April 16, 2024

A trip to Sacramento to play for a state championship in an NBA arena is one of the coolest things that can happen to a high school basketball player living in California.

Yeah, sportswriters coming to the event every year might occasionally get bored or even annoyed (8 p.m. starts for TV test our patience), but the reality is that it’s for the players and fans, and having the Golden 1 Center as the site with just a $16 general admission fee can’t be beat.

There will be 12 championship games on Friday and Saturday, and unless you find me at the Yard House restaurant, it’s watching nonstop basketball from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. each day. Spectrum has the TV rights, so look for games on the Lakers channel or Spectrum 1 News.

For those who like history, let me offer my favorite moments from championships of the past in Sacramento:

Chino Hills goes 35-0

The Chino Hills circus bus arrived in Sacramento in 2016 unbeaten and left unbeaten. The Ball brothers provided the greatest entertainment next to Taylor Swift. It was a team for the ages.

Seared in my memory is the opening jump ball at Sleep Train Arena. Chino Hills is facing De La Salle, and 14-year-old freshman LaMelo Ball is yawning on the court. Chino Hills fell behind by 10 points, then won 70-50 with all kinds of vintage plays, dunks and fast breaks.

“For us it was unique,” former Chino Hills coach Steve Baik said this week. “The year before, we lost. We were in a different frame of mind. Every single game throughout that year, there was so much pressure to win. We knew one loss would have been considered a failing year. Our guys really weren’t celebrating after regional wins. We finally got to celebrate after beating De La Salle.”

Most of the players stayed in their hotel rooms the night before, but Baik remembers freshman Onyeka Okongwu hanging out in the pool, which might have explained him struggling in the first half when Chino Hills trailed for the first time at halftime 30-28. In the second half, he started blocking shots and helped ignite fast breaks. Then came the celebrating, and you all know how much the father of the Ball brothers, LaVar, likes to talk.

Jeremy Lin bank shot

Palo Alto played Santa Ana Mater Dei in the 2006 Division II champinship game at Arco Arena. Mater Dei had a front line at that stood 7 feet 1, 6-8 and 6-8. Taylor King was the star player. But Palo Alto had a Harvard-bound guard named Jeremy Lin.

Palo Alto won 51-47.

Those were the days when Mater Dei never lost in state finals. Lin banked in a 25-foot shot with 2:07 left to send Palo Alto fans into a frenzy.

“The bank shot broke our back,” Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight said in 2006.

Palo Alto finished 33-1. Lin went on to Harvard and the NBA.

Josh Shipp sets record

One issue for high school athletes playing in an NBA arena is that sometimes it’s a lot harder to shoot from long range. That wasn’t a problem for Josh Shipp of Fairfax in 2004. He scored 33 points in the Division I regional overtime final at the Sports Arena against Etiwanda.

Then, playing in the state final at Arco Arena, where shooting threes often turns out badly, he tied a Division I state record with five threes in a 51-35 victory over De La Salle. He finished with 22 points.

All I remember is giving Harvey Kitani, the always superstitious Fairfax coach, a lemonade before the game because he demanded it after I gave him one before the regional final.

Shipp would go on to have a terrific career at UCLA. “Josh could always score. It didn’t matter where he was playing,” Kitani said.

JuJu Watkins power

JuJu Watkins of Sierra Canyon poses for a photo while holding a basketball with two hands.

JuJu Watkins of Sierra Canyon poses for a portrait.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

As a freshman in 2020, Juju Watkins was already the best player in Southern California. By 2022, she was leading Sierra Canyon to the Open Division state championship with an 85-61 dismantling of San Jose Archbishop Mitty.

Watkins had 23 points, 19 rebounds, six assists, six blocked shots and three steals in the final game of her junior season. There was no need to make predictions of her future greatness.

As a freshman at USC this season, Watkins is averaging 27.8 points.

Trevor Ariza show

There was no stopping Trevor Ariza of Westchester in the 2003 Division I state championship game against Oakland Tech. He led the Comets to their second straight title with a 30-point performance against a team that featured McDonald’s All-American Leon Powe.

Coach Ed Azzam said, “He’s one of the best players we’ve ever had because he’s so versatile.”

Nothing could be truer. Ariza went on to UCLA and the NBA while becoming a dependable three-point shooter and defender.

“It was a fun group,” Azzam said this week.

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