were on a plane."

In '81-'82, his first year at King, Cox redesigned the team's uniforms--in fact, he told Lee he would not take the job otherwise--opting for yellow and black. He allowed his players to choreograph an electrifying, crowd-pleasing entrance, complete with high fives, jamming, and fanciful weaves around the court.

The Jaguars went 27 and 2 in Cox's first year--their best record ever. Suddenly, King was being invited to the major tournaments. Coaches and corporations from across the country were on the phone, asking Cox to send his kids to their summer camps. And on playgrounds throughout the city's west and south sides, the word got out: Cox was a players' coach, and King was the place to play.

Cox was on a roll, when, on June 11, 1982, scandal broke. "Efrem Winters, considered one of the nation's 10 best high school basketball players last season, was kept eligible and given credits to qualify for a scholarship to the University of Illinois only after his grades were altered," read the lead to Taylor Bell's story. "After a 10-month investigation, the Sun-Times has uncovered one of the more flagrant cases of grade-changing ever initiated in a Chicago public school. Not only was Winters' original transcript replaced, but his course book--his four-year report card--was completely altered."

Lee and Winters denied any knowledge of the grade changes. As for Cox, he noted that the grades were changed before his arrival. Winters and Lee left King long ago, but Cox still defends them both.

"Joseph Lee is one of the best principals I have ever worked for, and you can print it," says Cox. "He's a coach's principal. A man's man. He says he didn't do anything wrong, and I have no reason to doubt that. And Efrem--he graduated from the University of Illinois, and is doing fine with his life, so I guess he's not as dumb as the papers would have you believe."

Bell has a different reading of the grade-changing affair. "Cox gets criticized for a lot of things that no one can prove, but this was one case where he was wrong," Bell says. "He says he knew nothing about the grade changes. I can't believe that. But if he didn't know, he should have."

The episode caused many wounds. Coaches began to surreptitiously slip accusations about Cox to Bell and other reporters. None bore out. Instead, it became apparent that there was a group of coaches who despised Cox. Part of their passion was probably xenophobic. They were native Chicagoans. They had grown up in the same communities, and played ball at the same schools. To them, Cox was the outsider, and a surly one at that. He doesn't make polite chitchat, that's not his style. He keeps to himself. And he has the insufferable habit--bordering on paranoia--of blaming other coaches, referees, or even reporters for his team's defeats.

"Sometimes he lets his emotions get the best of him," says David Kaplan, a basketball scout who publishes the Windy City Roundball Review, a newsletter on local basketball players. "I think he's a great coach, obviously he's been successful. But maybe he should keep a lower profile at times."

"Coach Cox is one of the best coaches in the state, but he has a public-relations problem," says Jimmy Collins, the assistant coach at the University of Illinois. "He doesn't make himself available to everyone. He voices his own opinions. He's not a member of the club. Go to the tournaments and you'll see a lot of the coaches talking to each other between games. Very rarely do you see Coach Cox standing with the other coaches."

Most troublesome to his opponents was Cox's ability to attract transfers. Players were leaving established programs to attend King--as they left turning winning schools into losers. There's nothing wrong with a player deciding to transfer. But if a coach hounds a student--or, just as likely, his parents--to make him transfer, it's called "stealing."

Talented players began transferring to King almost from the start of Cox's tenure. Marcus Liberty was a transfer, as was his brother Darryl, and Laurent Crawford, a six-foot-ten center. The transfers came from all over the city--commuting by bus for hours if they had to. One player, Kevin Williams, transferred from a school in New York City. Another, Joseph Daughrity, transferred from Crane to King and back to Crane in the course of two days. At one point, Tribune reporter Jerry Shnay counted four transfers on King's 1985 roster of 12 players.

"A coach loses a player, and it can break his career," says Frank Lollino, former basketball coach at Westinghouse High School, whose team became a champion when a chubby west-side sophomore named Mark Aguirre transferred from Austin High School. "But you have to ask yourself this: is the kid playing where he wants to? Is he going to college? If he is, it doesn't matter what the coach thinks."

The controversy over recruiting erupted in 1982 with the bizarre case of Reggie Woodward, a guard who transferred three times during his high school career. Woodward began at Robeson, but after Cox moved to King, he decided to attend Hales Franciscan, a south-side Catholic school. At the time, the IHSA denied a year of playing eligibility to a player who transferred from a public to private school or vice versa, unless he and his family had moved into a new school district.

To avoid a year on the sidelines, Woodward and his family moved to the western suburb of Bellwood so he could switch to Hales Franciscan without being penalized. Or at least that's what they said. Two years later, when Woodward decided to follow Cox to King, Hales Franciscan protested and the IHSA ruled that he would have to miss a year of basketball. This time Woodward claimed that he had never actually left Chicago in the first place and that he was entitled to play for King.

The IHSA refused to back down, and with Jesse Jackson, among others, leading the charge, Woodward's case became a cause celebre in the black community.

"Lee said, 'The boy has done nothing wrong, let's take it to the Board of Education,'" says Cox. "The board declared Reggie eligible to play, and Lee told me to play him. So who am I supposed to side with: the IHSA or the board? Hey, the board is my boss--they pay my salary, not the IHSA. By the way, the IHSA dropped that rule a few months later."

