April 14, 2024

There’s a historic inflection point taking place in high school basketball this weekend that has been more than 50 years in the making.

Since Marques Johnson led Crenshaw to the 1973 City Section championship, a group of powerhouse teams, coaches and players have dominated for decades.

The legendary coaches such as Willie West (Crenshaw), Dave Yanai (Fremont), Reggie Morris (Manual Arts), Ed Azzam (Westchester), Harvey Kitani (Fairfax) and Derrick Taylor (Taft) were fortunate to be part of programs that produced such standout players as Johnson, John Williams (Crenshaw), Ivory Ward (Fremont), Kevin Ollie (Crenshaw), Dwayne Polee (Manual Arts), Chris Mills (Fairfax), Jordan Farmar (Taft), Larry Drew Jr. (Taft), Trevor Ariza (Westchester) and many more.

From 2000 through last season, only five schools won upper division titles — Westchester, Fairfax, Taft, Birmingham and El Camino Real.

That will change Saturday, when King/Drew plays Los Angeles CES for the Open Division title at Pasadena City College. Their sports programs hardly existed until the 1990s. Call it the rise of the magnet schools that once were only good enough to compete in the old Magnet League and compete for small school titles.

It has been called a season of parity in the City Section and one of the weakest in terms of overall team talent, but history will be made. The powerhouse programs are nowhere to be found. King/Drew and LACES are the last teams standing, and one will win its first upper division title.

One of the players on LACES is star point guard Donovan Cornelius, a four-year standout. His father, Trent, is in charge of the Los Angeles Unified School District athletics programs. He played for Cleveland High in 1990 when his teammate was Sierra Canyon coach Andre Chevalier. They lost to Crenshaw and Ollie in the semifinals.

His takeaway from this historic meeting in which No. 8-seeded LACES meets No. 2 King/Drew is that filling rosters with transfer students doesn’t have to happen. Many of the players for LACES have been together since sixth grade. King/Drew has a long waiting list because of its strong academics. Neither team has a transfer. The head coaches, David Trujeque of LACES and Lloyd Webster of King/Drew, have reached this point by building from within.

LACES point guard Donovan Cornelius has been a four-year varsity player.

LACES point guard Donovan Cornelius has been a four-year varsity player.

(Nick Koza)

“It’s good, old-fashioned coaching and teaching and nurturing teams,” Cornelius said. “You don’t have to rely on transfers and breaking a bunch of rules. People need to develop their JV kids and do it the old-fashioned way, building up your program and teaching kids to play.”

South Pasadena coach Ernest Baskerville graduated from LACES in 1992. One of his classmates was Leonardo DiCaprio. Baskerville became coach in 1997 and ran the program for 12 years.

“This is historic, two Magnet League schools playing for an Open Division title,” he said. “I never would have dreamt it. We’d lose players to Westchester, Fairfax and Hamilton.”

Harvard-Westlake great Alex Stepheson lived across the street from LACES. The three Shipp brothers from Fairfax— Joe, Josh and Jerren — went to middle school at LACES. The former center at Colorado, Evan Battey, was at LACES until transferring.

“We always had players, but people would leave,” Baskerville said. “It shows growth. It shows parents do value the education.”

No one is expecting the eventual City champion to be placed in the Open Division or Division I for the state playoffs. Division III would be appropriate, which would be a first. But this could be the future. Top players have left LAUSD, lured by promises of exposure or whatever their private coaches are telling them. Hall of Fame coaches have retired or moved on to the Southern Section, such as Kitani, who has Rolling Hills Prep playing for a 2AA championship.

Ryan Conner made two clutch shots, one to tie game and one to win in final seconds of LACES 52-49 win over Chatsworth.

Ryan Conner made two clutch shots, one to tie game and one to win in final seconds of LACES 52-49 win over Chatsworth in City Section Open Division semifinal.

(Nick Koza)

There’s still good City players. For two years, one of the best young players in Southern California has been Alijah Arenas of Chatsworth. His father, Gilbert, played at Grant, then Arizona and in the NBA. Whether Alijah stays for a third year remains to be seen. He came close to getting Chatsworth into the Open Division final until Ryan Conner of LACES made consecutive three-point shots in a matter of two seconds to snatch victory from defeat.

There are still good coaches and good academics in the City Section too.

“They’re great people,” Baskerville said of Webster and Trujeque. “It’s great to see those guys. I’m proud of them.”

It’s time to celebrate history being made in the City Section.

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