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High School Team Preview: Westchester High
Division I State Champions --(Oct. 9, 1998)

"My goal is to take the kids who show up at our program and help them to be the best players and young men they can be by the time they leave."--Ed Azzam, Head Coach, Westchester High

We managed to catch up with Ed Azzam, the boys' varsity basketball coach at Westchester, a City Section team that is currently the defending State Champions in Division I, the largest and most competitive division in CIF. First, a little bit about Coach Azzam before we get to the team.  He played his high school basketball at Gardena where he was a member of the varsity squad (also playing with Van Girard) at the same time Harvey Kitani, the head coach at Fairfax was playing Bee and Cee basketball (remember "exponents"?)  Following graduation from high school, Ed attended  W.LA City college for two years, where he also played "until I figured out that I'd be a better coach than a player."  While at WLACC he started coaching, first as an assistant at his alma mater, Gardena. Ed finished up his education at Long Beach State, getting a degree in Physical Education, and upon graduation, he became an assistant at West LA CC, and then moved over to Westchester, where he's been the coach for the last 20 years. Ed and his wife have 3 children.

If there was pressure to win last season, it was because there was so much talent, and they had such a short time to prove it. Westchester had a storied season last year, winning the City title by defeating Manual Arts (which had beaten Crenshaw the week before, thus avoiding the dreaded Cougar-Comet showdown which most people had looked forward to seeing), then advancing to the Southern Regional of the State Championship Tournament where the Comets defeated Lakewood Artesia by a single point, 61-60 to advance to the title game played at the Arco Arena in Sacramento, where Westchester defeated Alameda St. Joseph-Notre Dame. Thus Westchester bears the mantle of "Defending State Champions".

"I don't know about that word 'defending'," Ed told us. "This is really a different team, and when people ask me whether we can "defend" our title, it really is a question I can't answer. If I had the same guys again, then we would be "defending" the title.  But this is a completely different team. We're good, but right now, no one knows just how good.  We're big, really big, but we haven't had a chance to really tell how good we'll be."

If you ask us, the Comets will be very good again, and while they lack a true point guard like Brandon Granville, something they haven't lacked for a long time, they do have one of the biggest and best front-lines and shooting guard stables of any team in the State. Gone this year to graduation is most of the team:  Gone are Brandon Granville (USC), C.J. Williams (Boise State), Jacobe Durrett, Ben Davis, Albert Miller (verballed to Wash.St., then SJS prop 48), Tony Bland (Syracuse) David Bluthenthal (USC) and Jamal Sampson (transfer to Mater Dei). Here's who's returning and who is coming up:

Chris Osborne (6'-9" Sr. F/C)
Eric Knight (6'-3" Sr SG/PG)
Lou Wright (6'-6" Jr. SG/SF)
Chad Bell (7'-1" So. C)
Jason Breland (6'-4" Jr. SG/SF)
Terrence Lawson (6'-5" Jr. F)
Eres Asserat (6'-7" Jr. F)
Kevin Brown (6'-2" Jr. SG/PG)
David Popoola (6'-1" Jr. G)
Chris Thomas (6'-1" Sr. G)
Wayman Rowe (6'-4" Sr. SG/SF)
Mackenzie Dent (6'-5" Sr. F)

In case you hadn't noticed, this is a very tall team, and there will be few teams who can defend them man-to-man, either by height or in quickness for their size.  Chris Osborne leads the frontline in senior experience, and he's a powerful, strong, aggressive banger, who can score either on the dunk or with a nice touch out to about 15'.  Chris is one of the top prospects in the class, a major D-I talent, and it was widely reported earlier that he had given a verbal commitment to Arizona State, but it now appears that he may also take a few other visits just to check things out before signing on the dotted line, and he may reportedly take visits with Washington State, Long Beach State and a few others before signing.   The other returning players are Eric Knight, brother of UCLA player Billy Knight, and Lou Wright, brother of LA Clipper Lorenzen Wright.  Eric's recruitment at this point is a bit of a mystery, and it looks like he'll be called upon to be the point guard early on.  Eric is a smooth player, strong, with a good driving first step, who can break down a defender and penetrate, or he can revert to his natural position and spot up as a shooting guard with a very accurate 3-point shot.  Again, coach Azzam believes he'll go with Eric at the point. "I've got a few jv players who are trying to show me that they can handle the point this year, and maybe I'll bring one of them up, but for now we'll go with Eric at the point."