Woodward played, but the high-profile confrontation had its price. Superintendent Ruth Love transferred Lee to another school and brought in Reginald Brown as King's interim principal. (Brown was eventually replaced by Lynn St. James, the current principal.) Word spread; Cox's days as coach were numbered. In desperation, Cox sought help from an old friend--former Tenth Ward Alderman Eddie Vrdolyak.

"I've known Vrdolyak for a long time," says Cox. "I owned two joints: the Mark III on Stony Island and Geminis on 103rd. They were in his ward and his brother sold me insurance. I also knew that Vrdolyak knew Brown. So I met with Vrdolyak and told him what was happening, and I don't know what happened next, but Brown never bothered me. I want to make that clear. I don't need to make trouble for myself. Reggie Brown is still in this school system, and I've got nothing against him. But after I met with Vrdolyak, there was no more talk about firing Sonny Cox."

It was a good thing, too--at least for King basketball. Because in the fall of 1985 Marcus Liberty--then a sophomore--transferred from Crane to King.

"That move shows what's wrong with high school basketball," says Earl Smith, echoing the belief of many observers that Cox badgered Liberty into transferring, "These coaches are just using the kids to make them look good. I mean, how do you think Marcus Liberty and his brother left Crane to go to King? Did they just happen to discover King High School one day when they were walking down Drexel Boulevard? Give me a break!"

Cox says there was nothing underhanded about the transfer. "Marcus came to King because his older brother Darryl told him to. Darryl had played here as a freshman and then had transferred to Crane. That was a mistake and he told Marcus, who was then a freshman at Crane."

Willowy and strong with a lightning-quick first step, Liberty and center Levertis Robinson led Cox to his first public-league championship.

"Man, we were awesome," says Cox. "I also had Reginald King, a great guard. They just destroyed other teams. They could run like deer; they could play above the rim. They were the most unselfish team I've ever had. Each one of them was good, so the other team couldn't key in on one guy, not even Marcus. And Levertis--Levertis had a God-given ability. He could jump to the moon. He looked like he was stuck up there. He'd jump up, and everyone else would be coming down, and he would still be in the air waving his arms, saying, 'Give me the ball.' We went 32 and 1. We lost our only game in a tournament in Rockford. The refs fouled the whole team out. We were jobbed."

Winning the public-league title earned King the right to represent the city in the state tournament. They slipped past Evanston and Rich Central to win the crown.

"Cox sees crown as vindication," read the headline in the Sun-Times after the final game. In the ensuing articles, a few coaches bad-rapped Cox--"I can't rate them with some of the great teams," John Schultz of Tilden High told the Sun-Times. "They don't do some things they should. I think they try to get by on their talent, and they're talented enough to do it."

But by and large his opponents were complimentary. "His kids are a credit to the city the way they handled themselves down here," Elgin coach Jim Harrington told the Sun-Times. "You read the newspapers and hear what people say about him and begin to wonder. But he did a great job. His kids really want to play for him."

"We never let the criticism about Coach Cox bother us because it never bothered him," Liberty said in the same story. "We love him like a father. He takes care of us and takes us places and shows us how to act."

It was then that Cox leaked word that he wanted a job coaching in college. Within months, he was a finalist for the head job at Chicago State University.

"I think that surprised a lot of people," says Kaplan. "Most people figure that guys like Cox or [Bob] Hambric are happy where they are. They don't realize they have higher ambitions."

But Chicago State hired another coach. For Cox, it was an old story with a new twist--they didn't think a high school coach had enough experience to run a college program. "I've seen major college coaches who were idiots, thieves, and every kind of renegade you can imagine," says Frank Lollino, expressing the bitterness of many high school coaches. "And then they tell us we don't have the experience or integrity to be a great recruiter."

So Cox remains at King, and the parade of high-priced college coaches stopping by to woo his players continues.

The old-fashioned dial phone on Cox's desk rings, and he stops talking to answer.

Outside in the hallway a colleague is waiting to see him.

"Just a few more questions," I say, when Cox hangs up. "Do you think you'll win the state this year?"

"That's our goal," he says. "I've told Jamie that's what he should shoot for. He's already made every kind of all-state, all-city award. There's nothing else for him to do, and this is his senior year?"

"What about the big kid, Rashard? I saw him at Rich Falk's basketball camp this summer and he looked kind of soft."

"Rashard's not the toughest guy in the world, but he's still growing. Remember, he's six-11. After you get tired of jumping he's still six-11. You know what I mean. I mean, you can't teach a guy to be six-11."

"And if you win state again--then what?"

"I still want to coach college. Everyone acts surprised to hear that. The thing is, they think they know me and they don't. Bobby Knight, he had some problems with me. He thought I wasn't sending boys to his school. So he came right here to this office and sat in that chair, and we talked and he learned that maybe Sonny Cox isn't like everyone says he is. We worked things out.

"I think I'd be a good college coach. I'd take care of my players. I'd set up a tutorial program to keep them from flunking out. So many colleges don't do a thing for the black athlete. They take a kid from 51st and State and drop him in Oklahoma, and they only give him time when the season starts. That's not right. You've got to take care of your boys--they're putting food on your plate.

"So I'd be a college coach. I'd even be an assistant for the right school. Put me in charge of recruiting. I can do that. That's what I do best. Remember what I told you: It's the horses. Give me the horses, and I'm as good as anyone else."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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