Lou Wright can handle to the two or three spot, and his biggest asset right now is his sweet, high-arcing j, which he can hit all the way out to three-point range. In the Rim Rattler Fall Showcase junior game, Lou hit 8 three-pointers. He's deadly accurate from the perimeter, has a decent handle, and reminds us of a Michael Dunleavy type of player, with a great high release on his shot. His biggest weakness right now is defense, and you can be sure that he'll be doing a lot of running, jumping rope and aerobic-type stuff to get his leg speed in shape for the season. Lou is, however, one of our favorite players, and he's got a ton of potential and will be a high D-I pickup next year.

If Westchester goes with a traditional two guard offense (and at times even if they don't) look for Chad Bell, the super-soph to step in.  We questioned listing his height at above 6'-10" but coach Azzam assured us that he's "well over 7' by now, and when a player gets that tall, well, he' just tall."   Chad is indeed tall, and he may have hit 7'-1" and frankly it really doesn't make a lot of difference, because he's a great player, best under and around the basket, with good footwork, great hands, and a tremendous offensive force. There won't be many, if any, teams who can push him off the block, and he'll have to be double-teamed to really stop him. With Chad and Chris in together, this is one tremendous frontline, with the ability to also step out and hit the perimeter shot with Eric and Lou firing away.

There are some new faces too.  Jason Breland is a junior transfer from Mississippi, and according to coach Azzam, by the end of the season, a lot of people will be saying "who is that guy?"   We haven't seen Jason play, but he's a very talented shooter, and a relentless rebounder, similar to Albert Miller. At the other power forward spot will be Terrence Lawson, a 6'-5" Jr. who  is aggressive, can rebound well and is one of the best defensive players on the team.  Another transfer, this one from Israel (aha, the David Bluthenthal Maccabi connection!), Eres Asserat.  As with Jason, no one really knows how good this guy is, but Azzam describes him as having "terrible footwork, he's a project."  Azzam credits his bad feet to the difference in style between the European game, which is a lot slower and less athletic than the inner-city, run-and-gun shooting and helter-skelter press defense you see among the better City Section teams.  Obviously, no one is complaining about Eres' size, and he does have a very good shot. Expect this year to be a grooming year for Eres. 

In a swing forward spot is another player who will see a lot of time, Mackenzie Dent, a 6'-5" Senior who is very tough minded, strong, and aggressive and he's got some great post moves, which some may have seen at the Rim Rattler Fall Showcase and at the Long Beach Fall Hoops Classic. Joining Mackenzie, will be Wayman Rowe an athletic swing player who may also see a little time at the post.   In the shooting guard spots, look for Kevin Brown, a 6'-2" Jr. transfer from St. Bernard's who has a game which is pretty similar to Eric Knight's and we also wouldn't be surprised to see him do a little time at the point position.  Two true off-guards are David Popoola and Chris Thomas, both 6'-1" guards who could play either the point or the shooting guard spot, but who will most likely be vying for time at the 2 spot.

This is a very deep and talented team, and whether it will be able to get past Manual Arts, Crenshaw, or some of the other powers in City this year is, of course, an open question.  But they're going to have a hell of a good time trying to "defend" the title that was won last year, whether they are the same team or not. Coach Azzam told us that he doesn't really think about defending the state title. "In addition to not liking the word "defend," we really go out with the idea of just winning the City Championship. Anything that follows after that is just icing on the cake."  Personally, we think Westchester should start baking the cake and getting the frosting ready, because even with the number of guys who left, they are definitely back.  

Westchester isn't going to do the traditional sort of December schedule that you'd expect for a local City Section team, and they'll   do a lot of traveling, as is befitting a State Championship-caliber team.   They will be at the Ocean View Tournament of Champions in early December which will be their only local appearance before the start of the season, so if you want to see them, plan on attending.  In mid-December, they will fly to Las Vegas for the Reebok Holiday Classic from December 18 through 23.  They'll return for the Christmas holiday, and then on the 28th of December, they'll be in Miami Beach, Florida, for the "Wilt Chamberlain Rising Stars Shootout," until January 2, 1999. More details to follow on that one.

The season opens up just after they return from Miami, and during the King Holiday weekend in the middle of the season they will appear at neither the adidas/Double Pump MLK, Jr. Hoops Festival nor the 5th Annual MLK, Jr. Challenge at Pauley Pavilion.  Instead, Westchester will appear on January 15th & 16th in Erie, Pennsylvania at the McDonald's Classic, where they will face St. Pat's from N.Y. in the first round.  In case you're thinking about attending, the games will be at Gannon College, Erie,Pa., and we're sure (or at least fairly certain) that coverage of the event will be provided by the great folks over at NY & NJ   Hoops.

Look for Westchester to do the things it needs to do to win. This is going to be another great season for the comets, and they will again challenge the traditional powers in City Section, Crenshaw, Manual, Fremont, LA.   "Defending" indeed. 


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